On the eve of Friday’s ceremonies marking the Soviet liberation of Finnmark in 1944 came word that a Russian commission was recommending a pardon for convicted Norwegian spy Frode Berg. As hopes rose for Berg’s release, however, Russia uleashed harsh criticism of Norwegian defense policy, marring the Norwegian delegation’s long-planned meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Berg’s home town of Kirkenes near the Russian border.
Anniversaries of Finnmark’s liberation from Nazi German occupation are always somber yet quietly joyous occasions. Local residents will never forget how Red Army soldiers streamed over the border and drove out the Nazis, freeing as many as 3,000 Norwegians who’d been living in caves and a mine shaft, and allowing the Norwegian flag to be raised once again after nearly five years of war. King Harald V was leading this year’s Norwegian delegation at the ceremonies, which includes Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide.
Russia’s Lavrov also came to Kirkenes for the 70th anniversary in 2014, and that was just after Russia had annexed Crimea and started backing separatists in eastern Ukraine. Norway joined US-led sanctions against Russia, so there were tensions at the ceremony then, too.
On Thursday night Lavrov returned for the 75th anniversary. Wreaths are ready to be laid down at Kirkenes’ monument to the liberation, Solberg was poised to host a jubilee luncheon at the waterfront Thon Hotel Kirkenes and Norwegian Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen was also on hand, along with the commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet, Aleksandr Alekseevitsj Moiseev.
Chill factor sinks
While residents of Kirkenes value their cross-border ties to neighbouring Russians, and the Norwegian city itself sports street signs in both Norwegian and Russia, relations are tense between leaders at the national level. The chill factor sunk when Lavrov’s own ministry lashed out Thursday at Norwegian defense policy, calling it “anti-Russian.” The Russians also complained that Norwegian territory was steadily being used much more actively by other members of NATO,
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported from Moscow on the eve of Friday’s ceremonies how the Russians complained that “the numbers of military exercises are rising, and they’re being held steadily closer to Russia’s borders at sea and on land.” The criticism all but echoed that of Bruun-Hanssen and Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen just last month, when they complained how the Russians were also holding military exercises at sea farther west than ever before, and not far from the Norwegian coast.
The Russians also complained that Norwegian defense spending, under pressure from NATO to keep rising, was already among the highest in Europe on a per capita basis. The Russians, which have greatly beefed up their own defense under President Vladimir Putin, pointed out that Norway is also modernizing its military infrastructure and that the country is buying new weapons.
Such developments “must create concern,” read a statement from the Russian government. “The Russian foreign minister will discuss this at the meeting in Kirkenes.” It added that Russia expected Norway to “come with their arguments and clarify the active military preparations along the border to Russia.”
Signal to Søreide
It was a clear signal to Norwegian Foreign Minister Søreide to be even more prepared than usual for her bilateral meeting with Lavrov on Friday. She and Lavrov would be sitting down after what commentators called a “quite unusual” statement because of its harsh criticism of a neighbour just before an important meeting. At the very least it threatened to overshadow the actual liberation ceremonies, which usually present an opportunity to talk about cooperation and improving relations on an occasion that’s important to both countries.
And then there’s the Frode Berg spying case that’s been hanging over both sides since the retired border inspector was arrested in Moscow nearly two years ago. His hometown supporters in Kirkenes had hoped he’d be returned by this week, in time for the ceremonies, but that hadn’t happened. Hopes have risen, though, that he’ll be swapped along with two Lithuanians convicted of spying for at least one Russian jailed in Lithuania. When Lavrov arrived in Kirkenes Thursday night, he told Norway’s TV2 that Berg could be released “at any time,” but wouldn’t elaborate.
Only Putin himself can pardon Berg, who was convicted to 14 years in a Russian jail last spring, and it’s now viewed as being in the best interests of both Norway and Russia that he do so. Berg’s Norwegian defense attorney Brynjulf Risnes was glad to hear that the Russian commission had recommended a pardon, and expected Berg’s release in early November.