It was to be a historic history conference, exactly 75 years after Soviet soldiers marched across the Norwegian-Russian border to liberate Kirkenes from German occupation.
The top political leadership of the Norwegian Ministry of Defense was invited. Alongside with its Russian counterpart, the intent was for the two to open a two-day conference with professors, historians, researchers, present and past ambassadors as well as politicians – with lectures and debates about joint war history in the High North and Norwegian-Russian cooperation in a challenging geopolitical present.
The program was already printed. And the program committee, which had worked on all details since last year, believed that all prominent guests, including the Russian Minister of Defense, were invited and confirmed.
However, last week, three months after Finnmark County formally invited Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen to give the keynote speech, the answer came:
The Defense Minister has other and more important business on these dates.
- Minister happy to receive an invitation
Finnmark County authorities, who organise the event, receive the answer with wonder. The conference committee has worked since last autumn to establish participation from the Norwegian government.
- It is strange that no political leaders in their respective areas have found time to come when we have invited them so well in advance. We do wonder, says Finnmark County Mayor Ragnhild Vassvik. On 13 February, the County authorities received an email from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating that the Foreign Minister is grateful for the invitation to open the history conference, however, she is unable to attend due to conflicting events on the agenda.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs writes:
"It is, however, clear that the Minister of Defense is able to make it and will be happy to receive an invitation from the County Mayor".
Both the Soviet liberation of eastern Finnmark as well as Norway’s treatment of partisans after the war will be discussed during the conference, which takes place on 23-24 October. These are still politically sensitive issues in Norway.
There has also been a strong wish from the Finnmark County authorities’ side that the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu be invited, according to emails and letters sent to both the MoD and the MFA.
The Finnmark County authorities have also suggested that the Russian Northern Fleet Orchestra should be the Russian cultural contribution at the event.
Department confirmed Russia invitation
Even though Finnmark County authorities organize the conference and pick out guests and lecturers, the MFA and the MoD are in charge of inviting Russian participants.
Such a request for assistance with invitations was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Finnmark County Communications Manager Trond Magne Henriksen on 14 February:
“County Mayor Ragnhild Vassvik will invite the Defense Minister. She also wants the equivalent political level from Russia [to be present], and hopes that the Foreign Ministry can assist in conveying such an invitation.”
In an email from Deputy Director Svein A. Michelsen at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the next day, Norwegian authorities confirm that they wish to assist in inviting Shoigu to Kirkenes:
“We are happy to assist in furthering invitations from Finnmark County authorities to Russian authorities. We are also happy to follow up the invitations by reminding the Russians about the event in our running contact. It will probably be best if the invitations only go out once you have had the Defense Minister’s attendance confirmed, but you have probably thought of that already,” Michelsen writes.
After three months’ silence, High North News contacted Svein A. Michelsen, who refers to the Ministry of Defense for comments on this case.
The Defense Ministry coordinator for the liberation event in October, Kjetil Henriksen, says to High North News that there will be a commemorative event in Kirkenes on 25 October with “high-level presence from both sides”.
Beyond that, there are several uncertain items on the agenda per today.
- It has been known for some time that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is invited. He has received the invitation and we assume that Lavrov will be in Kirkenes on 25 October, says Henriksen.
The Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Defense minister will participate from the Norwegian side, according to Henriksen. His Majesty King Harald has also been invited. The Royal Palace’s communication department has not responded to High North News’ question about whether the invitation has been accepted.
- We are also working on having musical contribution from both the Norwegian and the Russian side. Inviting the Northern Fleet’s ensemble is an idea under consideration. However, no decision has been made on this yet.
- Is it demanding to create a program for such an event in a challenging geopolitical time between Norway and Russia as well as Russia and the West?
- I am sure we will have a dignified event to commemorate the liberation of the northeastern parts of Norway in 1944, Henriksen says.
The Defence Ministry’s communications department Friday says that Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen would have loved to also attend the history conference, however, reiterates that the Minister has more important items on the agenda on those two days.
County mayor disappointed over priorities
The County Mayor explains that the process with inviting political top levels has been a long and bumpy ride.
- There has been a lot of back and forth. First, the Sør-Varanger mayor wanted Norway to invite Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to Kirkenes. We for our part started early to invite the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who both quickly clarified that they were unable to attend. Eventually we invited the Defense Minister. We sent that invitation on 14 February. We only received his answer about a week ago. It is disappointing that the government does not prioritize this.
- Do you have any ideas as to why?
- I do not wish to speculate. You have to ask them. However, I find it strange. Though it should be said that the political leadership attends the liberation event itself on 25 October.
It could be that that one does not want a big focus on issues raised at the history seminar, amongst others about the Norwegian partisans.
- Is this about politics, you think?
- It is easy to think so, however, I cannot confirm that. It could be that one does not want a big focus on issues raised at the history seminar, amongst others about the Norwegian partisans. It is still not clear whether Norway will give them a full apology for the treatment they received after the war, says Vassvik.
- You wanted Norway to invite Russia’s defense minister to the event. He is a.o. defense minister in a country at war in the Ukraine and in Syria. Could this have kept the defense minister from attending?
- We meant to have equal-level attendance from the Russian authorities for the sake of balance.
- Is it natural to invite a person like Shoigu to a liberation event in Kirkenes?
- Hehe… We are not to discuss Syria at this conference. I think it is natural to invite Shoigu. It is important for us to mark the effort that was made 75 years ago and contribute to the maintaining of dialogue between Norway and Russia. Sergey Lavrov will come, and he probably holds the same position as Shoigu.
- Do you believe this has been a difficult dilemma for Norwegian authorities?
- That could be the reason behind it all, but that’s just speculations, Vassvik says.
Organisers takes note of the response
Head of Culture and Environment with Finnmark County authorities, Tore Gundersen, was very surprised by the response he received from the MoD on 16 May. He is the one who for months has worked on the political participation from national level at the event’s program.
- We take note of the defense minister’s having other and more pressing matters at hand than attending this history conference. And we have accepted that the government will not be represented. We are now placing representatives from the regional level at the opening, people who are already on the program.
- Have you earlier on in the process been led to believe that he would attend?
- Yes, absolutely. Even though the Department has never confirmed in it writing, that is nevertheless how we have interpreted it through our verbal contact with the Ministry of Defense, that the Defense Minister would come to Kirkenes to open the conference.
- Why the turnaround?
- You tell me. You must ask the Ministry of Defense about that. The Ministry has not been consistent on this matter. First, it signals that the Minister will attend, then it changes its mind all of a sudden. And then they tell us that the Russian defense minister will not be invited, which I believed had been done already. I cannot understand what is more important than the Defense Minister’s opening and attending such a big and important conference about our northern war history, Gundersen says.