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Interview with Bård Ivar Svendsen, Senior Arctic Official for Norway

21 September 2018
The Arctic Council recently welcomed Bård Ivar Svendsen as the new Senior Arctic Official for Norway. In this interview, get to know his background and what he sees as the prospects and challenges for the Arctic Council in the months and years ahead.

Q: What is your background, and how do you feel it has prepared you for your role as a Senior Arctic Official?

My interest in the Arctic goes a long way back, to the beginning of my career. In the early 1990s, I studied Russian and German at Oslo University. My first full time job took me to Longyearbyen, where I worked as a Russian interpreter for the Governor of Svalbard. Serving as the prime point of contact between the Governor’s office and the Russian settlements in Svalbard was an incredibly educational experience: I learned a lot about Svalbard’s wildlife and environment, the mining industry, the archipelago’s history and political status, and above all about all the human settlements on the islands. The two years I spent in Svalbard were very enriching, but also filled with great challenges. Less than two months after I arrived in Longyearbyen, a Russian plane carrying 141 passengers crashed at Operafjellet. This tragedy brought immense grief to the Russian/Ukrainian mining communities in Barentsburg and Pyramiden. The entirety of the ensuing situation was very complex. So much was at stake: Ensuring professional and decent treatment of everyone affected by the tragedy, securing good working relations between Norwegian and Russian rescue teams, and dealing with the enormous interest in the tragedy from the mass media. I spent only two years in Svalbard, but thinking back it feels like I was there much longer. I became very close to people in both the Norwegian and Russian communities, and this human aspect remains the most important part of my Arctic experience. I love the Svalbard landscapes, the wildlife, the light, the silence... But more than anything, it is human existence in the Arctic that fascinates me the most.

After Svalbard I joined the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In my first job, I worked with the Barents cooperation. As a junior diplomat, I was then posted to Riga, Vienna, and Moscow consecutively. I served as Deputy Director of the Russia/Eurasia Section in the Foreign Ministry in Oslo from 2009 until 2011. Both in Moscow and in Oslo, I covered Russian Arctic policies. After three years as Deputy Head of Mission at the Norwegian embassy in Moscow, I was appointed Norway’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Georgia. During my four years as ambassador in Baku from 2014 until 2018, my work included promoting Norwegian interests in the fields of energy, business development, human rights, and culture. A very interesting and challenging task. Now I am back in Oslo, and I look forward to returning to Arctic affairs.

Q: What elements of your work with the Arctic Council are you most looking forward to?

I look forward to working closely with all partners in the Arctic Council - be it the Member States, Permanent Participants, Observers, Working Groups, the Secretariat – to further the Council’s broad and deep agenda. The Arctic is home to a substantial number of people. Ensuring a sustainable development of these communities and cultures holds a high priority. So do issues related to climate change and the environment. Two weeks ago I visited the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø. It was mind blowing to see photographs from Svalbard, areas I remember as being covered in ice 20 years ago, are now no longer covered. A lot of my day-to-day work will be outreach: I hope to be able to both listen and to contribute at some of the many seminars, conferences and gatherings that take place in the Arctic context.

Q: What are some of the challenges that you see for the Arctic Council that you are looking forward to tackling in your new position?

The Arctic Council has proven to be an invaluable forum for strategic discussions about the future of the Arctic region. It is important that all relevant actors make good use of this forum. Finding common ground for action in a consensus based multilateral forum can certainly be challenging. Yet we all share responsibility for making sure that the extensive research presented under the Arctic Council umbrella results in such action.