Russia ‘regrets’ MPs’ ‘postponed’ visit

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The Russian Embassy in Oslo has expressed regrets that a visit to Moscow by the Norwegian Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee has been “postponed,” after two of its members were denied visas to Russia. Russian officials take no blame, however, for what’s led to a conflict that the Norwegians call “extremely unfortunate.”

Diplomats and Norwegian officials lined up to attend a reception at the Russian Embassy in the spring of 2015, even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now the embassy is caught in a conflict with Norway’s foreign ministry. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

It prompted Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende to call in Russia’s new ambassador to Norway on Wednesday, Teimuraz Otarovich Ramishvili, to issue an official protest. The Russians, meanwhile, seem to find the conflict as “unreasonable” and difficult to understand as the Norwegians.

In a statement published in Norwegian on the embassy’s website, Russian officials state that “we are sorry” the visit “was postponed.” They confirm that the Norwegian Members of Parliament (MPs) had been invited to Moscow by the chairman of the Russian Federation’s own foreign affairs committee, Konstantin I Kosatsjev, who was reciprocating after a Russian delegation had visited Norwegian MPs in Oslo last summer. The visit to Moscow would have been the first for a high-level Norwegian delegation since Russia controversially annexed Crimea in 2014 and Norway joined the EU and US in imposing economic sanctions.

Russia’s new ambassador to Norway, Teimuraz Otarovich Ramishivili, arrived in Oslo in November. He’s a career diplomat who also has served as ambassador in South Korea and Denmark. PHOTO: Den Russiske Ambassade i Oslo

The Russians also confirmed, however, that both of the Norwegian MPs who were denied visas to Russia, the Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande and Bård Vegar Solhjell of the Socialist Left party (SV), have been on a list of people denied entry to Russia. The list was described as a “response” to Norway’s decision to commit itself to the EU’s own personnel sanctions list. The Russians also claimed that Norway’s regulations regarding entry denial or deportation from Svalbard have become “permanently discriminating” against Russian citizens who want to travel to Spitsbergen.

The embassy statement further contends that information regarding preparation of its list of people who will be denied visas was communicated to the EU in Brussels. “Moreover, the lists of people who will be denied entry into Russia was communicated “through diplomatic channels” on November 29, 2016, long before the parliamentary delegation (due to visit Russia) was formed.”

“We stress that the Russian ‘stop list’ was absolutely legitimately formed,” reads the statement. Its content then becomes lost in translation, because of some incomprehensible Norwegian, but the statement goes on to note that no members of the Russian delegation that visited Oslo last summer were on a visa-denial list that Norway allegedly maintains as well.

“We want to stress that Russia’s (denial of visas) was a response to Norway’s actions,” the statement reads, adding that “Russia neither had or has any plans to turn this into a ‘list war.'” The embassy, in charge of acting on visa requests for Norwegians in Norway, also noted that the economic sanctions against Russia can have a “boomerang effect.”

Bård Vegar Solhjell of the Socialist Left party, a former minister in Norway’s left-center government, says he can’t understand why he was denied a visa to Russia. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The embassy repeatedly referred in Norwegian, however, to the delegation’s planned trip to Moscow as “utsatt,” (postponed) and not “avlyst” (cancelled). Anniken Huitfeldt of the Norwegian Labour Party, who leads the parliamentary committee, told Norwegian reporters that she hopes the visit is indeed simply “postponed” because “dialogue” between Norway and Russia is important. Any new delegation, however, would likely need to be without Grande and Solhjell, and it’s unclear whether the Norwegians would go along with that.

“We are sincerely interested in an equal and mutually beneficial relation with Norway, including in the Parliamentary area,” the embassy’s statement read. “Our cooperation has been characterized by respect and understanding for one another’s interests for many years. We are ready to continue the cooperation in the same manner.”

It’s clear from the statement, however, that Russia is pressuring Norway into backing away from the sanctions imposed in response to its highly disputed annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Norway’s foreign minister Brende offered little sign that Norway will back away from the sanctions in solidarity with the EU.

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande is also unsure why she landed on Russia’s “blacklist,” but noted that she has been critical of Russia’s human rights record and intervention in Ukraine. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Brende repeated remarks to newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday that Norway’s relations with Russia have become “demanding” and “challenging” since Russia invaded another European country.

“Dealing with a Russia that has behaved as it has in Ukraine is demanding,” Brende told Dagsavisen. “Important democratic principles are under pressure. We have been critical about that.

“At the same time,” Brende continued, “Russia is a neighbour and a constant factor in Norwegian foreign policy and in the Arctic. We therefore must strike a balance and be clear when we disagree, but also open for communication and dialogue.” He added to NRK that he seeks no “escalation” of the visa conflict with Russia, while Grande and Solhjell were left wondering why they had landed on Russia’s blacklist.

“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t allowed to visit a neighbouring country,” Solhjell told Dagsavisen. “I think it’s difficult to understand (his visa denial) … I have wanted close cooperation with Russia all my political life.” Grande claimed in a press release sent out by her Liberal Party, which is one of the conservative government’s support parties in Parliament, that it was “more important than ever for Norway to have a close dialogue with Russia.” She added that it was “sad we had to postpone the meeting.”

That indicated she also hoped it could be rescheduled. It remained unclear what other names are on Russia’s list of those currently unwelcome in Russia, or on any list Norway has compiled as well.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund