Barents leaders strike a new deal

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Four prime ministers and two foreign ministers announced Tuesday that they’d adopted, as expected, a new Barents Declaration for continued cross-border cooperation in the Barents region. The new pact calls, among other things, for more coordinated transportation improvements and economic development.

Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg summing up the Barents summit with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, left, and other regional leaders. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg summing up the Barents summit with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, left, and other regional leaders. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who’s been acting as host for the Barents Summit in Norway’s far northern city of Kirkenes, also told reporters that “we didn’t just have a nice dinner last night.” The government leaders from Russia, Finland, Norway and Iceland,and foreign ministers from Sweden and Denmark, all with territorial interests in the booming Barents, also agreed on a new Barents Transportation Plan and secured commitments to keep working on environmental improvements.

Border explosion. 
Stoltenberg was the first of the summit participants to make introductory remarks Tuesday morning, boasting that crossings over the border that Norway and Russia share just east of Kirkenes have exploded, to more than 250,000 last year alone. He has stressed that the first Barents Declaration, which was being celebrated on its 20th anniversary at the summit, has yielded “historic results,” and “the next generation” can now move forward on further regional cooperation.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev continued bilateral talks after the Barents Summit with a boat ride on a research vessel and a review of search and rescue operations. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev continued bilateral talks after the Barents Summit with a boat ride on research vessel Helmer Hanssen. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Stoltenberg predictably preferred to point to the positive results of the last 20 years, noting that it would be hard to find a better example of cross-border cooperation than that between Norway and Russia on the management of fishing stocks. Cod in the Barents is now flourishing and Stoltenberg said “there also has been some progress in managing nuclear waste.”

He conceded, however, that there’s been “too little progress” on cutting sulphur emissions from the Russian industrial area at Nikel, just over the border from Kirkenes. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was met on arrival in Kirkenes by a group of environmentalists demonstrating for renewal in the Barents and a demand to “put people and the environment first.” Medvedev, the only government representative who didn’t speak English at the summit, responded that Russia is addressing its emissions while Stoltenberg said they’re still almost  as high at Nikel as they were in 1988 when he visited the plant as a young politician. “We have achieved a lot, but we still need to do more.”

No one on the panel of summit leaders disputed that, with Denmark’s foreign minister, Villy Søvndal, stressing that the Barents cooperation has managed, “in a civilized way,” to peacefully divide more than 90 percent of the land and water in the area and, therefore, their resources. He also said the subsequent development itself can increase security in the area, because everyone profits from continuing it.

Inspecting a search and rescue mission on board MS Helmer Hansen. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Inspecting a search and rescue mission on board MS Helmer Hanssen. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Other countries “could learn a lot,” Søvndal noted, by looking to the north and what the Barents Council has achieved over the past 20 years. His Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, called the Barents cooperation “unique in Europe” and that “what we’re doing here” is increasingly important to the rest of the world because of crucial energy, transportation and climate issues in the Arctic. “We’re like an extended family,” agreed Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson.

Transportation issues remain among those getting a lot of attention, with a new Transport Plan poised to launch into concrete projects. The much-hyped northern sea route was joined by calls for better air and rail routes too, with hopes for more direct flights between key northern cities like Tromsø and Murmansk. The prime minister of Finland, which will assume the chairmanship of the Barents Council this fall, conceded that “money” is the biggest hindrance, because extending Russia’s railroad to Kirkenes would be expensive and there are political concerns. Jyrkri Katainen further called for better coordination in emergency preparedness and in search and rescue operations.

Representatives of indigenous peoples added color and afterthought to the Barents Summit. PHOTO: Nina Berglund

Representatives of indigenous peoples added color and afterthought to the Barents Summit. PHOTO: Nina Berglund

Several leaders of indigenous peoples also made a colorful contribution to the summit, mounting their own demands to be heard and posing for photos with Medvedev afterwards. Bildt stated that “the voice of the indigenous people” is an important one, and Katainen urged more regular meetings. “We’re open to ideas,” he said.

The summit ended with Norway and Russia heading into bilateral talks while other politicians, diplomats and dignitaries started heading home. Monday’s brilliantly sunny skies over Kirkenes had turned cloudy and rainy by Tuesday, but that didn’t dampen spirits.  They applauded themselves as the summit broke up, praising the Barents cross-border cooperation. “It has made a real difference,” said Søvndal of Denmark.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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