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Foreign minister didn’t infect king

UPDATED: Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt ended a tough week of political strife by testing positive for the Corona virus late Thursday afternoon. Just hours earlier she’d met with King Harald and on Friday, the Royal Palace announced that the 84-year-old monarch had been put on sick leave after showing symptoms of a cold.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, shown here while leading the UN Security Council last week. She came home to lots of controversy over meetings with the Taliban that she’d helped arrange in Norway, and then she tested positive for the Corona virus. PHOTO: FN-delegasjon/Pontus Höök

“I really hope I haven’t infected King Harald, Queen Sonja or Crown Prince Haakon in audience with them yesterday,” Huitfeldt wrote in a message to news bureau NTB on Friday. The foreign minister, who recently returned from a week running the UN Security Council in New York, meets regularly with the royals on Thursdays.

She could be reassured that at least Crown Prince Haakon has already tested negative, and could lead the weekly Council of State with the government on Friday. “All necessary examinations and testing (of the royals) will be carried out,” stated the palace in a brief press release Friday.

Huitfeldt is now in isloation, while test results for the king and queen weren’t immediately released released. Incubation time for the Corona virus is usually around four to five days, though, so it’s unlikely she was the source of any royal infection. Queen Sonja confirmed during the weekend that she had tested negative and so had her husband. “He just has a cold,” the 84-year-old queen said as she visited an art exhibit in Tønsberg on Saturday.

Prevents controversial travel to Beijing
Huitfeldt’s positive Corona test, meanwhile, rules out any plans to travel to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. That trip was one of many controversies facing the foreign minister this week: Human rights advocates have long been calling for a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics because of widespread human rights abuses in China, the internment of millions of people from the persecuted Uighur minority and China’s destruction of democracy in Hong Kong. Chinese leaders won’t tolerate challenges to their leadership, and even threatened athletes around the world last week with disqualification if they dare to criticize the Chinese regime during the winter games.

Government officials including Huitfeldt, however, have insisted that Norway has a long tradition of sending top officials (including the monarch) to the Olympics wherever it may be held. She defended official Norwegian presence in Beijing on the grounds that dialogue is preferable to boycott. Now it’s unclear who if anyone from the goverment will travel to China, since the minister in charge of culture and sport also tested positive for Corona last week and had only planned to attend the Paralymics anyway. The royal family also dropped travel to China because of the infection threat.

Norway did boycott the Olympics in Russia in 1980, in protest over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan at the time. This week, the terrorist group Taliban that reconquered Afghanistan last summer was ironically enough in Norway for meetings with Norwegian and other western countries. Huitfeldt didn’t take part in the meetings herself, to symbolize that the Norwegian government hasn’t officially recognized the Taliban government, but she was under harsh criticism for how she wound up on the defensive while they were in Oslo.

Trumped by the Taliban
Taliban members exploited Norway’s invitation to Oslo for all it was worth. Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim noted how the Taliban quickly sent out photos from the private jet Norway chartered to fly them to New York, to brag about how they’d been invited to their first meetings in a western country. They branded the meetings as “a big victory” for themselves already on their first day in Oslo.

Huitfeldt, meanwhile, offered no immediate rebuttal and didn’t even address criticism flying over the private jet service until Sunday evening. Few if any photos of Taliban meetings could be found on the foreign ministry’s own website, and she’d described the meetings as mostly a solo project on the part of the Norwegians, without mentioning they’d already secured approval for them from the US. Germany, Great Britain, Italy and the EU were also involved and took part on the meetings’ last day.

“Both she and the ministry must have known how important it was to clarify why the meetings should be held,” wrote Alstadheim in newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday, just after the meetings had ended. “There was need to explain why the talks were necessary, but Huitfeldt wasn’t very visible. She let the debate fly in social media. When she finally showed up (on TV), she was completely on the defensive.”

Local political intrigue, too
As if all that weren’t enough, Huitfeldt also suddenly found herself caught in a new and unflattering battle for power at the local political level, in addition to the national. It cast Huitfeldt and another fellow government minister from the Labour Party, Tonje Brenna, in the middle of a power struggle to keep Norway’s large and much-criticized county of Viken intact.

Viken emerged through the unpopular merger of Buskerud, Akershus and Østfold counties, forced through during the former Conservative government’s efforts to create greater economy of scale. Both Labour and its government partner, the Center Party, promised voters they’d dismantle Viken and reinstate Buskerud, Akershus and Østfold as their own official regions.

Then Huitfeldt, who leads Labour’s Akershus chapter, and Brenna reportedly realized that Labour itself would retain more political power within Viken if it remains intact. Suddenly Labour’s Akershus chapter opposed a break-up, and since it’s bigger than the Buskerud and Østfold chapters, it may be able to sabotage the de-merger plans, much to the disgust of voters, government partners from the Center Party and many Labour fellows.

Neither Huitfeldt nor Brenna would answer questions about the issue, which some have equated to Labour politicking at its ugliest, threatening even their own Labour-Center government. Voting on Viken’s fate will take place later in February.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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