"Tear this barbed wire fence down"

The relation between east and west has come a long way since the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. Why it is so then, that a barbed wire fence still divides the people in the Barents Region? We ask the question in this opinion.


I do remember the days of November 1989 very well. I was a young student that recently had visited Murmansk in the northern part of the Soviet Union for the first time. For a Norwegian, Murmansk those days was not only cold due to climate reasons; it was even colder for geopolitical reasons. 

Therefore, the events in the divided German city on November 9th lighted new hopes for the borderland population here in the north as well.

Many commentators will today - two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall – point at Mikhail Gorbachev in their attempts to explain the reasons that allowed the historic moment. The symbolic end of the Cold War. And yes, Gorbachev is a part of the answer. So is the last Cold War equestrian; Ronald Reagan, that two years earlier in Berlin challenged Mikhail Sergeyevich to “tear this wall down.” Let me just add the people to the list of heroes. Those brave East Germans that climbed the wall and made the events earlier that day impossible to reverse.

I got my last DDR stamp in the passport at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse in Berlin in the end of February 1990. The East German border guard couldn’t care less if I just walked pass him. But, I wanted the stamp as a souvenir.

A week earlier, I crossed Europe’s northernmost east-west border crossing point, from Storskog on the Norwegian side into the Kola Peninsula on the Soviet side. One of the first things to see along the road on the Soviet side of the border was the barbed wire fence. Those days, the fence had the same aim as the Berlin Wall: - to keep the population inside the borders.

Together with a youth delegation from Norway, we spent some days in Murmansk maintaining the newly established network of the first youth cross-border groups in what later became the Barents Region. The teenagers we met were not with the official Komsomol. They had formed their own unofficial group, called the Christian Green league. Those days, both Christians and greens were in opposition in the Soviet Union.

Like most youngsters in Europe those days we discussed the possibilities a new Europe with more open borders would give us. Also up here in the north, where NATO and the USSR shared a common 196 kilometre long border. The future belonged to us, the new generation of cross-border Europeans, no matter if we were born in Norway or the USSR. Or on the moon for that matter.

20 years have passed since then. I have long ago stopped to count my number of border crossings between Norway and Russia. But, I can’t stop wondering why the barbed wire fence still is standing along our border? A last symbol of the Iron Curtain. Why does it still act as a separation barrier when both the Norwegian and Russian foreign ministers agrees that the relations between our two countries are better than ever?

The Finnish foreign minister told his colleagues at the Barents Council meeting in Murmansk last month that the Barents Region is the sexiest area in the world. What is so sexy that it has to be divided with a barbed wire fence?  

Russia’s border to Norway and Finland is the only of Russia’s external borders to Western Europe where the barbed wire fence is standing as a separation barrier. There is no such barrier on Russian territory along the border with Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, or Ukraine. In Asia, Russia has barbed wire fence along the border to China, Mongolia and North Korea.

Today’s good relations between the countries within the Barents Region are built on two decades of people-to-people contacts. Cross-border culture and business contacts have not been stopped by the barbed wire fence. The cooperation between labour unions, environmentalists, researchers, indigenous peoples, youth and sport clubs goes stronger and stronger for every year.  

Norway, Russia and the EU are removing many of the barriers hampering cross-border travel. Hundreds of thousands of people cross the border between Finland, Russia and Norway every year. It will be even more when the Russian-EU initiative to establish visa-free travel between our countries will be a reality. So why then this physical separation barrier? In today’s world, electronic surveillance and cooperation between the guards on each side of the border can effectively stop criminals and illegal immigrants. The barbed wire is mainly a symbol. A symbol of a time we don’t want to have back.

Therefore, today - 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall - it is maybe wise to raise our voice: “tear this barbed wire fence down.”