How a Distant War Is Threatening Livelihoods in the Arctic Circle

In this corner of Norway’s far north, just eight miles from the Russian border, road signs provide directions in Norwegian and Russian. Locals are accustomed to crossing from one country to another without a visa. Norwegians refuel with cheap Russian gasoline. Russians hit the Norwegian malls.

A few years ago, these cross-border connections inspired Terje Jorgensen, port manager of the Norwegian port of Kirkenes, to establish close ties with the Russian port of Murmansk, given the growing interest in trans-Arctic routes between Asia and Asia. proposed a relationship. Western Europe. Sustainability and he wanted to develop joint standards to facilitate transportation between the two ports.

But then President Vladimir V. Putin marched troops into Ukraine and the whole plan came to a halt.

“It could have turned into something,” Jorgensen said of preliminary talks with Russia. “But then the war happened and we deleted everything.”

The war may be over a thousand miles south, but it created a rift in this part of the world that prided itself as a place where Westerners and Russians could get along. Last year, borders were strengthened and business, cultural and environmental ties were frozen as part of efforts to punish Russia for its brutal war in Ukraine.

In Kirkenes, a town of 3,500 people built around a small port, security concerns are upending a business model focused on cross-border connectivity.

On a recent weekday, no shoppers in this small downtown could withstand the cold June winds. At a nearby mall, an elderly Norwegian shopped at a pharmacy while a lone German tourist searched for rain gear.

Regional Chamber of Commerce president Niels Royne warned that some chains could leave Kirkenes, partly to sell to Russians who are keen on Western brands and electronics. there is That would further weaken the retail industry, which has seen revenues drop by 30% since the start of the war.

The widening gulf between the two countries is an attack on Norwegian policies introduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s to encourage business leaders to look east. Two shopping centers soon sprung up to serve Russians seeking Western clothing, gifts, diapers, and alcohol.

“It was a local, regional and national strategy to focus on turning to Russia,” Royne said.

In 2019, more than 266,000 Russians entered Norway across the nearby border station. Last year, that number he dropped by more than 75%. Cross-border hockey and wrestling matches between students have been suspended. Arctic CouncilA multinational forum promoting cooperation in the region was suspended.

At the same time, Russian can still be heard in the streets, and Russian fishermen, drawn to the nearby waters by cod and other fish, are allowed to anchor in the harbor, but not the shops and restaurants in the city. is no longer allowed to visit Kirkenes and two other Norwegian port cities and their ships are being searched by police.

For decades, the vast quantities of cod in the Barents Sea have been home to one of the world’s last remaining fish stocks, drawing people and businesses from both countries to this Arctic community. Norwegian fishermen alone landed $2.6 billion worth of fish in 2022, according to government figures. Kirkenes’ most important industrial employer was Kimek, a shipbuilding company that thrived on repairing commercial fishing vessels known as trawlers, especially Russian fishing vessels.

The common interest in preserving cod stocks led to unique bilateral agreements during the Cold War. Cod tend to spawn in Russian waters, but reach adult size in Norwegian waters. Russian fishermen are allowed to catch cod quotas in Norwegian waters in return for not catching cod juveniles in their own waters.

“Major fish stocks migrate beyond the waters of both countries,” said Anne Christine Jorgensen, a researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, which focuses on international environment, energy and resource management. talk.

“Norway and Russia need to work together if they want to continue fishing,” Jorgensen said. “We both know this is necessary.”

But even that agreement is becoming strained. Oslo last year restricted Russian trawlers to Kirkenes and two other ports. And this spring, Norwegian authorities cracked down on services available to Russians at the port amid growing concerns that Russians could sabotage critical infrastructure such as undersea cables under the guise of fishing. Currently only essential items such as fuel, food and first aid repairs are allowed.

This rocked the shipyards of Kimek, the region’s largest industrial employer. Its towering buildings can be seen almost everywhere in town.

The boat repair company said in June it had laid off 15 people due to regulations.

In a statement announcing the layoffs, Kimek’s chief executive, Greger Mansberg, said in a statement, “Not just about your talented employees and families, but about what our society will look like in a few years. I am worried,” he said. “We hear that many other businesses here are also noticing a decline in trade and sales, and are also considering cost-cutting measures.”

Mansberg, who declined an interview request, is not the only official concerned about the region’s future.

We are facing a very dramatic situation here,” said Björn Johansen, regional head of Norway’s influential trade union LO. He referred to a number of crises facing the region, including job losses due to the closure of iron ore mines in 2015 and the coronavirus pandemic. “And now the door to Russia has been closed for years and years,” he added.

Some companies have cut ties with Russia and are looking to expand their operations away from their huge eastern neighbors. He is one of them, Barel, a manufacturer of specialized electronics used in marine vessels and aircraft founded in Kirkenes 30 years ago. After closing its Murmansk plant in the wake of the Russian invasion, it is looking to expand production in Norway. The company is proud of its location near the Barents River and markets it as a unique property, but finding workers is a challenge.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Burrell brought in Russian workers willing to migrate across the border, but the company’s Byrd said it needed 15 more workers to reach its 50-person target. Gumness CEO said.

“We target coastal areas where fishing jobs are declining and they realize that even though we are a tech company, a lot of what we do is actually manual labor. I’m trying to show it to the world,” Gumness said in an interview. Barel’s boardroom, above the company’s work floor.

Kenneth Sandmo, head of trade and industrial policy for the LO union, said hiring these skilled workers is essential to maintaining a stable local economy. He said tourism jobs are less affected because they are often seasonal and have lower wages.

“If 80 people are working in the industry, there will be 300 more jobs in the community,” Sandomo said. “There is no such thing in the tourism industry.”

Still, Kirkenes’ Snowhotel tempts guests year-round to stay in elaborately decorated rooms resembling igloos, and the hotel encourages long underwear even in high summer. Hurtigruten’s cruise ships drop travelers off in Kirkenes as the final destination of their trip on the Norwegian coast. .

Hans Hatl, founder of the travel company Barents Safaris, spent years as an army officer training security guards to protect the Norwegian border with the Soviet Union. He now guides tourists by boat to the same border, recounting the role of Russians and Finns in the region.

“Politics have changed a lot here,” he said, standing on a rock on the edge of Western Europe. With rising temperatures making popular destinations in Spain and Italy unseasonably hot, he is confident Kirkenes has a bright future as a tourist destination.

“We have to keep thinking in new ways,” said Heitl. “But we are confident that we will succeed.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button