Mayor of the North Norwegian border municipality Ørjan Jensen (Green Party), is calling for national guidelines to ensure a more uniform treatment of friendship city agreements. "The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs should take action," says Jensen, who believes Putin is now achieving exactly what he wants; division.
Russian friendship cities are this week's hot foreign policy topic in Norway.
Two weeks ago, a unanimous municipal council in Tromsø, North Norway decided to terminate the friendship city agreements with the Russian cities Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Nadym.
"It is important to point out that our friendship agreement is authority to authority. This sanction is not supposed to affect the people, but rather be a clear and succinct message to Putin that this war must be stopped," said Tromsø mayor Gunnar Wilhelmsen (Labour) to NRK.
In the wake of Tromsø municipality's decision, the issue of friendship city agreements has been debated in Norwegian media, at times in quite harsh terms.
The article continues below.
This way of conducting foreign policy benefits no one but Vladimir Putin believes mayor Ørjan Jensen (Green Party) in the North Norwegian municipality Vardø, close to the Russian border:
"It is unfortunate that each municipality is designing its own foreign policy, which we now see examples of. We believe that national guidelines to ensure a more uniform treatment of friendship city agreements would be the best solution," says Jensen to High North News.
Vardø municipality has followed the government's recommendation following the war in Ukraine and has frozen cooperation with Russia at an official level.
They have also asked the County Governor for clarification regarding any new instructions or wishes from the state, also concerning the friendship city agreements. So far, they have not received any guidance from the authorities.
"Only that Norwegian foreign policy is that all contact with official Russian authorities ceases," says the Vardø mayor.
In some ways, Putin is successful in creating division in the population.
"No guidelines have been provided on whether we should follow up or terminate the friendship city agreements, it has been up to us local authorities to follow up and decide on the fate of the agreements."
At the same time, the authorities have made it clear that people-to-people cooperation is to be continued, and a part of the basis for such cooperation lies in the friendship city agreements, believes Jensen.
"Now, each municipality creates its own foreign policy when we should be standing together. Thus, in some ways, Putin is successful in creating division in the population," says Jensen.
One does not have to look further than to the Sør-Varanger municipality council last Wednesday to find evidence of the division Jensen talks about.
During a question from Conservative politician Brede Sæther, accusations of Putin-loyal local politicians and gagging of the Police Chief in Finnmark came pouring in. Reactions were not long in coming and it all ended with a reprimand from Mayor Lena Norum Bergeng (Labour).
On the issue of friendship cities in Russia, there is disagreement also within the parties, and several have spoken out in the comment section of the Northern Norwegian newspapers Nordlys, Avisa Nordland, Fremover, and Sør-Varanger Avis. To mention some.
Do you think the government should have taken action sooner, given the debate in the media?
"Yes, they are too late. They should have said something on the matter and taken collective responsibility. Instead, the people are divided. The Northern Norwegian municipalities are important in Norwegian foreign policy and it is of great advantage that the state and municipality conduct a unified foreign policy."
We are keeping our cool.
Keeping our cool
Exactly because of the dramatic situation in Ukraine and the changing political climate, Vardø municipality has decided to keep its cool and wait and see. The issue of the friendship cities Arkhangelsk and Severomorsk will be discussed in the next chairmanship meeting.
Discussed, not treated.
"We will primarily discuss the friendship agreement with Arkhangelsk and the cooperation agreement with Severomorsk on supporting local organizations that engage in people-to-people cooperation. We will start a discussion based on that. We are not putting forward any recommendations, but want a debate first. The chairmanship will then decide whether it should be brought up in the city council."
The situation in Ukraine is so dramatic that it would be good if politicians, state, and municipalities stood side by side on this issue.
"We have not been the first to create our own foreign policy, but we have waited on the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, we were told to make decisions about friendship agreements on our own. So we are keeping our cool and we would rather have a factual discussion and not do anything rashly based on emotions," said Jensen.
Personally, he refrains from expressing opinions on the matter.
"I am not who should shape the foreign policy in Vardø," concludes the mayor of Vardø.
This article was originally published in Norway and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.