"Only solution is more cooperation"
KIRKENES: "The global focus on the north pushes forward a need for more Barents Cooperation in the future", says Rune Rafaelsen at the Norwegian Barents Secretariat. However, he sees the weakening of civil rights in Russia as a challenge in the years to come.
A changing world economy has created new possibilities in the north. The Barents Region is right in the middle of this activity as the most populated and active part of the Arctic.
"The changes open a number of new possibilities and challenges for the Barents cooperation", says Rune Rafaelsen from the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.
The opening of the Northern Sea Route for commercial traffic has strengthened the geo political importance of the Barents Region. Over the last years countries like China, Japan, India and South Korea have entered the Arctic arena with an aim to take an active part in the Arctic development.
Rune Rafaelsen's main argument is that better communication and more cooperation is always the solution for areas of possible conflicts.
“As in 1993, Norway’s most important peace project is in the north. We must maintain the robust and stabile human and economic relations between Russia and Norway. With increased focus both on the political as well as people-to-people level, the need for more Barents cooperation is apparent”, says Rune Rafaelsen.
On the 11th of January it is exactly 20 years since the Kirkenes declaration was signed in Kirkenes and the Barents Region was established. To mark the anniversary Rafaelsen and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat has organized a conference in Kirkenes. The focus will be to look at what has been accomplished and then try to predict what the future holds for the Barents cooperation. Among the participant at the conference is the Foreign Minister of Norway, Espen Barth Eide.
Rafaelsen highlights the Barents cooperation as a peace project as one of its greatest accomplishment through the 20 years of existence. This issue was central in 1993 and will have the same position also in the future. The regional cooperation between politicians and NGOs is especially important in maintaining the focus on democracy and to establish joint arenas where decision makers can meet.
"The key to establish contact and stronger ties across border is to involve and engage better the regional level in the foreign policy. The way we have solved this in our region should be an inspiration for other border regions in Europe and in other parts of the world".
Looking at the region today Rafaelsen see several factors which confirm that this has been a success.
"Never have so many crossed the Norwegian-Russian border. Almost every company or organization in northern Norway has established some kind of cooperation with Russia. Russian students have become the largest group of foreign students in Norway and Russia has become the largest and most important market for Norwegian fish".
The delimitation agreement on the Norwegian-Russian borderline in the Barents Sea, which was signed in 2010, has been seen as a confirmation of the cooperation success.
"The Barents Cooperation has become a corner stone in Norway’s relations to Russia", says Rafaelsen.
What Rafaelsen see as a huge challenge for the future is the weakening of the democratic and civil rights in Russia. The removal of Governor elections in the regions is an example on how regional influence and enthusiasm are diminishing in Russia.
"The fact that Russian NGO’s have to register as foreign agents will become a challenge for the cooperation, is Rafaelsen’s view.
The contents of the new Kirkenes Declaration will thus be very important to promote even better cross border contact in the years to come.
"The very clear statements on more democracy and better support of regional institutions which were established in the 1993 declaration, must be continued in a new declaration", says Rafaelsen.
The new Kirkenes declaration will be signed during the Prime Ministers meeting in June in Kirkenes, where the Prime Ministers from Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden will meet. The outline of this declaration is not published yet and all Barents countries have been engaged in this work.