In this corner of Norway’s far north, only five miles from the border with Russia, road signs give directions in Norwegian and Russian. Locals are used to moving from one country to another without a visa: Norwegians are used to subsisting on cheap Russian gasoline; The Russians will attack the Norwegian mall.
A few years ago, those cross-border ties prompted Terje Jørgensen, director of the Norwegian port of Kirkenes, to propose closer ties with the Russian port of Murmansk to build on growing interest in cross-Arctic shipping routes to Asia. adds up. Western Europe. He wanted to develop joint standards for stability and easy transportation between the two ports.
But then-President Vladimir V. Putin sent his troops to march into Ukraine, stalling the entire project.
“It could have been developed into something,” Mr. Jorgensen said of his initial discussions with the Russians. “But then the war came and we scrapped the whole thing.”
The war may be more than a thousand miles to the south, but it has created a chasm in this part of the world that used to pride itself as a place where Westerners and Russians could mix together. Over the past year, trade, cultural and environmental ties have cooled as borders tightened, part of efforts to punish Moscow for its brutal war in Ukraine.
In Kirkenes, a city of 3,500 built around a small port, security fears have upended a business model focused on cross-border ties.
On a recent weekday, no shoppers braved the cool June breeze in the small town. In a nearby mall, older Norwegians shopped at the pharmacy, while a lone tourist from Germany looked for rain gear.
Some chain stores, which moved here to sell their wares to Russians eager for Western brands and equipment, have warned they may pull out of Kirkenes, said Niels Roin, head of the regional chamber of commerce. This will further weaken the retail sector, which has seen its revenue fall by 30 percent since the start of the war.
‘Turning to Russia’ was an economic strategy
The growing alienation between the two countries is a rebuke to Norway’s policy, which was created in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to encourage business leaders to look east. Two shopping centers opened immediately to serve Russians looking for Western clothing, gifts, disposable diapers and alcohol.
“It was a local, regional and national strategy to shift the focus towards Russia,” Mr Roin said.
In 2019 more than 266,000 people from Russia crossed the nearest border station into Norway; Last year, that number fell by more than 75 percent. Cross-border hockey games and wrestling matches between students have stopped, and arctic councilA multinational platform promoting cooperative enterprises in the region has been disrupted.
At the same time, Russian can still be heard in the streets, and Russian fishermen, who are drawn by cod and other species to the nearby waters, are allowed to dock at the port, although they are no longer allowed into shops and restaurants. Is. Kirkenes and two other Norwegian port cities and their ships are being searched by police.
For decades, the vast abundance of cod in the Barents Sea – one of the world’s last surviving fisheries – has attracted people and businesses from both countries to this Arctic Circle community. According to government figures, Norwegian fishermen alone will catch fish worth $2.6 billion in 2022. Kirkenes’ most important industrial employer is Kimek, a shipbuilding company that has prospered by repairing commercial fishing boats, especially Russian boats known as trawlers.
echo of war
A shared interest in maintaining cod stocks led to a unique bilateral agreement during the Cold War. Cod spawn in Russian waters but then reach adult size in Norwegian waters. Russian fishermen are allowed to catch their quota of cod in Norwegian waters in exchange for not catching young cod in their national waters.
“The main fish stocks move within the regions of both countries,” said Anne-Kristin Jørgensen, a researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute who focuses on international environment, energy and resource management.
Ms Jorgensen said: “If Norway and Russia want to continue to catch the fish, they will have to cooperate with their management.” “Both sides know it’s necessary.”
But that agreement is in jeopardy. Last year, Oslo limited Russian trawlers’ access to only Kirkenes and two other ports. And this spring, as fears grew that the Russians, under the guise of fishing, could damage critical infrastructure like subsea cables, Norwegian authorities clamped down on services that could get them into port. Now only essentials like refueling, food and emergency repairs are allowed.
This caused an earthquake in the shipyards of Kimec, the largest industrial employer in the region. Its tall buildings are visible almost everywhere in the city.
In June, the boat repair company said it had to lay off 15 people because of the restrictions.
Kimec chief executive Gregor Manswerk said in a statement announcing the layoffs, “I am concerned for all of you talented employees and family members, but also about how society here will be in a few years.” Will see.” “I hear that many other businesses here are seeing a drop in business and turnover, and they are also looking at measures to reduce expenses.”
‘We have seen a lot of changing politics here’
Mr Manswerk, who declined a request to be interviewed, is not the only official concerned about the future of the sector.
,“We are facing a very dramatic situation here,” said Bjorn Johansson, regional head of Norway’s influential labor union LO. He cited several crises faced by the region, including the loss of jobs due to the closure of an iron ore mine in 2015 and the coronavirus pandemic. “And now,” he continued, “the door to Russia is closed for many, many, many years.”
Some businesses have broken ties with Russia and are working to expand further east, away from the giant neighbor. One of them is Burrell, a manufacturer of specialized electronics used in offshore vessels and aircraft, founded 30 years ago in Kirkenes. After closing its plant in Murmansk following the Russian invasion, it aims to expand production to Norway. The company is proud of its location near the Barents, selling it as a unique asset, but finding workers has been a challenge.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Burrell brought in Russian workers who were willing to relocate across the border, but Bard Gemnes, the company’s chief executive, said it still needed another 15 workers to reach the target of 50.
“We are trying to target coastal areas where work in fisheries is decreasing and showing them that even though we are a high-tech business, everything we do is really manual labor,” Mr. Gammons said in an interview in Burrell’s boardroom, atop the company’s shop floor.
Kenneth Sandmo, head of business and industry policy at the LO union, explained that such skilled labor jobs were essential to maintaining a stable local economy. Tourism jobs, which are often seasonal and pay less, have less impact, he said.
“If you have 80 people working in the industry, that would create an additional 300 jobs in the community,” Mr Sandmo said. “You don’t get that in tourism..”
Nevertheless, the Snowhotel in Kirkenes entices guests to sleep in its elaborately decorated igloo-like rooms all year round – the hotel recommends wearing long underwear even during high summer – and the Hurtigruten cruise ship makes its way up the coast of Norway during its voyages. Drop off passengers in Kirkenes as the last stop. ,
The founder of the tour company, Barents Safaris, Hans Hetley spent years as a military officer training guards to guard Norway’s border with the Soviet Union. He now takes tourists by boat to the same range, and recounts the role the Russians and Finns played in the area.
“We’ve had a lot of changing politics here,” he said, standing atop a cliff on the edge of Western Europe. Rising temperatures are causing popular destinations in Spain and Italy to become unseasonably hot, he believes. Kirkenes has a bright future in form.
“We have to keep thinking in new ways,” Mr Hateley said. “But I believe we will make it.”