A 100 years of breaking the ice in Russia’s Arctic capital

The Arctic is often referred to as a territory of dialogue, immune to changes in the international political environment and especially East-West tensions. But how did this happen? A place of eternal sunshine in the summer and somber darkness in the winter, Murmansk is situated on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. It is by far the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, home to almost 300,000 people, several diplomatic missions, and an ice-free port situated in the heart of the Barents region.

In October 2016, Murmansk celebrated its 100th anniversary—still a young city, and still thriving. “Murman” is an older Russian term meaning “Norwegian.” This connection to Norway is still important to the residents of this Arctic hub. As a gateway to the West, paved through the High North, Murmansk holds a distinct position: the capital of an open meeting place for many actors with high expectations. This brief article showcases how this meeting place came about, and the window of opportunity it has created. A product of its history, the Barents region now has the capacity to seize opportunities in tourism, environmentalism and trade in the post-Crimean geopolitical climate. In doing so, it can strengthen the relationship with the Russian Arctic.

Murmansk and the Barents region on the global stage

In the early international discourse on Arctic governance, Murmansk and the Barents region languished in the shadows. Yet, this close relationship emerged from shared interests, and the ambitions of an integrated region. For Northern Norway and Finland, the relationship to Russia has always played a key role in local governance, culture, sports, tourism, and economic growth—and vice versa. Post-Crimea, this cooperation has now found its way into the national discourse: High North and low tension. Regional cooperation with Russia is now a key foreign policy priority for both countries.

People in the Barents Region enjoy more lenient visa regulations and interact with their international neighbors on many levels. In February, border crossings between Norway and Russia increased by 18. 3% compared to the same month in 2016, after a significant decline in crossings since 2014. The Barents region also attracts thousands of investors, politicians, students, and researchers to international conferences every year. Since 1993, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat has realized more than 4000 Norwegian-Russian cooperation projects.  A review from the Russian side confirms that Russia’s involvement in the Barents cooperation has provided access to Nordic cooperative principles, which is seen as positive.  Post-Crimea, this regional cooperation scheme has persisted despite growing East-West tensions. Since 2014, new agreements have been signed in the fields of health cooperation, borderland development and seismic research. Undoubtedly, the ambitious Barents project has contributed to peaceful developments in the European North.

The intricacies of the Barents relationship became evident in late 2015 with the emergence of an “Arctic refugee route.” The unexpected wave of refugees and migrants traveling through Murmansk and Nikel to apply for refugee status in Norway strained local authorities, and required delicate cooperation. By using the institutional mechanisms in place, Norwegian and Russian authorities agreed to jointly address the situation, which was in the interest of both countries. The consequence was an unprecedented attention of the region on the global stage, showing its interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Secondly, it initiated a controversial and ideological immigration debate within national borders in Norway, Finland and Russia. Thirdly, it revealed defects and loopholes in immigration regulations, and tested the region’s ability to handle a large influx of people. Most importantly, because it involved input from both local and national authorities, it showcased the value of establishing networks with the Russian Arctic.

Breaking the ice in 2017

The Barents meeting place has withstood the worst post-Crimea tensions. As a result, it receives growing attention both nationally and globally. But this has also created a political debate dividing the High North and the rest. Most Norwegians south of the Arctic Circle have no relationship with neighboring Russia, and the High North feels far away. This was evident when Oslo decided to build a steel fence against the Russian border—causing disbelief with Norwegians living close to the border. Such unpopular decisions are driving people and politicians in the North to disapprove of the current foreign policies towards Russia. The Barents region must not settle for this divide, nor fall into the trap of complacency. We are hearing concerns about the Arctic drowning in global international conflicts such as Syria, Brexit, a weakened EU and the refugee crisis. Therefore, it is more important than ever that the Barents region refrains from resting on the achievements of the past. Rather, it should use its unique vantage point to advance the dialogue with Russia to the next level. Shared management of fish stocks, the 2010 maritime delimitation treaty in the Barents Sea, and people-to-people projects are milestones indeed. But they are milestones of the past.

On 29 March, Norwegian engagement in the Russian Arctic set a new milestone with the first high-level political meeting breaking the ice since 2014. Symbolically, Lavrov and Brende, the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Norway respectively, met for bilateral talks at a conference in Arkhangelsk called “Arctic – Territory of Dialogue.” The expectations prior to this bilateral meeting were high, and a glimpse of optimism of a closer dialogue on the national level followed. Several meetings with representatives from Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and Iceland also took place. But more important is the timing of the conference: set at a time when Norway-Russia relations are at an all-time low and East-West tensions higher than in a long time. Nonetheless, the commitment to international cooperation in the Arctic region was confirmed. The conference was prestigious and of high importance to Russia: attended by 1500 participants, including President Vladimir Putin. Again, the Russian Arctic was the place of relief at a crucial time, a relief from the bigger questions that remain unanswered; the situation in Syria, Ukraine and the EU’s economic sanctions on Russia.

As these challenges surface globally, the Barents region is in a position that is rife with opportunities: in tourism, maritime industries, and environmental protection. But how can these opportunities be seized? A first step would be to communicate an understanding of this historical relationship beyond the Barents arena, and to utilize the attention the region has achieved, while continuing to fill the vacuum with dialogue and balancing of respective interests – which was illustrated at the conference in Arkhangelsk. By emphasizing and relying on established networks, these mutual interests were used as examples for why the window of dialogue must continue. Even though the Barents cooperation framework is cited as a success story, it has also become less symbolic. In recent years, it has become more of a political instrument than anyone could have foreseen when the declaration was signed in 1993. Perhaps such a political role was unavoidable post-Crimea, but the region has proved capable of taking on this role. Certainly, it can be a model for communities across the circumpolar world; a model of an unlikely friendship pacing forward in the most challenging of times.