Kirkenes rolls out the welcome mat for Barents leaders

The Thon Hotel in Kirkenes, site of the Barents Summit 2013.

KIRKENES: The hotels are full, the media tents are up, and the security helicopters have been dipping and swooping all week. Kirkenes is ready for Barents Summit 2013.


Top ministers from across the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR) will descend on northern Norway next week for a meeting 20 years after they first gathered to pledge co-operation in the region.

On Tuesday, June 4th, they’ll release a second, updated Kirkenes Declaration which will map out the future of collaboration in the area. Although the details aren’t yet known, it’s expected to build on the original declaration and flesh out how the four member countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia—plan to work together on things like economic development, infrastructure and environment.

The first Kirkenes Declaration, signed in 1993, was a major step towards more collaboration in a region previously divided by the Soviet Union and Cold War politics.

Cooperation has taken on a special importance in this part of the world, where four nations co-exist cheek by jowl in an area that faces a very unique set of challenges.

The Barents Region—simply put, the top of Europe—faces the twin trials of accelerating climate change and the growing economic interest sparked by disappearing sea ice. This is complicated by the fact that although the region is rich in resources, it’s low in population and key infrastructure elements, like major roads running from east to west.

Furthermore, all four countries are home to the indigenous Sami people, who have raised major criticisms about their lack of involvement in decision making processes.

All of which makes collaborating on major issues complicated—but crucial.

The Summit will see top ministers from the four member states, plus Denmark, Iceland and the European Union, who also signed the original declaration.

Participants currently confirmed are Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Villy Søvndal, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, EC Vice President Sim Kalas from the European Union, Icelandic Prime Minster Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt.

After the main meeting wraps up on Tuesday, the heads of Russia and Norway, Prime Ministers Medvedev and Stoltenberg respectively, will stay behind to discuss relations between their two countries.

As the largest country in the BEAR region, Russia is a crucial player. While policies on things like democracy promotion and weapons proliferation have strained Russian relations with some western powers in recent years, Norway has traditionally maintained good relations with its eastern neighbor. That’s a trend that seems likely to continue next week.

Tuesday afternoon Medvedev and Stoltenberg will take a boat out from Kirkenes harbor to observe a search and rescue demonstration on the fjord.  A new requirement to report accidents in Norwegian waters goes into force June 1.

Back on shore, they’ll sign some currently undisclosed documents between the two countries.

Then, they’ll visit the border crossing at Storskog-Boris Gleb, where traffic between their two nations has doubled in recent years.

BEAR includes the provinces of: Nordland, Troms and Finnmark in Norway; provinces of Västerbotten and Norrbotten in Sweden; the provinces of Lapland, Northern Ostrobothnia and Kainuu in Finland; and Murmansk Region, Arkhangelsk Region, Karelia, Komi and the Nenets Autonomous District in Russia.