As the east-west crisis aggravates and relations between our countries increasingly appear grim and unpredictable, regional cross-border cooperation must be used as a backdoor for continued contact. The Barents Cooperation includes tools needed for interaction in difficult times, but a set of structural reforms would make it even better fit to meet the future.
The Barents Cooperation was established in 1993 as a regional initiative aimed a promoting development, peace and stability. After decades of cold war and closed borders, an alternative platform for interrelations was created, a platform, which included a high stress on regional stakeholders and practical-oriented areas of cooperation.
The Barents Cooperation was established in one of the most militarized areas in Europe. It was built to function on sensitive grounds amidst complex national security interests. These qualities might prove themselves highly valuable in the current time of troubled relations.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its incursions into other parts of eastern Ukraine are putting international stability in jeopardy and have created an unclear security situation in Europe unprecedented since the 2WW. Relations between Nordic capitals and Moscow are below freezing point.
However, channels for contact are still open in the regions. In the Barents Region, cross-border cooperation between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia continue with numerous joint initiatives between local authorities, culture and sports groups, businesses and, most importantly, between ordinary people. Russians continue to come to Nordic border towns like Kirkenes in northern Norway for shopping and leisure, even despite economic crisis and plummeting rouble rates, and the number of local Norwegians visiting Russia is on the increase. Over the next two weeks, hundreds of Russians will attend the Barents Sport Days and the Barents Spektakel, two annual events organized in Kirkenes.
This strongly enrooted people-to-people cooperation stretches beyond political crisis and must continue irrespectively of political developments. The Norwegian government continues to support cross-border cooperation. Both the EU and Russia signal similar positions.
The strong stress on regional stakeholders is enrooted also in the Barents administrative-political structures. The Barents working groups today continue to assemble regional experts and officials in fields like transportation, tourism, energy efficiency, education, youth, and indigenous peoples. With the Barents Regional Council as a key coordinating body, the working groups regularly assemble representatives from all the 13 Barents counties and federal subjects.
In a situation with cold fronts and political tensions, the Barents structures can offer an arena for contact and dialogue on issues of highly practical-oriented character and low-level sensitivity, issues which are tolerable for all the involved parts. As a matter of fact, the local and regional cooperation embodied by Barents structures can today be used as an alternative side-channel for east-west relations between the Nordic countries and Russia.
Meanwhile, for the key Barents Cooperation stakeholders, the east-west crisis should be seen as an opportunity to take long-needed and overdue reforms in regional structures.
Among these are:
1. A merger of the Barents Secretariats. As previously outlined, there is no need for two separate Barents Secretariats. All work responsibilities associated with multilateral operations should be moved to the International Barents Secretariat (IBS). Meanwhile, the bilateral funding programs of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, along with other regional funding schemes like the Kolarctic Programme, should be moved into a satellite unit, a “Barents Funds department”, under the IBS. Information activities should be taken out of the secretariat and instead moved into a new and separate “Barents Information Center”.
2. Expansion of powers for the Barents Regional Council. The Council, which on a regular basis assembles regional governors and leaders, is in dire need for a revitalization of responsibilities. The Council members should get a mandate to undertake the final approval or rejection of major regional cross-border projects, among them under the Kolarctic Programme. It can also be invited to have an advisory role in other big project applications in the region.
Better and more efficient administrative structures will strengthen the Barents Cooperation. That, in the next turn, will benefit cross-border relations in the region. A region, which is peaceful and aimed at more interaction, but still under increasing strain from the dramatic turns in Big Politics.