The Kirkenes Conference One Year Later: Increased Attention and Greater Relevance

Teimuraz Ramishvili og Anniken Huitfeldt hilser på Kirkeneskonferansen 2022.
Russian Ambassador to Norway, Teimuraz Ramushvili, and Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anniken Huitfeldt (Labor), greeted each other briefly during the Kirkenes Conference on the 23rd of February 2022. The next day, Norway was the neighbor of a country at war. (Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk/the Norwegian Barents Secretariat)

After the Kirkenes Conference in 2022, its management was met with questions about the basis for future conferences, which have border-crossing cooperation in the Barents region as its purpose. "On the contrary, we experience increased attention and a greater relevance," says the the Program Committee Leader Guro Brandshaug.

For a long time, it was uncertain if this year's Kirkenes Conference could go ahead as planned on the eve of a pandemic almost a year ago.

However, with last-minute moderation of COVID policy measures by the Norwegian government, the Conference Program Committee Leader Guro Brandshaug could say welcome to a long-awaited and important meeting place in the border city Kirkenes on the 23rd and 34th of February, in a somewhat normal format, with industry in the north, cooperation, and geopolitics on the agenda.

However, the conference would be anything but normal. When the city's people woke up on day two of the conference, a neighboring country was at war. That changed everything.

Mayor Lena Norum Bergeng (Labor) in Sør-Varanger municipality, took the stage and was among the first to condemn the war, while simultaneously embracing our neighboring people. 

"The Russian people are our neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues," said Bergeng in an emotional speech.

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Last week, the Kirkenes Conference opened registration for 2023, and the program clearly bears the stamp of the year that has passed. Among other things, the conference is opened by the Arctic Philharmonic, with the participation of soloists from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

The conference management had many discussions before the launch of the program. 

"After the Kirkenes Conference 2022, questions were raised about the basis for future conferences, conferences with the purpose of promoting border-crossing cooperation in the Barents region," says Brandshaug to High North News.

But time has passed since the 24th of February and the management has rather experienced increased attention and a greater relevance, as well as a great need to highlight the development in this border region at the present time. 

Without Russia

The program is also completely without official Russian participation for the first time and explores the possibilities for future cooperation with Russia, while simultaneously debating the strengthened Nordic defense alliance. 

Guro Brandshaug.
Leader of the Kirkenes Conference, Guro Brandshaug. (Photo: Trine Jonassen)

The form and content of the conference will nevertheless follow the same structure as previous years, where topics and starting points for dialogue and discussion deal with issues the region currently faces.

"Our relationship with Russia will be debated and illuminated both from a political and a security-related perspective, while we concurrently will lift the oppositional Russian voices for questions such as: Is there hope for peace? And in which direction do they think future Russia will go?" says Brandshaug. 

Exiled Russians

The conference will also focus on the Barents region's developmental features and opportunities for stronger Nordic cooperation.

"At the same time, we have some major challenges we must solve on the road from possibility to reality, something that will be highlighted through a wide range of knowledgeable and engaging debaters. All in all, we believe it will be a balanced and topical conference that will highlight the Barents region with many perspectives for the road ahead."

The conference has invited exiled Russians to tell the story of their fight for justice and freedom, and the Russian political activist Alexei Anatolievich Navalny has confirmed through his lawyer that he is participating together with several voices from behind the iron curtain:

  • Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, a Russian journalist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
  • Svetlana Alekseevna Gannushkina, Russian mathematician and human rights activist. She was awarded the Norwegian Helsinki Committee Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award in 2007.
  • Boris Bondarev, former Russian UN diplomat.
  • Evgeny Goman, producer for Pikene på broen.

Illuminates the hope

How does the war affect the program?

"The war absolutely puts its mark on it. The conference will clearly highlight how we politically relate to Russia today, how the security policy situation has changed, and what that includes in terms of strengthened military presence and cooperation in the North," says Brandshaug.

Furthermore, the management believes it is right and important to also illuminate the hope and opportunities for peace, and this will, among other things, be promoted through the Russian oppositional voice who represents precisely this hope."

The response has been very good.
Guro Brandshaug, the Kirkenes Conference.

"We are therefore both humble and grateful that both last year's and this year's Russian peace prize winners have agreed to participate."

Show resistance

At the same time, Brandshaug believes that it is important to use the Kirkenes Conference to show opposition to the war and the bestial injustice which is affecting the Ukrainian people on a daily basis.

"We do this through a musical feature and the solidarity concert with the Arctic Philharmonic together with the three former musicians from the Kyiv soloists, among other things."

What has the response been from the speakers you have invited?

"The response has been very good. The conference in February 2022 was very special and that has led to increased attention and interest in participating in the Kirkenes Conference now in March. We appreciate that very much and that provides us with much meaning and motivation in the work of m making the conference as good and relevant as possible," Guro Brandshaug concludes.

Read more about the Kirkenes Conference here.

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