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UKRAINE

Norwegian cruise line cancels tour over Russia sanctions

Norway's Havila Voyages said on Thursday it was finally cancelling a scheduled cruise, after being delayed in port for two days, due to uncertainties about how the ship was impacted by sanctions on Russia.

Illustration photo of a Norwegian cruise ship.
Illustration photo of a Norwegian cruise ship. Photo: Erika SANTELICES / AFP

About 230 passengers had been stranded in the port of Bergen in southwest Norway after boarding the Havila Capilla for a 12-day cruise that was meant to depart on Tuesday night.

“They’ve spent two nights on the ship at quay, so they were treated as they would have been during the sailing with food and service,” Lasse Vangstein, head of communications at Havila Voyages, told AFP.

The trip was initially delayed “due to an uncertainty related to insurance coverage,” the company said late Tuesday, as a “result of sanctions against the leasing company that has financed Havila Capella.”

“Havila Capella is financed via a leasing agreement with GTLK Asia, which was put on the EU sanction list last Friday,” Vangstein explained.

GTLK Asia is a Hong Kong-based but Russian-owned leasing company. Most passengers stayed onboard while the company tried to work out whether how it would be affected by sanctions as it was running a Norwegian flag, with a Norwegian crew and a Norwegian operating company.

“Originally, we had 232 passengers that were set to depart Bergen on April 12. Mostly Norwegians and Germans, but also other nationalities like people from the UK, Greece, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, France, Mexico, Denmark, and Sweden,” Vangstein said.

According to the company it had originally been told that the ship should not be affected by the adopted sanctions since Havila Voyages was “responsible for the operation and financing of the ship”.

But it said on Thursday that it was the “Norwegian authorities’ assessment that the ship’s insurance is affected by sanctions against the leasing company,” meaning the trip would be cancelled.

Havilia Voyages said it would “now look at solutions to get Havila Capella back into operation as soon as possible.”

While Norway is not a member of the EU, it has adopted almost all the sanctions imposed by the union.

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UKRAINE

War in Ukraine casts a chill in Norwegian Arctic town

War may be far away but tensions from the Ukraine conflict are causing an unprecedented chill in a remote Arctic town where Russian and Ukrainian coalminers have worked side by side for decades.

War in Ukraine casts a chill in Norwegian Arctic town

 In Barentsburg, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, relics of a bygone era — a bust of Lenin, a sculpture with Cyrillic script declaring “Our goal – Communism” — bear witness to Russia’s longstanding presence.

The town’s population peaked at around 1,500 in the 1980s, but shrank after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Now, some 370 people live here, two-thirds of them Ukrainians — most from the Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region — and the remainder Russians.

The atmosphere on the archipelago changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, officials and residents told AFP.

“Opinions are absolutely polarised,” admits Russian tour guide and historian Natalia Maksimishina.

But, she says, “what our long and difficult history of the Soviet Union has taught us is that people here know when to stop talking politics”.

Some Ukrainians accuse the Russian state-owned company Arktikugol Trust operating the coal mine in Barentsburg of muzzling dissent.

But Russia’s consul Sergey Guschin says there were “no visible signs of conflict on the surface”, although he admits “there are of course some tensions and discussions on social networks” like Facebook and Telegram.

The consulate is protected by high iron bars and security cameras, and lavishly decorated with a marble entrance, winter garden and custom-made tapestries. Its splendour stands out in the otherwise drab town.

Departures

In what could be another sign that anger is simmering under the surface, around 45 people have left Barentsburg “since the start of the operation”, acknowledges Guschin, using Moscow’s terminology for the Ukraine invasion. There were no further details about the individuals.

The departures speak volumes, as leaving Barentsburg is no easy feat. estern sanctions imposed on Russian banks have not only prevented the miners from sending money home to their families, they’ve also made it difficult for them to buy plane tickets.

The only airport is in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main town 35 kilometres (22 miles) away, where it is difficult to get by without a Visa or Mastercard, which Russians cannot use because of sanctions.

At the entrance to Barentsburg, the coal plant spews out black smoke, adding to the town’s dreary atmosphere.

A 1920 treaty which gave Norway sovereignty over Svalbard guarantees citizens from signatory nations equal access to its natural resources.

Russia’s Arktikugol Trust has operated the mine in Barentsburg, on the shores of the Isfjorden fjord, since 1932.

 A few locals huddle between the town’s pastel-coloured buildings, seeking shelter from the bitter cold that reigns even in May.

Locals are more discreet today, especially since they work for the state-controlled company that runs the whole town, from the mine to the shops and restaurants.

Russia imposes heavy fines or even prison terms on anyone found guilty of “discrediting” its military or publishing “false information” about it.

‘People just shut up’

Longyearbyen is inhabited mainly by Norwegians but has a large Russian and Ukrainian community.

It can only be reached by helicopter or snowmobile in winter and boat in summer due to lack of roads from Barentsburg.

Julia Lytvynova, a 32-year-old Ukrainian seamstress who used to live in Barentsburg, accuses Arktikugol Trust of suppressing dissent

As a result, “people just shut up, work and live their lives like nothing has happened”.

She hasn’t been back to Barentsburg since the war started, but she asked a friend to put up an anti-war poster for her on the gates of the Russia consulate.

Her sign, written on a blue-and-yellow background, had a now-famous expletive-laden line used by Ukrainian border guards after rejecting a Russian warship’s surrender demand. Her poster was taken down in less than five minutes, she says.

The mayor of Longyearbyen, who has lived in Svalbard for 22 years, says he has “never experienced the kind of discord” now seen among the 2,500 residents of 50 nationalities, including around 100 Russians and Ukrainians.

“There are some tensions in the air,” Arild Olsen admits.

n response to the invasion, most tour operators in Longyearbyen stopped taking tourists to Barentsburg, depriving the state-owned company of a lucrative cash cow.

Lytvynova supports the move “because this money supports the Russian aggression”. By ending this source of income, “they don’t help to kill my Ukrainian people”.

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