Review of the Achievements of the Barents Cooperation

Ari SirénHead of the International Barents Secretariat

Next January, 20 years will have passed since the signing of the Kirkenes Declaration on the establishment of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC). Norway, the present Chair of the BEAC, intends to issue a new declaration, Kirkenes II, aimed at complementing but not replacing the first one. The new declaration is supposed to deal with the work of the Council over the first 20-year period and to take a look at the future. Therefore it is appropriate to review the achievements of the Barents Cooperation.

The member states - Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden - have succeeded quite well in networking within the Barents Cooperation. The BEAC is a Foreign Minister forum but line ministers can also hold their meetings. There is a two-tier structure which consists of a governmental and a regional level what is a special feature of the Barents Cooperation. The emphasis of the Barents Cooperation has become fairly stable in certain areas of activity, such as environment, health, transport, youth, and culture. The development of living conditions and status of the indigenous peoples (Sami, Nenets and Veps) are of particular importance. In recent years, attention has been paid to climate change, transport connections, and mining projects in the Barents Cooperation, and presumably this will be the case in the near future. Financial issues are expected to remain topical.

Since the 1990’s the number of working groups has considerably increased – now totaling 15. The joining of governmental and regional working groups has clearly become a trend. In this regard the situation needs to be assessed continuously. The working groups on health/social affairs and environment have proved to be effective. Courage is needed to merge or scrap ineffective ones. It is imperative to achieve tangible results that are still too few at the present moment.

Obviously the Barents Cooperation has succeeded well in establishing contacts and links between the region’s inhabitants across borders. A good example is the recent Russo-Norwegian visa-free arrangement for both states’ nationals who may now cross Russian and Norwegian borders in the High North and stay for up to 90 days per visit within a 30 km-wide zone on both sides. It is regrettable that such sparsely populated areas within the Barents region have not enabled commercially profitable transport connections running in an East-West direction, which would have been conducive to economic and human networking. Perhaps direct train service between Finland and Karelia can be brought about as through a recent Russian initiative.

There is no doubt that economic cooperation within the Barents region has not lived up to expectations as a boom in oil and gas exploitation from the Barents Sea bed draws on. The Maritime Delimitation Agreement, reached by Norway and Russia in 2010, had removed an obstacle to oil and gas offshore production by eliminating the so-called ‘‘grey zone’’ of the Barents Sea. However, sea areas are still not covered by the Barents Cooperation and this might not change. The most significant sea-related issue in the Barents Cooperation is the Northern Sea Route used increasingly by commercial shipping, which is advocated by Russia in particular, not least because of considerable revenues from shipping fees.

It is apparently of interest to ponder how Russia views the Barents Cooperation and how the country behaves in this forum. According to a recent Russian assessment, the Barents Cooperation has provided the country access to Nordic cooperative principles which are deemed as very positive. Nonetheless, the potential of the Barents Cooperation has not yet been fully exploited.

During the last years the worst problem to have occurred has been an absence of Russian governors at Barents Regional Council meetings. The lack of commitment on behalf of Russian regions has also been a cause for concern. There has been speculation whether the reason behind this is due to disappointment by Russians in regard to a limited amount of tangible results from the Barents Cooperation; or if this is due to an unwillingness to allow Moscow to believe that the governors are pursuing a foreign policy of their own. It should also be noted that as a result of the 1991-2000 provisions of the Constitution of the Russian Republics of Karelia and Komi, external affairs were tightened in order to eliminate a threat to the unity of the Russian Federation. In accordance with the Agreement on the Federation of 1992, the Russian capital and the regions were equal and independent in their external economic dealings.

In terms of energy resources, the Barents region is by far the most important region in Europe. Norway and Russia are competitors in the energy industry. Norway’s affluence due to its oil and gas reserves is a considerable benefit to the Barents Cooperation, which is construed by Norwegians as somewhat of a bilateral forum with Russia. Energy cooperation conducted mainly by Gazprom, Rosneft, and Statoil, also affects other partners within the Barents Cooperation – e.g. in the fields of oil drilling and shipbuilding technology. Norway’s enthusiasm for the Barents Cooperation can partly be explained by the fact that Norway started its real cooperation with Russia only after the end of the Cold War. Finland, Norway, and Sweden act positively together in cooperation with Russia and their views rarely conflict.

A remarkable achievement has been the database compiled by the Working Group on Environment in cooperation with the Arctic Council, based on the so-called ‘‘hot spots’’ of environmental pollution and hazards in Northwest Russia, with a view to their elimination. The Nordic Environment Finance Corporation (Nefco) has played a pivotal role in this matter. There is a plan to employ a special hot spots adviser to maintain this database at the International Barents Secretariat.

The International Barents Secretariat (IBS) provides administrative support to the Barents Cooperation and secures the continuity of work as the chairmanship rotates every two years in the Council. Moreover, the IBS disseminates Barents-related information and maintains a website (www.beac.st) with public access. General awareness about the Barents Cooperation is also raised by the Barents Observer, an online regional news site, which covers a wide range of Barents-related issues.

The significance of the European Union for financing Barents projects is considerable. The relationship of the EU with Russia has not been easy. In 2006 the Northern Dimension (ND) was “reset” to focus on Northwest Russia and improved the development of their common relations, although Russia’s role as the main supplier of energy to the EU remained the same. Russia cannot stomach the EU’s way of thinking about a centre and periphery of Europe because Russia does not consider itself a fringe area. A compromise is needed between EU strategies and Russian legislation. According to a Russian estimate, there are already too many actors within regional cooperation reflected across cross-border cooperation, in terms of overlap, distribution of resources, and arduous project management. Since the beginning of the millennium, Russia’s attitude to developing cooperation with regional organisations in Europe has become more cautious.

Apart from the Barents Euro-Arctic Council there is also the Council of the Baltic Sea States, the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Arctic Council, as well as the Northern Dimension. The synergies of these “sister councils” have recently been discussed quite a bit. Coinciding chairmanships and a theme-based emphasis as well as joint meetings could be used for reducing overlap. Further rationalisation also allows expense savings. For instance, the same experts may attend similar working group meetings within a short period of time.

In spite of the fact that political issues are not dealt with by the Barents Cooperation, a political instrument in the form of biennial parliamentary conferences is nevertheless significant. Taking into consideration the increasing international role of Arctic cooperation the parliamentarians from member states could perhaps discuss Barents-related issues more often. Brainstorming is, after all, needed when coming up with good ideas.