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Foreign minister fends off favoritism

UPDATED: Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre took the unusual step of calling in reporters on Tuesday afternoon to an unscheduled press conference, to fend off suggestions that he favoured an old friend by funding a think tank of sorts in northern Norway. Støre also rejects reports that he pressured environmental authorities into granting some needed permits to his friend five years years ago.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre denies any conflict of interest over funding of a business research center in northern Norway that involves an old friend of his. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Newspaper Dagbladet has published several stories this week that suggest Støre, in his capacity as foreign minister, has helped childhood friend Felix Henry Tschudi on at least two occasions. Dagbladet first reported that Støre’s Foreign Ministry allocated NOK 6 million funding in 2008 for the Kirkenes-based Centre for High North Logistics (Senter for nordområdelogistikk), which is a special project of  Tschudi, a shipowner with business interests in the Kirkenes area. On Wednesday Dagbladet reported that Støre allegedly pressured the environmental ministry to grant Tschudi’s shipping firm permission to load gas condensate in the Bøkfjord in Sør-Varanger. The loading was controversial because the fjord is known for its wild salmon and protected against the risk of dangerous pollution.

Opposition politicians in the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) are already questioning why Støre didn’t seek a legal opinion that he may face a conflict of interest over the funding. They have signalled an investigation into the funding, which matched a corresponding NOK 6 million grant to the center from Tschudi Shipping Co.

Støre readily admits that he and Tschudi are old school friends from their childhood days in west Oslo, and that they’ve maintained contact over the years. But Støre says the funding application for the Centre for High North Logistics came from the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association (Rederiforbundet) and he simply didn’t think any conflict of interest existed.

“This case wasn’t of any character that I saw a need to evaluate my impartiality in relation to Felix Tschudi,” Støre told Dagbladet. “UD (the Foreign Ministry – Utenriksdepartementet) has never granted any economic support to Tschudi Shipping Company.”

Støre also noted that the actual funding from the ministry was granted through Norway’s state college in Bodø, as administrator for the project. He called the Centre for High North Logistsics a “public-private partnership,” in which provision of the ministry funding would trigger a matching grant from Tschudi Shipping.

Dagbladet questioned whether Tschudi Shipping wouldn’t stand to gain from funding of the center, because the company has invested heavily in the harbour area and mining around the northern city of Kirkenes. “Felix Tschudi has, for many years, been engaged in business and other activities in the northern areas,” Støre said. “He is one of very many people with whom I have discussed the northern areas.” He stressed at Tuesday’s press conference, though, that he never had any meetings with Tschudi Shipping about the center, nor with Tschudi himself.

Støre also dismissed suggestions he pressured then-environmental minister Helen Bjørnøy into granting Tschudi’s firm permission for the controversial loading. “Several ministries were involved in that case,” Støre told Dagbladet, adding that he had no meetings with Tschudi about that matter either.  “I didn’t see any pressure being applied.”

The Centre for High North Logistics aims to contribute to the development of knowledge, logistics, industry and business possibilities in northern Norway. Tschudi himself told Dagbladet that he’s interested in what’s happening in northern Norway, where oil and gas discoveries and mining prospects are setting off a business boom in areas that otherwise have been depressed for years.

Tschudi said he and he shipowners’ association restricted their contact at the ministry to the department handling northern issues, and avoided direct contact with Støre himself.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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