In a case of remarkable timing, an annual conference devoted to cooperation in the High North got underway Wednesday in the Norwegian city closest to the Russian border. Just two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what many view as an invasion of Ukraine, the Kirkenes Conference still managed to gather high-ranking officials from Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden, with Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressing that such venues are now more important than ever.
She immediately reminded the audience that Norway and Russia agreed on a peace pact of their own more than 900 years ago, in 1319, and confirmed the border between them in 1826. Norway and Russia also agreed on a territorial border in the Barents Sea in 2010, and continue to cooperate on lots of issues in the Arctic, from fishing regulations to search and rescue operations. There’s also lots of “people to people” contact over the border, currently welcomed back after two years of restrictions forced by the Corona crisis.
“We will continue to further our own interests in the north,” Huitfeldt said, “but dialogue and practical cooperation with Russia remains important. Even when the world looks dark and tensions are high, we must hang on to the channels and meeting places we have, like the Kirkenes Conference.” Among those on the attendance list was Russia’s ambassador to Norway, whom Huitfeldt was due to meet face to face, reported news bureau NTB.
Conference organizers were relieved that participants hadn’t dropped out because of what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called Putin’s “covert efforts to destabilize Ukraine” that this week evolved into overt military action. Putin’s decision to first recognize two eastern areas of Ukraine as independent states, and then send in what he called “peacekeeping troops” to allegedly settle disputes he has nurtured himself over the years, did not detract from the conference’s goals of bringing the High North’s people together “to discuss various aspects of development with a transboundary aspect at the intersection of business and society.” Issues discussed range from business development to regional politics, and Norway’s new Labour Party-led government in which Huitfeldt serves is once again stressing further development of the country’s northern areas.
“We need people here to fill jobs, lots of companies struggle to find qualified labour,” Huitfeldt said, adding that it’s also necessary to develop new energy production. Depopulation is once again a problem, not least after Corona hurt a finally blossoming tourist industry. “A strong and robust Northern Norway is critical for the whole country,” Huitfeldt said in her address to the conference. “And Eastern Finnmark is, in many ways, the frontline for a strong and robust Norway.”
‘Low tension’ in the High North
She noted, however, that “a few kilometers of east of here … a major Russian military build-up and modernization is going on. More frequent military training contributes to increased tension but, as the defense says, it’s here in the North that there’s still low tension and good dialogue.”
Huitfeldt went on to mention “negative political developments” in Russia, with advocates of human rights and democracy steadily facing more challenges. “Academic freedom is threatened, volunteer organization experience increased control, freedom of the press is not real,” Huitfeldt said. “Openness on the Russian side is being reduced.”
NATO chief and former Norwegian prime minister Stoltenberg called Putin’s decision on Monday “the most dangerous moment in European security for generations.” Huitfeldt stressed that “Norway’s support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unconditional. We condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but we want to continue our cooperation with the Russian people.”
She was even more direct in an interview with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) just before speaking on Wednesday. “We are strongly critical of the Putin regime’s actions, but cooperation between people here in the north is tight and close, and that must continue,” Huitfeldt told NRK. “We condemn Putin, not the Russian people. We won’t be putting sanctions on the Russian people. We will put sanctions on Putin’s regime.”
Huitfeldt claimed that “Russia has in practice occupied parts of an independent nation, Ukraine. They are in a position to carry out a major military operation against the rest of Ukraine without warning.” It remains important, though, to continue the “pragmatic cooperation here. People here in Sør-Varanger (the region of which Kirkenes is located) know very well what this is all about: That we never must be naive, but that we are neighbours with Russian and must take care of that.”