The Barents Euro-Arctic Challenge

Russia has since Vladimir Putin returned to Kremlin taken major steps away from the reforms once making the fundament for establishing the Barents cooperation. Regional cooperation across the borders is because of that even more important than ever, though politically more difficult.


How to build cross-border cooperation based on democratic values when the largest partner is speeding away from what in 1993 was believed to be a process to strengthen civil society and democracy? This is the dilemma to be solved before the Prime Ministers of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia will meet next June to mark the 20th anniversary of the Barents cooperation.

Looking backwards, the Prime Ministers will see a success story with thousands of people-to-people projects and epoch-making state-to-state breakthroughs like the Norwegian, Russian Barents Sea maritime delimitation agreement. 

Planning for the future and how to create a continuation of the success is what we today could label as the Barents Euro-Arctic Challenge.

Under Norway’s current chairmanship of the Barents Council, a new Kirkenes declaration will be designed. It will be signed on June 4, 2013. The Norwegian government says in its latest White Paper on the High North that the new text will “reflect the changes that have taken place since 1993.”  

How will the words in the 2013 declaration then read? The 1993 declaration says in its introduction: “The Participants expressed support for the ongoing process of reform in Russia which aims inter alia at strengthening democracy, market reforms, and local institutions, and which is therefore important for closer regional cooperation in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region.”

We assume the values from 1993 are still some of the primary goals of the Barents Cooperation and that the new declaration will be a second brick that must be bound up with the first. It is, however, an illusion to believe Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev when signing the new declaration defines the two words “strengthening democracy” the same way as then-Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev did when he signed the first Kirkenes-declaration on January 11, 1993. 

It is not even sure Dmitri Medvedev still is Prime Minister in June.  

Established a year after the Soviet Union fell apart, the Barents Cooperation was a true child of the reforms then-President Boris Yeltsin initiated. Support to democratic development has been attached to the cooperation since then. We can read from the last Joint Communique of the Foreign Ministry meeting that the activities in the cooperation are still “Based on common democratic values.” The meeting took place in Kiruna in 2011.

Observing the Barents Council meeting in Kiruna, we could see something was not as it used to be. None of the governors from the Russian part of the region were present. They did not show up at the Luleå meeting in June 2012 either. The absence of Russian governors, or other regional politicians, is likely the worst legitimate challenge the regional structure of the cooperation has today. On the other side, the best legitimate card in the regional cooperation is the large scope of people-to-people contacts across the Barents borders. Fueling more support to such contacts based on equivalence between the partners in the participating countries is the best way the Barents cooperation can support civil society and official structures.

Nonetheless, this is way more problematic than it sounds. Since May, the Russian parliament has passed a series of laws curtailing citizens’ rights and casting shadows of suspiciousness on groups cooperating with foreign partners. BarentsObserver has continuously reported on the cases and the reactions they have triggered.

The most criticized law is the so-called “Foreign Agent law.” It passed the parliament in July and will be in effect this November and concerns Non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Under the law, a bunch of Russian NGOs that are involved in “political activity” and get funding from sources in other countries will have to register themselves as “foreign agents.” The same label stamp must be put on all publications, including web-portals.

In October, the parliament approved several amendments to a law broadening the legal definition of high treason. Critics say the law now can be used against any citizen who had contact with a foreigner. The law-text includes “granting financial, technical, consulting or other help” to those seeking to damage Russia’s security and integrity. It looks like the text on purpose is designed for arbitrary interpretation.

Other new laws are aimed at controlling the internet and stopping public protests in the streets. Curtailing citizens’ rights is not a healthy sign for any society. It all seems like Moscow is more afraid of its own people than of external threats.

Opposition leaders have been arrested in what often seems like a massive overkill of force by the police. One of the most outspoken Putin critics is Mikhael Kasyanov. Last summer, riot police tried to detain him during the protests in Moscow. In 2003, he was Russia’s Prime Minister and took part in the 10-years anniversary of the Barents cooperation in Kirkenes.

A disturbing sign that Putin’s Russia is turning the wrong direction is seen among young and educated people. More and more would like to emigrate. It is also disturbing that private domestic earned capital is exported rather than reinvested in Russia.

All these are factors that don’t facilitate for a sustainable cross-border business climate.

The new Barents declaration will hopefully line the opportunities for increased economic cooperation between the northern regions of Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Governments repeat the mantra of potential economic growth for the region with petroleum, ore and marine resources. Don’t worry, this will come; Barents cooperation or not.

What doesn’t come automatically are individual people and civil society’s right to have a say in forming the conditions for cross-border interaction between the countries in the region. Here, the Barents cooperation can make a difference.