Hopes high before meeting with Putin

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s alleged spy on trial in Moscow on Tuesday wasn’t the only thorny issue as Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg prepared to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on Tuesday afternoon. Political analysts were hoping for improved relations in general after Solberg landed on Russian soil Monday evening for the first time since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

photo taken while attending the central bank chief's annual address, Feb 2015

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has stayed away from Russia since it annexed Crimea in 2014, but now both she and Ine Eriksen Søreide are in St Petersburg, and having a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. PHOTO: Nils S Aasheim/Norges Bank

The annexation plunged Norway and most of its allies back into what many have described as something resembling a new Cold War. All the progress they thought they’d made in getting along with the new Russia that has emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union seemed to be wiped out. Putin’s Russia had become too aggressive in its failure to respect Ukraine’s borders, Norwegian and NATO leaders claimed, and Norway joined the US and most other western nations in slapping sanctions on Russia that are still in place.

The sanctions have hurt Russia’s economy, while Norwegian businesses and many in other countries are keen to resume more balanced trade with their large neighbour to the east. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) pointed out Tuesday how imports from Russia to Norway far exceed exports from Norway to Russia, with the latter falling dramatically as a result of sanctions against the Russian finance, energy and defense sectors.

Liv Monica Stubholt, a partner in the Oslo law firm Selmer who also leads the Norwegian-Russian Chamber of Commerce, fears Russian business will ultimately turn its back on Norwegian business if the sanctions continue. “Knowledge of Russia’s markets and Russian interest in Norway can disappear if restrictions last,” Stubholt told DN. Norwegian seafood and food products have been hit especially hard, while delivery of oil industry equipment has also suffered.

She’s hoping sanctions will be eased, as is the leader of the Barents Secretariat in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark, which has encouraged good relations with Russia for the past 25 years. “Norway should take the initiative to end the sanctions,” the secretariat’s leader, Lars Georg Fordal, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday.

Invitation Norway didn’t refuse
Prime Minister Solberg was invited to Russia’s international Arctic forum called “Arctic Territory of Dialogue” in St Petersburg this week, and to take part in a high-level panel along with Putin and other government leaders. The forum is viewed as Russia’s version of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and Solberg is accompanied by her foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide.

Solberg has said that “management of the seas and our long-term cooperation is on the agenda.” So are many other issues, although Solberg remained mum about the agenda for a 40-minute bilateral session with Putin himself. Søreide was also to attend that meeting Tuesday afternoon, while Putin was hosting a dinner for Nordic leaders Tuesday evening.

“The fact that Russia had invited (Norwegian and other leaders to the forum) in this manner is a signal that they absolutely want dialogue,” Fordal told NRK. He hoped Solberg and Søreide would “reach out a hand to Russia” and offer “constructive proposals for the way forward.” Since both Solberg and Søreide accepted the invitation to St Petersburg and secured a meeting with Putin, Fordal is convinced they want a better dialogue, too.

That can provide “an opportunity to end the sanctions,” Fordal said, adding, though, that it’s “unrealistic” that would happen at the meeting. “That’s not something Norway can do on its own,” he noted, but Norway can cooperate with other countries that still impose sanctions and try to work something out.

Human rights and defense provocations
There are other tough issues too, though, with Solberg under pressure from human rights organizations to bring up the problem of political prisoners in Russia. “The situation (in Russia) is very serious for defenders of human rights,” Bjørn Engesland, secretary general of Den norske Helsingforskomité, told news bureau NTB. “Norway should take the responsibility to see what we can do to improve the situation.”

And then there’s Russia’s alleged jamming of GPS signals in Northern Norway and in the Barents Sea, along with ongoing defense provocations on both sides.

The issue that’s been getting the most attention in Norway recently remains the arrest and imprisonment over the past 16 months of retired Norwegian border inspector Frode Berg, who’s accused of spying for Norway and faces up to 20 years in a Russian jail. Solberg and her fellow Norwegian government leaders have firmly refused to discuss Berg, whose arrest is believed to be the result of an embarrassing, even “scandalous” blunder by Norway’s military intelligence agency E-tjenesten that has since “thrown (Berg) to  the wolves” and raised questions over the agency’s recruitment practices. Berg and his lawyers, who were in the midst of closing arguments in his espionage trial on Tuesday, just want Solberg to “do something” while in St Petersburg that can lead to his safe return home to Kirkenes. A verdict from the Moscow court is expected next week.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund