Talking Barents, stimulating cross-border cooperation

Interview with Rune Rafaelsen, first published in “4th European Border Dialogues - Opportunities and Challenges for Border Regions”.

We live in times when public relation and advertisement move the world. Slogans hit us from all sides. If you shall characterize mission of Barents Secretariat using a short slogan how would such a slogan look like?

I think we can use following slogan: “Talking Barents, stimulating cross-border cooperation.”

Could you more specify this slogan giving specific examples of projects and activities that Barents secretariat has supported and developed? 

The Barents Region includes a 1, 75 million km2 area covering Sweden, Finland, Russia and Norway and is highly diverse in culture, social-economic development and political orientation. The region offers vast opportunities for people-to-people cooperation, cultural interaction, business development and other cross-border activities.

The Barents Region is sparsely inhabited, but has still the by far most dense population in the whole circumpolar Arctic. The Norwegian Barents Secretariat has been strongly engaged in Barents regional development ever since it was established 20 years ago, in October 1993. We have been instrumental for the support of key priority sectors for the regional cooperation, among them within the fields of youth, health, culture, sports, indigenous people, business, as well as the Barents regional political structures.

The Barents Cooperation has since it was formalized with the signing of the 1993 Kirkenes Declaration helped establish wide-reaching contact and partnership networks across the border in region and these relations are today a powerful force in regional development. The Barents Secretariat helps further stimulate these cross-border connections. The Barents youth cooperation, indigenous peoples’ cooperation, sports and culture are all areas which have been institutionalized in permanent structures and these structures are among the Barents regional success stories.

The Norwegian Barents Secretariat is every day “talking Barents” through its various information activities. The news portal  is owned and operated by the Secretariat and shed light on regional developments. The Secretariat is gradually developing into an information and knowledge hub for the whole Barents Region.

One of the most important issues of the Barents Secretariat is the support of the cross-border cooperation. Where do you see the key goal of such form of cooperation between states?

Cross-border cooperation is often of highly practical character, and it is therefore of key importance that the respective authorities facilitate smooth relations between local stakeholders across the border. We cannot do cross-border cooperation if it is not possible to cross the border. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the authorities represented at the border, among them the police, the customs and other state structures facilitate movement of people, equipment and goods through the control checkpoints. 

Cross-border cooperation unfolds primarily on local level between authorities and civil society groups, but has the potential to boost trust in inter-state relations and neighborhood affairs. For example, the Norwegian government to a great extent acknowledges the key role of the Barents cooperation in the successful 2011 Norwegian-Russian delimitation of the Barents Sea. With cross-border cooperation we build trust on the level of the local man and woman in the border towns but also between governments and state officials!

The border regions are often the least economically developed parts of a country. It is important that we promote the border not as a draw-back, but rather as a comparative advantage which can help stimulate growth and prosperity.

You mentioned border permeability as a conditio sine qua non for the development of cross-border cooperation. In this context two questions come to mind. First: could you give the examples of the projects, supported by Barents Secretariat, which substantially help to facilitation of the regime on the borders?

The Barents Secretariat has in its 20-years history supported more than 4000 projects, all of them with Norwegian-Russian participation and most of them with focus on cross-border activities. We are in good contact with Norwegian border management authorities, although these authorities have their separate financing for cooperation with Russian counterparts and therefore to a limited extent need external project financing.

We have on several occasions supported initiatives which in various ways aim at improving conditions at the border. We also actively follow up border issues in our information and analysis activities and have published several reports on cross-border developments.

Among our new projects is an initiative of the Kirkenes Business Park on the long-term mapping of businesses and enterprises in the border regions of Finnmark (Norway) and Murmansk (Russia). This project in an interesting way seeks to assemble information about local companies and their existing and planned cross-border activities. Included in the initiative is also mapping of the regional businesses` perceptions and needs with regard to key border authorities like the Customs.

Second, could you imagine the situation when some elements of cross-border cooperation could be implemented in areas where the borders are almost or even fully closed? I mean the situation in the frozen conflicts areas.

In the Barents Region, the east-west borders were closed for seven decades. Only very few people were allowed to cross the Norwegian-Soviet border until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, also during the Cold War when relations between East and West were freezing, there was contact on several levels, both within the field of people-to-people and in the field of economy. In the 1960s and 1970s Norway, Finland and the USSR cooperated about the construction of several hydro power plants in the border river between the countries. And in the field of sports, a number of athletes crossed the border to participate in for example cross-country skiing competitions. The first cooperation agreement between the Norwegian county of Finnmark and the Russian Murmansk Oblast was signed in the 1980s.

This shows that there are possibilities for cooperation, albeit modest, even when the border is more or less fully closed. Of course, it helps when the borderline has been unchanged for centuries and there has never been war between the sides, like in the Norwegian-Russian North. However, I believe the Norwegian-Russian example shows that we can find local fields of cooperation even in times with troubled relations between the capitals.

Your interesting historical excursus suggests the way for border regions facing similar or worse problems.  One of the contributions in this publication, dealing with the topic of cross-border cooperation in challenging areas, is titled “Barriers in Minds Are Worse Than Minefields on the Border.” May be, in the end of our interview, you could comment this statement. What is really worse…   

Although there are hardly any more minefieldsalong the Schengen border, there is actually still a substantial military presence in a number of European border regions. For example, the Kola Peninsula is one of the most militarized areas in Europe and several military componds are located in the immediate vicinity of the border. Although there is a good and well-functioning cooperation between Norwegian and Russian military authorities, the Armed Forces are usually not the ones most interested in smooth people-to-people cooperation and liberal cross-border relations.

Armed with cross-border information services and project funding for people-to-people projects, the Barents Secretariat is daily trying to break down the barriers in people`s minds. And we see that this work is giving results. Over a number of years, a wide range of people, civil society groups, regional and local authorities have engaged in joint projects and established contacts and cooperation across the Norwegian-Russian border. This is gradually bringing our countries closer together.

However, we depend on the goodwill of law enforcement authorities represented on the border. If the level of security and controls on the border and in the border areas becomes excessive, or if border-crossing procedures becomes too bureaucratical, we risk the re-erection of „barriers in people`s minds“.

I would say, barriers on the border is definitely a minefield for cross-border cooperation.