Built to befriend Russia, Barents Cooperation transforms to Nordic front

Stronger Nordic cooperation. Here from a defense ministers meeting in Porsanger, Norway. (Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer)

War and aggression has left regional cooperation with Russia in shatters. The Norwegian government nonetheless continues to nurture hope for a Russian return.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has been an ardent proponent of the Barents Cooperation. During his tenure as foreign minister in the period 2005-2012, the regional cross-border cooperation became a cornerstone in his plan of rapprochement with Russia.

For Støre, the Barents Cooperation was instrumental in developing what was to become ‘a normal neighborly relationship’ with Russia.  Støre boosted the role of the regional cross-border institutions, including the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Barents Regional Council, as well as the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and the International Barents Secretariat.

Nevertheless, when Støre last week took the stage in a conference in Kirkenes, the Norwegian border town branded as ‘Barents capital,’ he did not even mention the word ‘Barents’ in his speech.

Only in a subsequent debate did the prime minister touch on the structure that once was centerstage in regional cooperation. Støre refused to admit that he had been naïve in his relations with the Russians. As a matter of fact, he said that he sees the transformation of Sergei Lavrov and other Russian leaders as a kind of “human tragedy” and argued that they all “might be people that would have wanted otherwise.”

Jonas Gahr Støre in Kirkenes. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

He also refuses to definitely give up hope for a return of the Russians to regional cooperation.

“I believe that we have to preserve the hope that the divide [between us and them] is not definite and permanent,” he underlined.

The Barents Cooperation as once envisioned by Støre has wrecked. Following the full-scale onslaught on Ukraine, Russia was suspended from the Barents Council. Later, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced its formal exit from the structure.

But government officials in the remaining Nordic countries still cling on to the structure that has been built over the past 30 years.

They now brand the Barents Cooperation as a Nordic initiative, and ardently insist that cross-border and people-to-people cooperation can proceed smoothly without Russia.

“It is completely possible with Barents Cooperation without Russia,” Finland’s Barents Ambassador Marja Joenusva told the Barents Observer.

“It has now become a Nordic cooperation, and it is needed because the Barents Euro-Arctic Council is a unique platform where both national and the regional officials are sitting together and that is something that does not exist anywhere, not in the Nordic Council of Ministers, nowhere,” she elaborated.

“That is a unique feature.”

PM Jonas Gahr Støre together with Head of Finnmark County Council Hans-Jacob Bønå (left) and Mayor of Sør-Varanger Municipality Magnus Mæland. (Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer)

According to the ambassador, the NATO membership of Finland and Sweden strengthens the need for cross-border interaction in the Nordic region.

“In this security situation we need more cooperation in the north, and more on the regional level. And more preparedness cooperation. We need to get prepared for all kind of crisis wherever they might be to, together,” she underlined in her address at the Kirkenes Conference.

A new scheme now allows the remaining Barents countries, Finland, Norway and Sweden, to jointly preside over the Barents Council in two-months rotating intervals.

A similar shift is in the making with the Norwegian Barents Secretariat. The body that previously provided Norwegian grants to cross-border projects with Russia will now instead focus on Finland and Sweden.

Nancy Porsanger Anti is State Secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development. (Atle Staalesen/The Independent Barents Observer)

According to Nancy Porsanger Anti, State Secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, the Barents Cooperation and the Barents Secretariat is “more needed than ever.”

“Because of the major challenges that we face, the situation with Russia and the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland, I think it will become important than ever before.”

However, also Anti hopes for a revival of cooperation with Russia.

“It does not look good for the next years, but we are neighbors, both we, Finland and Russia are neighbors, so ultimately some time in the future I believe it will be possible to cooperate,” she said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Yukon’s new Arctic security council to help prepare territory for a changing world, CBC News

Denmark: Danish policy prioritizes low-conflict Arctic amidst Russian tensions, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: NATO membership strengthens Arctic Security, deepens Canada ties: Finnish Ambassador, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Norwegian F-35s in Iceland for airspace surveillance, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norwegian intelligence warns about mounting Russian threats, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: New commander of Russia’s ‘Kirkenes Brigade’ says his marines are fighting NATO, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Intelligence reports-Russian intelligence operations a major threat to Sweden, Radio Sweden

United StatesArctic Security-University of Alaska Anchorage to lead center of excellence, Eye on the Arctic

Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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