Despite lots of tough official language and rising tensions lately, Norwegians and Russians continue to get along well in the northern area around their shared border. That was confirmed last week at the annual Kirkenes Conference and Barents Spectacle, two events that continue to cement strong ties and nurture good relations.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende was on hand for the opening of both the conference and the cultural event that took place just before the weekend. Only a week had passed since Brende had complained about as hard as a diplomat can after two Members of Parliament had been denied visas to Russia, and therefore couldn’t take part in a parliamentary committee’s trip to Moscow. The trip was summarily cancelled and Russia responded with regrets, but made it clear the visa denials were rooted in Norway’s participation in the EU’s and US’ economic sanctions against Russia, which in turn were imposed because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine.
This downwards cycle of deteriorating relations between Oslo and Moscow also came amidst official warnings that Russia presents one of the biggest threats against Norway because of its alleged hacking and cyber attacks. Defense officials are also concerned about all the increased presence of Russian military in Arctic waters. February did not get off to a good start at the highest levels of Russian and Norway governments.
But by last Thursday, Brende seemed to have put all that aside. He spent a long day in Kirkenes, opening a new Center for High North Logistics that’s now tied to Nord University, then meeting with officials of the coastal shipping line Hurtigruten that calls at Kirkenes every day. Kirkenes serves as the end of the line, at least for now, that starts in Bergen. Hurtigruten has talked of extending the line to Murmansk in Russia, as a new Arctic adventure for tourists.
Then came the main event of the day, when Brende officially opened the Kirkenes Conference, which attracts players from all over the Barents region. Rune Rafaelsen, the bullish mayor of the large Sør-Varanger area that encompasses Kirkenes, calls the conference the “most important arena for discussions among political and business leaders from within Norway and abroad.” He also stresses how “Russia is an important partner for development of the northern areas.”
Few are more positive than Rafaelsen about relations between residents of Norway, Russia and Finland in a peaceful corner of the world where all their borders meet. Nor are more unhappy about the tensions at higher and more international levels. In Kirkenes, its county of Finnmark and most of Norway’s most northern areas, folks still just want to be friends and continue developing business, trade and open borders, as they have for years. The “special relationship” between Sør-Varanger and Russia goes back over the centuries, flourishing during the years of the Pomor trade and climaxing when Soviet troops helped liberate Finnmark from the Nazi German occupation during World War II.
Speculation thus ran high, before last week’s Kirkenes Conference, over what kind of tone Foreign Minister Brende would adopt during his opening remarks, given all the tensions of the week before. When he’d finished making his speech, most could heave a sigh of relief.
Brende noted how “in a world characterized by uncertainty,” it was “uplifting” to travel to the Far North, “where despite everything, optimism still flourishes.” He noted how growth in Norway’s northern regions is higher than elsewhere in the country, and unemployment lower. Brende claimed that the “international uncertainty” had so far not infected the northern areas, while global interest in the Arctic just keeps growing and the region remains “stable and harmonious.” Norway’s “northern diplomacy” is among the most important aspects of his ministry’s work, he said, and while he stressed that Norway’s view on the Ukraine conflict still stands, he chose to highlight all the good things happening in the north in terms of trade and cooperation regarding fishing, nuclear security, open borders, cultural exchange, search and rescue missions at sea and, not least, a new seismic agreement in oil and gas exploration areas. The current agreement that allows residents living within a 30-kilometer radius of the Norwegian-Russia border to cross it freely also was recently extended. There’s also ongoing cooperation and good relations among the indigenous Sami peoples across all borders in the north.
Brende didn’t even mention the visa conflict, and instead encouraged the “people-to-people cooperation” that’s also nurtured through events like hockey and wresting matches, concerts and marching bands, along with “hard work, innovation, good humour and respect.”
By the time Brende opened the cultural event Barents Spectacle Thursday evening, the mood reportedly was very good indeed. As The Independent Barents Observer, a highly respected, Kirkenes-based news service, reported, Kirkenes officials probably have more contact with Murmansk in Russia than they do with Oslo (external link). Murmansk Mayor Dmitry Filippov was also in Kirkenes last week, along with the thousands of Russians who cross the border for shopping. Filippov and Mayor Rafaelsen signed letters of intention for cooperating in business, tourism, health care, culture, trade, sports and education.
“Murmansk means a lot to Kirkenes,” Rafaelsen said. Filippov feels the same about Kirkenes, suggesting, for example, that perhaps some of the tourists, many from Asia, who come to Norway to see the Northern Lights and experience winter might also like to travel to Murmansk.
“East-west tensions and the cold political winds between Oslo and Moscow were not mentioned at the meeting between the two mayors,” reported the Barents Observer. “Everyday life goes on in the high north.”