Kirkenes (High North News): It became a battle of the wreaths on Wednesday, when Kirkenes commemorated the liberation of Eastern Finnmark on October 25, 1944. Shortly after Mayor Magnus Mæland (Conservatives) had laid down a wreath in Ukrainian colors by the monument, the Russian consul laid his wreath in front of the Norwegian one.
It all started at the Liberation Monument in Kirkenes on Wednesday morning at 8.30. With mainly press people present, the newly elected mayor of Sør-Varanger municipality in Northern Norway, Magnus Mæland (Conservatives), laid down a wreath without giving a speech.
About two hours later, at 11, the Russian consul Nikolay Konygin showed up at the monument. The visit had not been announced beforehand. After a short speech in Russian, he chose to lay down a larger wreath in front of the Norwegian one.
This, in turn, led to a full call-out from the mayor's office. In a somewhat heated dispute with an anonymous Russian woman, Mayor Mæland demanded that the Russian wreath be placed next to the monument, not on top of the Norwegian one, as Nikolay Konygin had chosen to do.
Reluctantly, the Russian wreath was moved.
Before Wednesday's commemoration, there had been a partly heated debate in Kirkenes about how the day should be marked. Under normal circumstances, the memorial gathers a large audience.
In connection with the 50th anniversary of the liberation, King Harald laid down a wreath together with the Russian MFA Andrei Kosyrev. On the 75th anniversary, both the Norwegian, Ine Eriksen Søreide, and the Russian MFA, Sergey Lavrov, were present.
This year, official Russia was banned due to the war in Ukraine.
Mayor Magnus Mæland has had to endure partly harsh criticism locally this year because he chose to place the main commemoration of Liberation Day at another monument, the War Mothers' Monument, a monument erected in honor of those who bore the burdens during the war.
Difficult to maneuver
Mayor Mæland tells High North News that it has been difficult to maneuver in this landscape.
"We know that this monument has been used in propaganda by the Putin regime. But I want to show respect for the sacrifices the Russians made for our peace and freedom. And I wanted to deal with the monument policy. Therefore, I would rather give a speech at the War Mothers Monument."
Deal with monument policy
Do you perceive this Liberation Monument as part of Russian propaganda?
"We must be more observant that the Putin regime has used monuments like this."
But this is a monument erected by the Norwegian side as thanks for the liberation?
"It is, but I have chosen to divide it to focus on the civilian population and deal with the monument policy."
What do you think about the fact that mainly press people, not local people, turned up at this event?
"This happened very quickly. When I became mayor, there were no plans for a commemoration."
Surely it is up to the municipality to decide which commemoration it wants?
"Since no preparations had been made on the part of the administration, I tried to reflect on how this should be done and how we were to arrive at a good solution," says Mæland.
"I tried to do my best in a landscape that no other mayor has to maneuver in."
Is there a united municipal council behind the decision to add the main commemoration to another place?
"No, it is a decision I made in the end. How next year's 80th anniversary will be, I do not know."
When I read the local newspapers, I see many are critical of how you solved this?
"I understand that, and I want a debate about it. Last year, there was no commemoration. The municipal council must decide how this will be marked in the future, and I would like a debate about this. And I am open to the fact that what I do is divided. We must show respect for the victims of The Red Army, and I want to deal with the monument policy."
As a resident of Kirkenes – what is your relationship with Russia?
"For us, it is sad. I carry a municipal coat of arms with three flags on it (meeting of three kingdoms, Norway, Finland, Russia, editor's note), and we have a history with Russia that we should also be proud of. We will always have a relationship with Russia on a civil level. But politically, the relationship is gone," says Mayor Magnus Mæland.