Despite a Generation of Cooperation: “The Door to Russia is Closing”
“Education and research is what keeps the door to Russia open now”, says Project Director Salve Dahle of Akvaplan-niva.
Like previously reported by High North News, there has been little military contact between Russia and Norway in the political arena the last couple of years. However, despite talk of a more cool political cooperation atmosphere between the two neighbors, this does not applied to the fields of education and research.
Nord University and the High North Center for Business and Governance recently celebrated the 30th anniversary for their cooperation with Russian education institutions. The anniversary was celebrated with a seminar in Bodø, Norway in which both politicians, researchers, education sector representatives and business from both sides of the border attended. Amongst the issues on the agenda was the cooperation between Norway and Russia and what the current situation thereof is.
A fate meeting in 1991
It all started in 1991, when then-Dean of Nord University Business School Frode Mellemvik went to St. Petersburg in Russia along with a little entourage. They were there for meetings with Baltic State Technical University, which wanted to develop a business school.
“It was a good meeting. But I did not envision cooperation to take off and develop like it did”, says Director Frode Mellemvik at the High North Center now, 30 years later.
“This cooperation has been ongoing for a generation and we have educated almost 5,000 students through our various programs. Class upon class try to understand Norwegian and Russian industries, challenges to Norwegian-Russian trade, and issues such as Norwegian-Russian cooperation in oil, gas and fisheries.
Mellemvik says the opportunities of the education cooperation that was developed over time was wanted by the universities and well received by both Norwegian and Russian authorities and businesses.
“It was a competence that was in high demand on both sides of the border”, he says.
“An adventurous situation”
Project Director at Akvaplan-niva Salve Dahle has more than 30 years of experience in cooperation with Norway’s northern neighbor and was out early inviting participants to research cooperation after the Cold War, with a people that shortly before had considered Norwegians enemies.
The education sector is funded through public means and can be used to keep an official channel open.
“Crossing the border following the disintegration of the Soviet Union was an adventurous situation”, says Dahle, who has traveled most of Northeastern Russia in the line of duty.
“In a way, this was peace work in which we crossed the border to meet with the very same people who only years previously had sat in their barracks waiting to attack Norway. We met them, talked with them and started a peace process”, says Dahle, who is a scientist and marine biologist.
The door is shut
The climate between the two countries thawed gradually, and cooperating about research and business on both sides of the border was easier, as was traveling between the two countries. However, following the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and the subsequent sanctions against Russia as well as its countersanctions, the door to Russia is gradually about to become shut.
“Today, you need an invitation from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go there”, Dahle says.
Because Russia’s response to sanctions is introducing counter-sanctions. Russia does not, for instance, want to purchase goods from the West, but rather be self-supplied. This applies both to industry and trade, Dahle says. Instead of having open trade corridors between the West and Russia, internal trade systems are established within the country. Salve Dahle believes that the job of keeping the door to Russia open will be left at the hands of the education and research sector.
Education keeps the channel open
“What works now, is education and research, which is what Nord University does. Akvaplan-niva had several full-time staff in Russia a few years ago. Today, we have one. The education sector is funded through public means and can be used to keep an official channel open”, Dahle says and argues we just have to realize that cooperation does not work optimally the way things are now.
“This applies both to people-to-people cooperation, science and business. Restrictions are not good, and the obstacles to cooperation that we are currently witnessing are not about the people, but about what goes on on a higher level. These issues need to be solved both nationally as well as internationally”, Dahle says.
He argues that there must be a way around the sanctions and that we must find a way in which to cooperate.
“Which is what we have always wanted.”
That said, all is not gloomy. Russia has expressed a wish to increase cooperation through its holding the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for the next two years.
“They also want to speed up work on developing the Northern Sea Route, the sea route north of Siberia”, Dahle says.
The fact that the institutions support this often also means that this is what the nations want.
Cooperation to build relations
Director Frode Mellemvik of the High North Center also stresses the significance of education, research and knowledge development now that the relationship between Norway and Russia has grown more demanding.
“It is more important than ever. And we experience that this is a mutual thing; Russia is also focused on this cooperation. We have always focused on reciprocity in this cooperation, and on its being good for both Norway and Russia.”
“Its being institutionally anchored has also meant a lot for this cooperation. The fact that the institutions support this often also means that this is what the nations want. It is simply important for both Norway and Russia that such a cooperation exists”, he adds.
Places his trust in students
Mellemvik finds support from Russia’s Ambassador to Norway, Teimuraz O. Ramishvili, who attended the High North seminar digitally. The ambassador praised the work of the center and believes it will be up to future students to propose solutions for repairing the relationship between Norway and Russia. A relationship that is strained now, the Ambassador argues, even though great work in research and education is conducted on both sides.
“During the past two years, we have seen a deterioration of the economic development. Russian companies in Norway have experienced discrimination without explanation and the Norwegian-Russian Commission for Trade and Economy, which was reinstated a few years ago, has not convened in years. Probably because they do not have anything to talk about. The number of Russian students in Norway has dropped too since 2016, from some 2,000 to just under 700, says the critical Ambassador, adding that the number of Norwegian students in Russia currently is a meagre 50.
“However, I am well pleased that most of these students belong to the High North Center in Bodø. It goes to prove that Nord University tries to improve the situation as well as it can”, Ramishvili says.
He also criticizes the Norwegian government for not having any interest in cooperation with Russian business.
“Take the Northern Sea Route, for instance. Businesses come to us for counseling as they are interested in starting bilateral cooperation, but the Norwegian government is not interested. How are we to reach the Arctic Council goal about cooperation if we do not talk with one another despite the worries we have?”, the Ambassador asks.
Wants shared business
Felix H. Tschudi is owner and chair of the Tschudi Group, which in turn owns the Tschudi Shipping Company. The company has long experience in cross-border cooperation and the chairman says goods trade and business is the best way in which to keep the conversation going. And argues that shared business creates value on both sides of the border.
“Cooperation about business is simply important for Norway as a small country of a mighty neighbor, but also for Russia, as Norway is its western neighbor.”
The obstacles his company is currently facing are largely related to the sanctions following the annexation of the Crimea.
Infrastructure is the future
“After 2014, Russia has, understandably, focused on working out its own solutions. However, that makes our job more complicated as we, as a foreign company, is not prioritized”, Tschudi says.
He is clear about what should be done in the future:
“Infrastructure. Infrastructure is a catalyst of activity. There are major shortcomings on both the Norwegian as well as the Russian side. If you invest in infrastructure, you have a long-term view”, Tschudi says, mentioning that this includes ports, pipeline systems, electricity, energy, fiberoptic cables, as well as the Artic Railway.
“And of course the Northern Sea Route”, Tschudi says.
He also mentions opportunities for cooperation about resources for both export as well as internal consumption.
Must understand the Russian side
Salve Dahle of Akvaplan-niva says the joint resources the two neighbor countries currently hold are not exploited per today.
“We need an overall strategy for this, because this is the future for Norway too. Resource cooperation with Russia is a natural development for Norway. It is our back yard and we can refer to solid and close cooperation through generations”, Dahle says.
The exception is the Soviet period from 1920 to 1990. However, Dahle argues, Norway should understand the Russian side of this, that it has good reasons to hesitate.
“The leaders of the countries must sit down together like they did 15 years ago and talk together, make long-term plans. This simply has to happen, because there is a lot at stake”, Dahle says in closing.
Frode Mellemvik nevertheless believes there are great opportunities in further development of education and research cooperation between Russia and the West, despite difficult relations.
“Norway and Russia have so many shared interests. Both want sustainable development of the High North, and we are both affected by many of the same international trends, such as in oil and gas. There are many things for which we need to be good at developing knowledge together, and we are not much different from one another when it comes to our business foundations, in particular in the Arctic. There are many interests that coincide, and thus I am optimistic”, the Director of the High North Center says in closing.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.