The head of the Barents Regional Council, Arkhangelsk Governor Igor Orlov, told his Oblast government in September 2014 that complicated geopolitics should not affect Barents Cooperation. This cooperation is beyond big politics, Orlov argued.
Traveling the Barents Region after Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in March, and meeting the different official players, the organizations and people in the Russian north, it is easy to see that the Arkhangelsk Governor has a good argument. More than 20 years of people-to-people relations across borders can’t be torn down overnight. Despite a way colder political climate between the trio of Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo towards Kremlin’s rule of Putin in Moscow, the contacts between regional capitals like Murmansk, Rovaniemi, Tromsø and Luleå goes on. So do the non-governmental networks.
In Europe, Brussels has encouraged regional cross-border (CBC) programs not to be affected by sanctions. In Norway, the Government says the importance of regional and civil society interactions with Russia in the north will continue to be supported. The Barents cooperation serves as an open door in times of challenging geopolitical troubles. Normal peoples’ travel and contacts will never cause any harm; rather it serves to facilitate dialogue and minimize potential misunderstandings between countries.
Established in 1993, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) was built in a Post-Soviet period full of confidence with a common belief that promoting people-to-people contacts would contribute to economic, cultural, social and peaceful development in the northernmost part of Europe. Today, no doubt, the Barents cooperation itself has proven to be one of the most successful cross-border cooperation areas in any Russian border region. A generation of friendly relations between citizens, organizations and institutions on both sides of the former iron-curtain has been created. Hundreds of thousands of people annually cross over the formerly nearly closed borders between the Murmansk region and neighbouring Finnmark and Lapland. Working groups in areas like infrastructure, education, ecology, indigenous peoples and culture build bridges and official channels. The Norwegian Barents Secretariat has provided grants to several thousand cross-border interlinked projects based on equal participation. Trust, will and transparency are the three keywords making this possible.
Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, told the audience at the Barents Summit in Kirkenes in June 2013 that Moscow sees the Arctic as an area with good opportunities to implement joint programs and initiatives. However, he also underlined a geopolitical phrase increasingly voiced by the Kremlin; any expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland would upset the balance of power and force Russia to respond.
Increased global attention towards potential Arctic resources is too often followed by media headlines speculating great potential for conflicts because the top of the world is incorrectly believed to be an ungoverned region where oil and gas is waiting to be picked up by the one who gets there first. Regional fora like the Barents Euro-Arctic Council or circumpolar fora like the Arctic Council do not provide a platform for hard security policy discussions, but are superb arenas for building soft-security relations. However you see the world, from east or west, such soft-security corridors and doors should never be closed.
It was therefore sad to see how Dmitri Medvedev used the stage at the Barents Summit to warn Sweden and Finland against NATO. Russia’s first Post-Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrey Kozyrev, said when he signed the Kirkenes-declaration in 1993 that the Barents cooperation is a structure that could become a window for Russia towards Europe, aimed at establishing close links with northern Europe and the rest of the continent. Kozyrev’s statement is in rather sharp contrast to the wording of Russia’s 2014 Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who fuels arguments such as that Europe is aiming to undermine Russia as a global partner. By talking down cooperation with Europe, the troika of Putin, Lavrov and Medvedev are sawing off the main pillar in regional Barents cooperation: people-to-people initiatives growing up from trust, will and transparency.
During 2014, Russia has seen a massive state crackdown on NGOs cooperating with foreigners. A Moscow systematically talking up mistrust against the West does not exactly boost the interest among people in Barents Russia to establish cross-border partnerships. Limiting media freedom and turning journalism into propagandism builds bad stereotypes and is only helping those who are afraid the truth could come out. Erecting a new, partly double wire fence towards the border with Norway, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is normally not what friendly neighbours do to each other. And last, but not least, Russia’s re-arming of the Kola Peninsula and the Arctic raises the question about Moscow’s intentions in basing so much military hardware in a region of low tension? Fortunately, the Barents cooperation is still standing upright in winds of change.