‘Foundation laid for more cooperation’

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Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg described her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday as “good,” adding that it laid a foundation for further cooperation. Putin claimed he wanted to “focus on the positive” aspects of relations between the two countries that share a border in the far north.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg met Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on Tuesday for talks that were widely viewed as an attempt at improving relations after several years of conflicts. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/NTB Scanpix/Berit Roald

“We are good neighbours and have many challenges in common, and I hope we can expand cooperation in the years to come,” Solberg told reporters. She met Putin for a bilateral meeting after both she and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide also had accepted Russia’s invitation to attend  its Arctic International Forum in St Petersburg.

Solberg stressed that Norway and Russia cooperate first and foremost in the Arctic. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Solberg was also stressing the positive after her meeting with Putin Tuesday afternoon.

“There’s a desire to have a (new) political meeting at the highest levels to look at areas where we could cooperate more,” Solberg said. “He (Putin) instructed his foreign minister (Sergey Lavrov) to continue this conversation.” Lavrov also attended Tuesday’s meeting, as did Søreide.

Gratitude in Finnmark
Lavrov will be traveling to Northern Norway once again this autumn, to attend 75th anniversary ceremonies marking the former Soviet Union’s liberation of Finnmark from Nazi German occupiers in 1944. He attended the 70th anniversary celebrations as well, just months after the Crimean annexation. Solberg stressed that Norway owes a debt of gratitude to Russia for the liberation: “We will always be grateful for the great sacrifices that the Soviet people made for our shared freedom,” she said.

Putin said Russia will also hail the anniversary. He noted that next year also marks the 115th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the then-newly sovereign Norway’s independence in 1905, after centuries of forced unions with Denmark and then Sweden.

Norway and Russia have always had a “special relationship” as neighbours and trading partners in the north, also during the Soviet years and even though Norway is a founding member of the NATO defense alliance. Relations warmed up considerably after the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, but chilled when Putin led Russia’s highly disputed annexation of Crimea in 2014. Things hit a low point two years ago after a diplomatic scolding from Russia’s ambassador in Oslo, and when Norwegian Members of Parliament were denied visas for a meeting in Moscow. Solberg herself hasn’t been in Russia since the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, held just before Russia invaded Crimea, and joined sanctions imposed against Russia after the annexation that remain in place.

High-level contact resuming
Now high-level contact is resuming although tensions remain high over Ukraine and Crimea, defense provocations on both sides, Russia’s alleged GPS jamming in the north, human rights issues and, not least, conflicts involving alleged espionage that has left a retired border inspector from Finnmark in remand custody in Russia for the past 16 months. Frode Berg now faces a 14-year prison term and Solberg has been under pressure to strike a deal with Putin that could bring him home to Norway.

Putin told Norwegian reporters that it was “too early” to discuss Berg’s fate since no court verdict on the espionage charges has been delivered. A verdict is due next week.

Solberg wouldn’t say whether she and Putin discussed the conflict over Berg, and has steadfastly refused comment on whether negotiations have been held or are underway. “Our most important responsibility is to look after Frode Berg’s interests, and that means I’m limited in what I can say about his case,” Solberg said. “We hope to find a good solution that can make the situation simpler for Frode Berg and his family.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund