After 30 Years, the Barents Cooperation Faces an Uncertain Future

11 January 1993: Representatives from Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and the EU Commission enter the stage in Kirkenes Theater to sign the Kirkenes Declaration which formally establishes the Barents cooperation. (Press photo)

On Wednesday, three decades of cooperation in the Barents region will be marked in Kirkenes, on the border to Russia. The history and future of this distinctive cooperation format in the High North – which is on shaky ground due to the Ukraine war – will be illuminated from different angles.

After the end of the Cold War – in January of 1993 – the Barents cooperation came to life through the signing of the Kirkenes Declaration. Trust and stability were to be developed through this new framework for cooperation between states, regional units, and people – primarily in the northern parts of Russia, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Three decades later – with Russia's hot war against its neighboring country and harsh measures against its domestic civil society – questions are being raised about what successes the cooperation can actually claim and even the framework's right to life.

On Wednesday the 11th of January, 30 years of cooperation in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region will be recognized in Kirkenes, the Norwegian town on the border to Russia, with questions about what has been and what can be.

At the Transborder Cafè, Pikene på Broen (a collective of curators and producers) and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat invite to lectures and panel discussions with voices from the four mentioned Barents countries. 

"We have chosen to mark the 30 years that have passed since the signing of the Kirkenes Declaration to go a bit deeper into which political tendencies made it possible and what interest it got both nationally and regionally in Norway," says Marit Jacobsen, Deputy Head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, to High North News.

'Architects', researchers, and enthusiasts

"We have invited people who were involved in the work before the signing and who have researched Norwegian-Russian cooperation in the North in the entire period. We also want to highlight representatives for what we call the Barents generation – individuals and enthusiasts who have participated in the cooperation's "la belle èpoque", she continues.

At the event, they will present their views on the cooperation results, the Ukraine War's effects on the border-crossing interaction, possible moves for rebuilding trust, and how the Barents region may look in five, ten, and thirty new years.

"We know that the Barents model has been of great interest to other border areas in Europe. We may resume cooperation with Russia again at some point in the future and it is therefore important to summarize what the prerequisites were for it to work and which mechanisms contributed to this," Jacobsen points out.

Deputy Head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, Marit Jacobsen, in a conversation with Marit Bjerkeng, translator and retired professor, during the Border Seminar in Kirkenes in the fall of 2022. (Photo: Ole-Tommy Pedersen/the Barents Secretariat)

Agenda for the "In Barents We Trust" event

– At 18:00, the audience is welcomed by Marit Jacobsen, Deputy Head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, and Evgenij Goman, Pikene på Broen Producer. The event will be held in English and streamed on Youtube with Russian translation.

– 30 years of Barents cooperation in 30 minutes with Øyvind Nordsletten, former Norwegian diplomat and ambassador to Ukraine and Russia.

– 30 years of the Barents Cooperation – How did it come about and what have we achieved? Panel discussion with Sverre Jervell, former Norwegian diplomat and security policy researcher, who worked closely on the process of the Kirkenes Declaration; Vigdis Nygaard, political scientist, and researcher at the independent research institute NORCE; Bente S. Andersen, founder of the Samovar Theater in 1990 and co-founder of Pikene på Broen.

– Cultural input and launch of the Barents Spektakel 2023, a border-crossing art and cultural political festival under the auspices of Pikene på Broen.

– Where is the way ahead for the Barents cooperation? Panel discussion with Zhanna Guzenko (Russia, now living in Kirkenes), culture producer and co-founder of Fridaymilk, Paavo Heinonen (Finland), artistic director of Oulu Arts' Night; Tim Andersson Rask (Sweden), Chairman of Barents Press Sweden, Vera Arntsen (Norway), international coordinator of Barents Sports. 

Signals from Norway's government

The Barents cooperation's activities which involve public Russian institutions were suspended two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As the war prolonged, the aforementioned debate about the credentials and the future of this cooperation framework with the Russian side flourished. In the past, the prevailing opinion was that the Barents cooperation – with dialogue and work for sustainable development between states, regional units, and people – constitutes an international success story.

An example is that on the 20th anniversary in 2013, the member states confirmed their commitment to the Kirkenes Declaration by adopting a new declaration in Kirkenes. In this, they refer to "significant results" and point to the Barents cooperation as a model for others to follow.

Engaging Russia in the Barents cooperation was worth a try, even though the efforts did not lead to a present, democratic, and peaceful neighboring country, stated Norwegian MFA Anniken Huitfeld (Labor) in a speech this fall.

In its proposal for the state budget for 2023, the Norwegian government states that "it is important for Norway and Norwegian interests that we maintain international cooperation fora in the North" – and that it supports the continuation of activities in the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Arctic Council without Russia, as long as it serves the purposes. 

A bust of the now-deceased Norwegian diplomat and politician Thorvald Stoltenberg (Labor) in Kirkenes. Early in the 1990s, he and his Russian MFA colleague, Andrei Kozyrev spearheaded the establishment of the Barents cooperation. (Photo: Ole-Tommy Pedersen/the Norwegian Barents Secretariat).

Preservation as a keyword

The mentioned councils are referred to by the government as significant over time for trust-building dialogue and project cooperation in the north, but also as areas for cooperation where the war has an impact. At the same time, it is emphasized that such structures that have been built over several decades must be maintained.

The following is also pointed out: "Russia is not excluded from the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, or the EU's Northern Dimension, and will be able to re-enter the cooperation if the situation changes."

At the same time, the possibility is discussed that the current aggressive and authoritarian features of Russian foreign- and domestic policies may be long-lasting. Nevertheless, it is also in Norway's interest to preserve areas of expertise on Russia within public management, academia, and civil society, the government believes – and it is obvious that it has the Norwegian Barents Secretariat in mind, i.a.

It is also relevant for the people-to-people aspect and the secretariat's work that the government will "continue to support civil society actors, human rights activists, and the free media in Russia, to the extent possible, and in exile." The financing of such measures has been added to a new grant scheme within foreign affairs called "Russia".

Facts about the Barents cooperation

– The Barents cooperation is a formalized collaboration primarily between Russia, Norway, Finland, and Sweden – designed to promote stability and sustainable development in a region which was characterized by military tension during the Cold War.

– The cooperation was established through the Kirkenes Declaration in 1993, stemming from a top-political process led by the MFA's in Norway and Russia – and a regional process with initiatives for business and cultural cooperation between northern counties in the two states. These two levels structure the cooperation.

– The Barents Euro-Arctic Council is the format for intergovernmental cooperation – which also includes Denmark, Iceland, and the EU as members. Nine countries have observer status. An international Barents Secretariat, established in Kirkenes in 2008, provides administrative assistance.

– The Barents Regional Council gathers 13 regional units in the four 'core countries' and representatives from the three indigenous peoples in the region – the Sàmi, Nenets, and Veps.

– There are several working groups under the council bodies, i.a. for health and social issues, environment, education and research, culture, indigenous affairs, and business.

– The Norwegian Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes has since 1993 supported Norwegian-Russian collaborations in the region through funding, sharing of knowledge, and networking.

– In March of 2022, all activities with public Russia within the Barents cooperation were suspended. The people-to-people cooperation with independent Russian actors remains. On the 1st of February, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat closes its three local offices in Russia.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.