Barents cooperation in Putin’s dangerous new era

This historical Norwegian road sign will never come back, but Editor of BarentsObserver Thomas Nilsen fears the current challenging East-West relations could hamper regional people-to-people cooperation.

OPINION: The Barents cooperation was built in a Post-Soviet period full of confidence with a common understanding that promoting people-t


OPINION: The Barents cooperation was built in a Post-Soviet period full of confidence with a common understanding that promoting people-to-people contacts would contribute to the economic, cultural, social and peaceful development in the northernmost part of Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions domestically, by feeding nationalism and cracking down on civil society, are serious steps away from the reforms once making the Barents cooperation possible.

The way Putin responds to the Ukraine crisis is, however, the “game changer” also for the Nordic countries’ relations with Russia. 

Unlike the invasion in Georgia in 2008, when Russian soldiers were sent into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Putin this time has sized territory from a neighboring state and included it to the Russian Federation. That is something you just don’t do, it is a fundamentally unacceptable act, it’s against international law, and as a result; it builds mistrust against Putin and his coterie that might take generations to overcome. How will it now be possible for the Nordic countries’ Barents leaders to propose the toast for Moscow’s contribution to create healthy Post-Cold War geopolitical relations in Europe? 

No doubt, the Barents cooperation itself has proven to be one of the most successful cross-border cooperation areas in any Russian border regions. 21 years of interlinked people-to-people cooperation have created a generation of friendship relations between citizens, organizations and institutions on both sides of the former iron-curtain. This creation was made out of the three key-words; trust, will and transparency. 

I’m afraid we are about to lose the trust on the governmental level. Norway, Sweden and Finland are unitingly condemning Putin’s actions and violation of international law. Meeting in Tromsø this week, the Nordic Ministers of Defense discussed the security developments in Europe following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Finland’s Minister of Defense, Carl Haglund, said the annexation of Crimea has prompted discussions in both Finland and Sweden about possible NATO membership. In other words; there is a gentle breeze-of-fear blowing across the Nordic countries. No trust has ever been built on fear.

For me, growing up during the coldest part of the Cold War in northern Norway, where kids were told to be afraid of the Russian bear, the news that several State Duma lawmakers have asked for an investigation to be opened against former President Mikael Gorbachev for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, blazes up again the fear. Not a fear of any military aggression against Nordic neighbors, but a fear that the destructive period with limited contacts over the northern borders will come back.

Then there is the will. The Barents cooperation’s grand old man, Thorvald Stoltenberg, in his speeches always answer the question his grandchildren would raise about what he did in the unique Post-Cold War situation to help make the world a better place. Stoltenberg designed the Barents cooperation together with Russia’s first Post-Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and got Sweden and Finland onboard the geographical area of the cooperation, as well as Denmark, Iceland and the European Commission on the formal state level structure. On the regional level, between the people in Murmansk, Troms, Arkhangelsk, Lapland, Finnmark, Karelia and Norrbotten, the will to fade away old stereotypes and normalize cross-border contacts in the north was even stronger. 

What has so Vladimir Putin brought forward to strengthen the will for cooperation with Barents neighbors among Russian citizens? A massive state crackdown on NGOs cooperating with foreigners does not build civil society bridges across the borders. Systematically talking up mistrust against the West does not exactly boost the interest among people in Barents Russia to establish cross-border partnerships. Erecting a new, partly double, barbed wire fence towards the border to Norway, 24 years after the fall of Berlin Wall is normally not what friendly neighbors do to each other. Persecute and prosecute a person actively involved in establishing old historical ties between Russia’s White Sea region and coastal Finnmark in Norway only scares others from doing the same. By scaring normal people from cooperating with Nordic neighbors, Putin is sawing off the main pillar in the regional Barents cooperation; people-to-people initiatives that can exist without governmental interference.  

For the same obvious reasons, I fear it’s only a question of time before we could see the first Norwegians voicing a lack of interest in exploring the great potential that exist in cooperating with a partner in the Russian part of the Barents Region; whether it is state structures, businesses, organizations or institutions. Western leaders are trying to isolate Russia politically as a punishment after the intervention in Ukraine. It is not difficult to agree with EU that sanctions against Kremlin are reasonable; Putin’s actions go way beyond any international acceptable behavior. Norway follows the European Union in imposing the same sanctions. 

But what happens to the Barents cooperation when ordinary people in the Russian northwestern regions start feeling the international isolation?

An isolated Russia will be a contrast to what Andrei Kozyrev was hoping for when he signed the Kirkenes-declaration in 1993 and stated that the Barents cooperation is a structure that could become a “window for Russia towards Europe, which is to establish close links with Northern Europe and the rest of the continent.”

Transparency is the third key-word for a successful Barents cooperation. Putin has taken Russia major steps away from transparent elections, juridical system, freedom of speech and independent media. One of the most prominent human rights campaigners, Lyudmila Alexeyeva with the Moscow Helsinki group, warns of the danger that Putin’s regime can move from the predominantly authoritarian state to the totalitarian one. Having a totalitarian partner in a project aimed at “strengthening democracy, market reforms, and local institutions, and which is therefore important for closer regional cooperation in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region” is hard to imagine. The quotation is taken from the 1993 Kirkenes-declaration.

It was here in the Barents Region we first could see Vladimir Putin revealing his KGB-style ideas on what the media’s role in a society should be like. After the nightmare sinking of the nuclear powered submarine “Kursk” in the Barents Sea in August 2000, revealing rows of governmental lies on the rescue operation and Putin’s lack of crisis management communication, the power of media became dangerous for the President. Shortly after, he started cleaning the house. First by taking state control of major TV-channels and nationwide newspapers, later on by cracking down on single journalists and editors opposing Kremlin. 

A renewed crackdown on domestic media started shortly after New Year ’s Eve. The last independent TV channel Dozhd was attacked, RIA-Novosti and Voice of Russia was merged and Putin’s chief-propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, famous for anti-Semitism; anti-West and hate speech, was put in charge. Respected news portal had to change its editor-in-chief and Voice of America was taken off air this week. Even more worrying, Moscow has initiated a China-style washing of the internet by banning access to oppositional sites, like the blog of Alexey Navalny. 

In Murmansk, authorities are trying to stop Aleksandr Serebryanikov, better known as Blogger 51, by accusing him of extremism and suggesting he should go through a mental examination. Psychiatry was used frequently in Soviet Union as a method of silencing human rights defenders and civic activists.

Russia’s lack of independent media free to report news without state interference is fundamentally a problem for the country’s own citizens wanting to develop a lively and free civil society where everyone has the same right to voice their views. 

Every potential oppositionist that listened to President Putin’s speech shortly after the “referendum” in which a majority of Crimeans voted to return home to Russia, got a clear message to shut up. Vowing to react harshly to any challenges from domestic critics, Putin described them as traitors or members of a subversive fifth column.

With such statements, Vladimir Putin does not encourage cooperation across borders where everyone is invited to participate. Strictly controlled state contacts do not make the Barents cooperation. The only guarantee to future success of the Barents cooperation is to involve as many citizens as possible in as many people-to-people projects as possible. 

Even in times of Cold.