KIRKENES: Few cities in Norway have faced as many challenges over the past year as this far northern enclave close to the Russian border. Just months after suddenly needing to shelter thousands of refugees streaming over that border, and after suffering the bankruptcy of a major employer and other economic calamity, the citizens of Kirkenes and Sør-Varanger turned out to celebrate their country’s national day on Tuesday, and still found reason to shout hurra.
They’re a hardy bunch up here in Norway’s Arctic areas. They’ve survived the devastation of war, centuries of a harsh climate and both cultural and political clashes with rulers in far-off capitals like Copenhagen, Stockholm and finally Oslo. Economic survival has never been easy.
A few years ago, it looked like the tough times had turned around, as cooperation with their neighbouring Russians flourished, the local mining company was booming, unemployment was low and optimism high. There was a Klondyke feeling in Kirkenes in the late spring of 2013, when Norway’s prime minister and Russia’s president met here for a summit after they’d earlier agreed on territorial boundaries in the Barents Sea. Kirkenes officials and local business leaders were also eyeing potential wealth from the oil and gas boom at the time, the possibility of new shipping routes into Kirkenes’ ice-free port and more tourism as international visitors discovered the wonders of the Northern Lights and vast expanses of stunning unspoiled scenery.
Now it can seem like the boom has gone to bust. The Sydvaranger Gruve mining company was declared bankrupt last autumn, just as thousands of asylum seekers were pouring over the border from Russia, in acute need of food and shelter. The mining bankruptcy threw 400 people out of work (a lot in a region with a population just over 10,000) and into a job market already hit hard by the dive in oil prices that was having severe national effects as well.
On top of that came deteriorating national and international relations with Russia and economic sanctions that hurt cross-border business and relations in general. Residents of the Sør-Varanger municipality that encompasses such cities and settlements like Kirkenes, Bjørnevatn, Bugøynes and many others want to stay friends with their neighbours to the east, but the increased tensions between Russia and the rest of the west pose a challenge.
Like salt in the wound, the oil industry slowdown has also thrown cold water on prospects for cashing in on oil and gas exploration in the Barents, at least for now. Even Norway’s current and ongoing hotel and restaurant strike has hurt local tourism, with both of Kirkenes’ major hotels closed and others hit in Vadsø and visitors left stranded with little alternative accommodation available. At least one other hotel in Kirkenes has been turned into housing for asylum seekers.
Weddings, confirmation parties and not least 17th of May events that were to be held at the hotels were mostly all cancelled, too, including an annual cake-and-coffee party for senior citizens staffed by volunteers at the Thon Hotel Kirkenes. All meetings and conferences have been cancelled and lots of money is being lost.
Norway’s ‘geo-political center’
“It’s been hectic here, yes,” Kirekenes’ new mayor Rune Rafaelsen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) recently. He describes Kirkenes as Norway’s “geo-political center … where Norway meets the world, whether you like it or not.” He noted how much of the economic activity in Kirkenes is dependent on the price of raw materials like iron ore, oil, gas, fish and other seafood like crab. Only the latter two are enjoying good times at present.
He claims that it’s also in Kirkenes where Norway really feels the effects of international politics, whether it be the tensions with neighbouring Russia and the sanctions that’s led to, or the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and brutal terrorism of groups like IS in Iraq and Syria, which resulted in the refugee influx. In a city where street signs are written in both Norwegian and Russian, and many other signs in Norwegian first, then Russian, English and Finnish, Kirkenes is much more than an Arctic outpost. Its residents are arguably more internationally oriented than those in many other, much bigger Norwegian cities.
And so they were out in force on Tuesday, illustrating perhaps the resolve of people who have been through tough times before. Their numbers are watched closely: Local newspaper Sør-Varanger Avis reported with some concern just before the long holiday weekend that Sør-Varanger lost 16 residents during the first quarter of this year, even though Finnmark County had a net population increase of 128 people.
The newspaper also reported that Sør-Varanger’s NAV office, which handles social welfare services from pension payments to unemployment benefits, wants to employ a full-time debt counselor and economic adviser, because some clients aren’t able to meet mortgage payments and have high credit-card debt in the wake of the mining company’s bankruptcy.
Mayor Rafaelsen was criticized just last week for being “ungrateful” when he expressed dissatisfaction with the state government’s extension of another NOK 45 million in funding to help Sør-Varanger restructure its economy, part of last week’s revised national budget aimed at helping Norway tackle the oil-induced economic slowdown nationwide. Rafaelsen wanted at least NOK 120 million but told Sør-Varanger Avis last weekend that he was over his disappointment and ready to continue working on new economic development projects. They’re still expected to center mainly on tourism and maritime projects, building up, for example, Kirkenes’ position as the turnaround point for the popular Hurtigruten passenger and cargo ships that ply the Norwegian coast. The city has a long way to go in meeting goals of becoming a “world class” tourist destination, given its existing infrastructure and Hurtigruten’s terminal located outside the city center, but they’re working on it.
Residents of both Kirkenes and outlying areas gathered Tuesday to parade through Kirkenes’ residential area, and then mingle at the new local school over refreshments and games for the children. They’d been reminded of much tougher times earlier, when Gunvor Hasselberg of Bjørnevatn (where the mine closed) wrote in the local newspaper about how she’d marched in a jacket made out of an old bedspread and resoled shoes as a 14-year-old on May 17th, 1945, right after the war ended. Hundreds of residents had lived in local caves and the mine’s tunnel to escape bombing and the burning of their homes by retreating Nazi German soldiers, until they were liberated by Russian soldiers.
“We were so happy and could sing the dear old national songs again,” Hasselberg wrote. “It was one of the finest and happiest 17th of Mays I can remember, also the day we could emerge from the tunnel at Bjørnevatn. There was still smoke from the ruins, but folks were so happy. We need wise leaders who can take care of our values, and build the way further.”