Two of Norway’s most high-ranking Members of Parliament, both of them party leaders, were denied visas to Russia on Wednesday. That prompted the Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, of which the two MPs were members, to cancel a planned trip to Moscow tomorrow. Foreign Minister Børge Brende was calling in the Russian ambassador Wednesday afternoon, to lodge an official protest.
“These are two distinguished, top-level Norwegian officials, excellent representatives of Norway,” Brende said when referring to Bård Vegar Solhjell, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), and Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberal Party (Venstre), which also acts as one of the conservative government’s support parties in Parliament. “It’s incomprehensible that they not be allowed to enter Russia,” Brende told reporters gathered inside the Parliament building for an impromptu press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“It is obviously up to every country to decide who can enter,” Brende said at the press conference, which was aired live on nationwide TV. He branded the Russians’ decision, however, as “usaklig, urimelig og ufattelig,” which translates as “biased, unreasonable and inconceivable.”
Brende, known for having a calm and restrained demeanor, became unusually and visibly agitated while discussing the conflict with Russia that was made public just hours after Norway’s own police intelligence unit PST had warned that Russia poses a major threat to Norway. It was unclear whether there was any connection, but Brende was clearly furious over the visa denials and his voice rose as he called the Russians’ decision sterkt beklagelig (extremely unfortunate).
He had already summoned Russia’s relatively new ambassador to Norway for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry later on Wednesday afternoon, at which Brende would lodge a formal protest and objection to the visa denials.
Asked why he thinks the Russians will not grant entry to either Grande or Solhjell, who served as a minister in the former left-center government that was led by the current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, Brende basically told reporters to “ask your question in Moscow.” His ministry has tied the denials to Norway’s participation in economic sanctions against Russia, but Brende insisted that Russian officials must speak for themselves. They hadn’t yet responded to media inquiries. The sanctions haven’t blocked other top Norwegian officials from visiting Russia after they were imposed, and Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg of the Progress Party attended meetings in St Petersburg just last year.
Brende revealed that visa problems regarding Grande and Solhjell first came up as early as November, when “we got indications” that their visa applications would be turned down. “We protested,” and there’s since been “a process” and “dialogue” between Norway and Russia, Brende said, adding that there were signs there would be “a solution” and that visas would be granted. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen,” Brende said, and the denials were issued just this week, on the eve of the parliamentary committee’s trip.
“It is unacceptable that individual members (of the parliamentary committee’s five-member delegation to Moscow) don’t get visas,” Anniken Huitfeldt, leader of the committee, told NRK. “We were supposed to discuss cooperation in the far northern areas, the rule of law, the situation in Syria, fishing and energy. We have many common interests. I believe we now need dialog more than ever.”
Huitfeldt wouldn’t lead the other two committe members to Moscow (Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the Progress Party and Øyvind Halleraker of the Conservative Party) without Grande and Solhjell, though. She had looked forward to the trip, which would have been the first for a high-ranking delegation from Norway since Russia controversially annexed Crimea. Huitfeldt had noted last week that it would return a visit from a similar Russian delegation to Norway last summer and that her committee initially planned to visit in December, but the trip couldn’t be arranged “for practical reasons.” Now it appears those “practical reasons” were dramatic.
Grande noted to newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday that “I can admit that I have made many critical comments about Russia.” She also had planned to meet human rights activists and her Liberals’ sister party in Moscow when the formal portions of the committee’s trip were over. It’s unclear whether that had anything to do with the visa denials.
NRK reported that Russian officials have maintained a list of “unwanted persons” in Russia and that Grande and Solhjell were both on it. Brende had no comment and Russia has refused to make the list public. Various other European politicians have also been denied entry to Russia in recent years, including MPs from Finland and Turkey.