Europe is facing a re-bipolarisation with EU on one side, and Russia, along the former Soviet states organised through Commonwealth of independent States (CiS), on the other.
There is little doubt that the two hegemons in the region are following slightly different paths related to the view of some values, and that the public rhetoric has become more edgy. Throughout history, national land borders have been places subject to disputations, vigilance and conflicts, but also places for common understanding, friendship and collaboration. Borders are where people of one nation meet the people of their neighbouring nation.
This article will briefly present the history of Norway-Russia relations and the shared border between the nations.
A history of cooperation
During the entire Soviet era, 196 km of Norway’s land border was the only place where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and today’s Russia faced each other over a common shared land border. All states bordering Russia, except Norway, share the history of military conflict with this vast nation. Although this is the newest part of the Norwegian border, it is the oldest consistent part of the Russian border, ratified by both countries in 1826. When speaking of international ratifications, it is also interesting to mention that Russia was de jure the first state in the world to recognize Norway as an independent country.
Despite the differences in language, alphabet and cultural heritage, the people of the northern parts of the countries have been closely linked together in friendship and through trade, since the Viking era. The collaboration was later extended throughout the period of Pomor-trade, and continued until today with the people-to-people contact formalised in the Barents cooperation. The results of the people-to-people contact can be seen in the differences of the relations on the state-to-state bilateral level versus on the local level. On the latter level, local authorities on the different sides of the border meet regularly in foras discussing regional development and possibilities for cross-border cooperation. The state-to-state relations seem to be affected by Norway as a NATO-member and increased cooperation with the EU.
Turning point 1: The Schengen-agreement
In addition to the fact that Norway holds certain commitments as a NATO-member which may partly limit the relation with Russia, the relation to the EU can be described as developing. An important event affecting the relations between the two nations was when Norway in 2003 became part of the European Schengen-agreement, resulting in a “harder” border between the two nations. Decision-making of issues related to the border-agreements was no longer in Norwegian and Russian hands, but rather in the hands of the EU and The Russian Federation.
Despite this new potential hindrance created by the Schengen-agreement in terms of new visa requirements and increased budgets for the Norwegian military border guard, Norway-Russia relations developed closer during the 2000-decade. One example is the Norwegian government’s involvement in CO2 purification in the Russian industry-settlement of Nikel, the bordering city to Kirkenes. Another example is the cooperation in constructing a new main road between the cities of Kirkenes and Murmansk. The ‘highlight’ of the relationship between Norway and Russia was probably in 2013, when citizens of the border district could apply for a Local border traffic permit. This is the only place in the entire Schengen area where people of a Schengen-country and Russia can cross the borders to visit each other, without obtaining a visa.
Turning point 2: The military intervention in Crimea
Nevertheless, the events of 2014 in Ukraine seem unavoidable on the relations between any country closely connected to the EU and Russia. The later sanctions initiated by the UN and EU hit among others hard on the Norwegian Salmon export to the Russian market. There was also a growing scepticism from the people of both countries against the people “on the other side”. While a lot of countries holding diplomatic relations with Russia after 2014 have discussed which approach to adapt, the relations on both sides of the Norwegian-Russian has been surprisingly stable. The statutory people-to-people co-operation, and the formalised Barents cooperation can be seen as a unique way of interaction undeterred by the changing geopolitical situation. Even taking bilateral disputes into account, such as the Frode Berg-case or the recent accused hacking attack on the Norwegian parliament, the distinctive way of approaching each other seems to be relatively stable.
Traditions and governance practice in a country, will perhaps always colour the views of the citizens. Members of one system will often say that their way of living and political system is the most preferable solution, as well as view other systems in the context of their own. In a fast changing world it is hard to predict how a relationship between two neighbours will develop. Economic sanctions, language barriers, visa and travel restrictions, possibilities for trade and geopolitical partners do all have a large impact on how both neighbours will view each other. Processes that took place in both Europe and Russia in the 1920s did arguably have a great impact on the rest of the century – and in the future, some will perhaps argue that this could also be applied to the decade of 2020.
This article is written by Jens Kristian Øvstebø, the President of YATA Norway. The views expressed in this article is entirely the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent the views of YATA Norway.