The party programs of the Socialist Left Party and the agrarian Center Party are unusually thin when it comes to one of the heart matters of Labor Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre; the Arctic policy.
And while initial government negotiations are ongoing between the three aforementioned parties, Russia is holding its perhaps largest military exercise since the Cold War. According to the Norwegian Joint Operational Headquarters, the Zapad 2021 exercise takes place further east and west than before.
The new normal
Melting ocean ice allows the exercise to also take place in areas in which no surface vessel has ever been before. Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen says to NRK that “we have seen increased Russian assertion in the High North and increased Russian military activity in Norway’s immediate neighborhood”.
He could have said pretty much the same about the military activity on the western side.
Large, expanding military drills on both sides are becoming the new normal in the High North.
During the recent election campaign in Norway, this nevertheless appeared to be almost a no-go issue.
Increased military activity in the north is becoming the new normal.
When the current government was more or less wiped out of the three northern election districts, that does not have much to do with security politics, in other words. Only two out of the 20 newly elected MP’s from the High North come from the government parties. That is a grassroot rebellion that hits the current government smack in the middle of its regional and Arctic policy.
Irresistible for the northerners
The Labor Party has regained its position as a lead party in the Arctic. Even on election night four years ago, party leader Jonas Gahr Støre admitted that Labor had failed in its Arctic policy and promised that it would not happen again. He has kept that promise.
The agrarian Center Party has poured out its regional politics. The High North barely exists as a term in the party’s program. Its policy is largely about reversing reforms, combined with an increased outtake of resources from the state’s treasury chest.
In sum, irresistible for the North Norwegian electorate.
Increased spending and reversing ongoing reforms aside, the question of how the election outcome will affect Norwegian security politics and Arctic policy – as well as our relationship with both the USA and Russia in the High North – remains open.
If one considers politics as an outcome of party programs, Labor is to govern with one or two parties who in their programs have stated that they want to withdraw Norway from the EEA agreement and in addition, the Socialist Left Part wants to leave NATO and to send US troops on Norwegian soil packing.
However, politics is not mathematics and none of these trade and security policy issues will be emphasized in the new government platform-to-be, despite their significance.
The relationship with Russia
Thus remains the question about whether or not a change of government will carry any significance for Norway’s relationship with Russia, also in light of the ongoing military exercise.
Party programs do not help us much
Party programs do not help us much here either.
Sanctions combined with the pandemic places Norway’s relationship with Russia to the test – again. Despite continued, if significantly reduced, cooperation about research and education, all business and military cooperation between Norway and Russia has come to a halt.
Everyone is worried
The answer from Labor, the Socialist Left and the Center Party is more dialogue with Russia. They do not say what the dialogue should be about, nor how it is to start or on what level it should take place.
None of the parties come anywhere near questioning the sanctions regime, yet they are all deeply worried about the development in the North, and also about our relationship with Russia.
They have every reason to be, not least after an election campaign during which such questions were more or less absent.
I am therefore far more curious about who will govern the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and that of Defense than of who will try to deliver on all the regional policy promises through work in the relevant sector ministries.
As incoming prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre has broad foreign policy experience and on his shift, Norway will assume leadership of the Arctic Council after Russia, two years from now.
Perhaps that will contribute to more prioritizing of much needed cooperation between Norway and Russia.
This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.