Next fall marks the 75th anniversary of how Soviet forces liberated Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark from the clutches of Nazi German occupiers in 1944. Local officials are steadily being joined by other voices around the country in calling upon the Norwegian government to invite Russian President Vladimr Putin to join the solemn anniversary celebrations.
The mayor of the Sør-Varanger area of Finnmark that’s closest to the Russian border crossing, Rune Rafaelsen of the Labour Party, has already asked Prime Minister Erna Solberg to officially invite Putin to Kirkenes in the fall of 2019. “The 75th anniversary for the liberation of Kirkenes and Eastern Finnmark is a national event,” Rafaelsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) earlier this year. “An invitation to Putin would be in its place,” and he wants German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be invited as well.
Rafaelsen has long been a champion of maintaining good neighbourly relations with Russia, regardless of other conflicts between Russia and western allies including Norway. Rafaelsen was also on hand during the last major anniversary of the liberation, in 2014, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov was invited and came to Kirkenes despite tensions at the time following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Lavrov was greeted by his then-Norwegian counterpart Børge Brende, and both Solberg and King Harald V were in attendance.
Solberg’s government has been reluctant to invite Putin now, given ongoing tensions plus those involving allegations of Russian meddling in various elections held in democratic countries. Solberg’s defense minister who comes from Finnmark himself, Frank Bakke-Jensen, told newspaper Klassekampen recently that Putin first must show that he “deserves” an invitation in light of all the allegations against him and his Russian government. Solberg’s government hasn’t yet taken a position on whether to extend the invitation.
Pressure is rising that it do so. Newspaper Aftenposten was the latest to editorialize in favour on Friday of inviting Putin to Kirkenes. Aftenposten called memorials to the liberation, which cost the lives of more than 2,000 soldiers from Russia and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, “an important tradition.”
Aftenposten also noted how the Soviet forces in the fall of 1944 marched over the border east of Kirkenes, liberated Eastern Finnmark and then withdrew. “The anniversary is first and foremost a celebration of an important and joyful event in the relations between Norway and Russia,” Aftenposten wrote. Next year’s version will also likely be among the last for survivors of the liberation, making it even more “natural,” in Aftenposten’s view, for Russia to take part at the highest political level.
Newspaper Dagsavisen has also editorialized in favour of inviting Putin, calling Bakke-Jensen’s refusal so far “a mistaken ‘njet’ (no).” Dagsavisen stressed that Norway has never been at war with Russia: “We have, on the contrary, managed to have a constructive and generally good relation with our neighbour to the east, even during the Cold War, because that’s in Norway’s best interests. It still is.”
Last week Norway’s former ambassador to NATO and long-time diplomat Kai Eide also wrote his own commentary on the matter, claiming that current economic sanctions against Russia, imposed since the Crimea and Ukraine offenses in 2014, “should not hinder sensible policies and maintenance of Norwegian interests. Dialog is important.” Eide, referring to the public debate over whether to invite Putin, wrote that Solberg definitely should, not least because of how the former Soviet Union respected Norway’s sovereignty at the time.
“We must be able to look back on history with gratitude and at the same time promote our view about the rule of law,” Eide wrote in his commentary that was published in Aftenposten. “In my opinion, the liberation of East Finnmark should be marked in the presence of Russia’s top leaders, as an example of how being good neighbours should function.”
Shouldn’t upset allies
Neither Eide nor other advocates of an invitation to Putin think Norway’s allies would object. Putin has already been a guest of Merkel’s in Berlin and he visited French President Emmanuel Macron in Versaille. Even US President Donald Trump has met with Putin, in Helsinki, and a meeting between Putin and Solberg in Kirkenes could help keep channels of communication open.
Eide thinks Norway has a lot to learn from Finland, which maintains regular top-level conversations with Russian colleagues. An invitation to either Putin or Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Eide wrote, “can be an important stimulus to broader political dialog … not least if Norway wins a seat on the UN Security Council.”
Dagsavisen stressed that it was Russia’s important contribution towards pushing Nazi Germany out of Northern Norway that is to be celebrated once again. The commentators note, though, that Solberg’s government won’t likely extend an invitation, though, until it’s sure to be accepted.