Former diplomat calls original Kirkenes Declaration "amazing"

Former diplomat Sverre Jervell was one of the original architects of the original Kirkenes Declaration.

KIRKENES: Tomorrow, leaders from across the Barents Region are coming back to Kirkenes, two decades after signing the first Declaration. Sverre Jervell was one of the main designers of that agreement; he says it’s come a long way.


The first time Sverre Jervell visited Kirkenes was in 1992, and he got an earful.

He took a taxi in from the airport and all the driver could talk about was how everyone in town was leaving, and it was only a matter of time before he packed up his bags and went too.

There were few jobs and the attitude in town was “completely depressed,” he says.

Jervell, then the political advisor to foreign minister Thorvald Stoltenberg, had come north to start the ball rolling on what would become the first Kirkenes Declaration, a new cooperative agreement for the Barents Region that was eventually signed in 1993.

Tomorrow, top ministers from across the Barents Region are returning to Kirkenes to reaffirm that long ago commitment to work together, and to adopt a second, updated Declaration. The region they’re returning to has come a long way since they left it two decades ago, and Jervell says that has a lot to do with the first Kirkenes Declaration.

After all, not only are the people of Kirkenes still here, they’re thriving.

The Kirkenes Declaration led to the formation of the Barents Council, which has spent the last two decades encouraging development and collaboration in the area. By most accounts the Declaration has been a success and is at the root of an unprecedented level of investment and cross-border communication, especially between Norway and Russia.

Still, Jervell—one of the main architects of the agreement—says that 20 years ago, that outcome was far from certain.

The end of the Cold War was “traumatic” for Kirkenes, he says. At the height of the Cold War the mine had been heavily subsidized by the government in order to provide an incentive for people to live so close to the border with the Soviet Union. But when the USSR broke up, the subsidies also disappeared.

By the early 1990s, the area was in a “general depression” he says. The idea for a Barents Cooperation was born, in part, he says, to help bring economic prosperity back to the region.

But building a closer relationship with the former Soviet power was tough at first. “Everyone was very uncertain, they weren’t sure if the Cold War had really ended,” he says.

During the Cold War the border between Kirkenes and Murmansk had been among the most closed, he says, and people were out of practice when it came to working across borders. Russia was also skeptical of Stoltenberg’s insistence that the new Cooperation include voices from both regional government and indigenous groups. 

Still, Jervell says, Russia was in a period of change and “[Boris] Yeltsin brought in a lot of new ideas.” And after the closed borders and insular politics of the Cold War, regional cooperation was nothing if not a new idea.

So Norway and Russia agreed to sign a document pledging to increased cooperation, and the other Nordic countries soon signed on.

Leaders from each country converged on Kirkenes in January of 1993 to sign. The scene was a far cry from the helicopters, convoys of dark SUVs and coast guard patrol boats swarming Kirkenes this week.

Held in winter, “the main threat was that the weather would be bad and the planes wouldn’t be able to land,” Jervell says.

Uncertainty continued to reign at the meeting. “We knew the Russians would sign,” he says, “but what would happen after?”

What happened was an era of cooperation that has continued until this day. Norway alone has spent several hundred million euros on projects in the region, and 25 per cent of foreign students in Norway are now Russian.

Today, a taxi driver in Kirkenes is probably as likely to speak of the number of Russians who cross the border to shop, or the increased number of jobs in the oil and gas industry here.

Jervell says the agreement’s success is a result of its ability to create a meeting place for people to exchange ideas, especially young people. Opportunities, from study programs to young entrepreneur groups now abound for youth on both sides of the border.

For that reason, he says he hopes tomorrow’s Declaration will continue to focus on youth.

“I think it’s the network, especially for young people,” he says.

“It brings down this image of other people as the enemy.”