East-West Meets Far North

According to the worldview of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, the town of Kirkenes, Norway, is an illusion. To Mr. Putin, there is only east and west, two separate spheres split by a straight north-south line through Europe. But the place does actually exist: in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county, just a few miles away from the Russian border and farther east than Sweden, Finland and the Baltic countries.

In geopolitical terms, one can see incredible things here. Huge fishing vessels with Cyrillic nameplates unload tons of king crab and cod at Kirkenes harbor, destined for the European market. Farther down the road, at the shopping mall — labeled in Cyrillic — Russian families from across the border come to purchase yogurt, cheese, winter coats and perfumes. We are talking about, please note, NATO territory.

This isn’t just a result of a natural, free local economy; after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, people in the Arctic built an astonishingly well-functioning, cross-border neighborhood here. Fishing takes place on the basis of a bilateral quota system. Thanks to a regional trade deal, Russian customers bound for Kirkenes don’t need visas. As a result, more than half of the buyers in Kirkenes’s supermarkets, salespersons say, are Russians, boosting the economy of this 10,000-person town several times over. The latest and most promising common endeavor involves talks over the mutual exploitation of the oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Norwegians above the Arctic Circle are particularly nervous about the prospect of a new Cold War. Is there no way out? they ask. Many here argue that Mr. Putin is never going to give back Crimea to Ukraine anyway — so why should we maintain sanctions that will not only cripple Russia’s economy, but ours, too? It’s a question that has already started to travel farther south across Europe.

In an office overlooking the snowy hills surrounding Kirkenes Fjord, Arve Henriksen fears that the work of decades is at stake — all because of a quarrel in a faraway country. The 47-year-old self-made man started his career in 1991 with a simple but rewarding idea: delivering ice cream to neighboring Russian towns. Today, Mr. Henriksen owns a shipping agency that provides equipment and management for all kind of vessels calling at Kirkenes.

Russian trawlers are some of Mr. Henriksen’s best clients. So why does foreign policy have to destroy such a fantastic local success story? he asked. “We will be hit,” he said, nodding toward one of the town’s newly built piers. Recently, oil and drilling companies have become one of Mr. Henriksen’s biggest partners, but high-tech parts for this industry are now prohibited as exports, according to the European sanctions regime. “You know,” he said, “so many politicians have come up here and applauded this very special region. But they don’t take into consideration what their big politics mean for us.”

The bigger question is: If the local people in this region can cooperate, who is responsible for the idea that Russia and Europe can’t create win-win situations in other border regions, like Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova?

The journey from Kirkenes to the Russian port city of Murmansk takes three hours, but politically, the distance feels like three decades. Once the traveler leaves the “Lilyhammer” land of colored wooden houses, crossing the border checkpoint to the east, he finds himself in one of the world’s biggest nuclear gun rooms. The Kola Peninsula is home to the most important units of Russia’s Northern Fleet, among them nuclear submarines and Tupolev strategic bombers. It is a vast landscape of frozen lakes, hoarfrosted birches and a massive double fence, topped with barbed wire and modern surveillance cameras, running along the demarcation line for miles. The towns we pass en route are mostly army barracks — or look like them. Soldiers with fur hats trot down the streets in companies.

It was from this spot of land, NATO reported, that six long-range bombers took off in the past weeks to fly along the Norwegian coast and on toward Portugal. Tensions soared; NATO jets scrambled.

Ah, that’s nothing to worry about, said Olga Buch over a hot cup of tea in her office in Murmansk. The “geopolitical situation,” she believes, is only temporary. Ms. Buch needs to remain optimistic, for job reasons. She is director general of Murmanshelf, an association aimed at enhancing the exploration of oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea, an endeavor for which Moscow needs partners. Russia has the resources, the Norwegians have the know-how.

Ms. Buch says there is no way the sanctions the European Union has imposed against Russia — or Moscow’s countermeasures — will hurt the trust of and cooperation with their Norwegian neighbors. But that seems like wishful thinking. I also tried to meet political representatives from Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, but they declined to be interviewed.

One Western businessman in Murmansk told me that what really worried him was how Mr. Putin’s new efforts at self-assertion appear to have trickled down to many citizens here. Politics can change people, he warned, and said there clearly was a growing anti-Western climate. He said it would take the pen stroke of just one bureaucrat with a neo-nationalistic mind-set to chase him and his company out of the country.

The hard truth for the people of Finnmark is that the future of their little wonderland does not lie in the hands of European politicians; it is up to Mr. Putin. The West will not and should not back down from the sanctions as long as Mr. Putin violates international law. The reason both sides suffer is that the Kremlin pursues a you-lose-I-win-philosophy instead of enhancing win-win situations, whether in Kiev or Kirkenes.

Perhaps the Russian president should come and see this friendly place. After my visit I recalled the famous words of Ernst Reuter, one of the first mayors of postwar Berlin. In 1948, as the Soviets tightened their blockade around the city, he urged the world: “Schaut auf diese Stadt!” — “Look at this city!” Before you plan your next step, Mr. Putin, look to Kirkenes.

Jochen Bittner is the political editor of Die Zeit.

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