The new foreign minister in the Støre government can get a quick baptism of major political fire: Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, is expected to attend a Barents summit in Tromsø in two weeks.
The outgoing Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H) is now packing down the office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cardboard boxes, after four years in the ministry. She draws a red line in relations with Russia before the change of government, and before the meeting with the Russians.
As early as Tuesday 26 October, the new Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs will host the Foreign Ministers’ meeting at the Barents Council in Tromsø. The change of government is expected to take place just over a week earlier, on Friday 15. October.
The meeting of the Barents Council is held every other year. The member countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Russia and Sweden, as well as the EU’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, are all part of Tromsø.
Russia has not finally confirmed Lavrov’s trips to Tromsø. He did not attend the previous meeting in Umeå in 2019, but himself hosted the Barents Council’s meeting in Arkhangelsk in 2017.
Ine Eriksen Søreide now asks her successor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to strongly oppose and reveal that Russia obviously has the highest on parts of a new Norwegian government:
– This is the one thing that Russia raises and asks for, from all countries that have joined the EU’s restrictive measures: Wants these measures to be removed. On the contrary: So challenge Russia does not meet the requirements of the Minsk Declaration, which is and roadmap to be able to raise the measures in the long run, we must be consistent, says Eriksen Søreide to VG.
– Our cooperation with Russia is much better than many other countries have with Russia, and we can cooperate on new areas, she adds.
– But here a red line must be drawn: Russia took part of another country by force when they annexed Crimea in 2014. International law is our first-line defense, and we must stand up for it clearly, she says.
– But many say that now it is so long ago, that it is time to move on and resolve punitive measures and sanctions?
– Violations of international law will not be lifted even if time has passed, and Russia has not fulfilled the conditions in the Minsk agreement. If they meet their obligations, we may end up in a different situation. But we are not there today, says the foreign minister.
She has noticed that the Labor Party wants to cooperate more and more closely with Russia.
In August, Labor leader and incoming Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (Labor Party) told VG that he wants more contact and dialogue with Russia, if the red-greens won the election.
Eriksen Søreide says it is difficult to see how the Støre government will put this statement into practical policy:
– We have had a good and pragmatic cooperation with Russia. We have many common interests in the north. We solve questions about fisheries management and the environment together. We participate at the political level in the four joint commissions, and I have had political contact with my Foreign Minister colleague Lavrov, she says.
A series of meetings
She has several meetings at the political level to refer to: In 2019, Eriksen Søreide went to St Petersburg together with Prime Minister Erna Solberg, where they met President Vladimir Putin.
The same autumn, Lavrov was in Kirkenes, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Finnmark.
Eriksen Søreide had planned a return visit to Moscow this summer, but it had to be canceled at short notice due to the pandemic. They have met at Teams, and at ministerial meetings.
The last time she sat down with Lavrov in a formal meeting was in Reykjavik in May.
– The contact is important to safeguard the neighborhood and Norwegian interests, and to discuss cooperation and set clear boundaries, she says.
– In what new areas is Norway cooperating with Russia now?
– We cooperate well in the UN Security Council, even though we are not one for everything. We have initiated and collaborated on plastic waste in the Barents Sea, which we will continue with money in the coming state budget. Russia is also connected to the peace process in Venezuela, says Eriksen Søreide.
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Going in the wrong direction
But then relations with Russia have also deteriorated in other areas:
– We follow closely the military and political developments in Russia, something else would be a neglect from the Norwegian authorities, she explains.
– And it is disturbing that the internal development in Russia is going in the wrong direction. The Duma election was the most undemocratic and least free election anyone can remember. The human rights situation is getting worse. It is tightened, and there is a very strong anti-Western rhetoric. It is not directly aimed at Norway, but the consequence of Russia’s line choice is fewer areas for cooperation both for us and other countries.
In the people-to-people collaboration, the pandemic has dampened the possibility of meeting across the border. But not only that:
– This collaboration became increasingly difficult. Organizations that cooperate across the border are branded as foreign agents, says the foreign minister.
-There has been a very negative development for the press, where both media houses and individual journalists as foreign agents originate because they collaborate with Norwegian actors. We have made arrangements, with money and other support, for this collaboration to continue. But it has become increasingly difficult because the space for democracy and civil society has become smaller and smaller, she said.
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The Russian Foreign Ministry has noted the Labor Party’s desire for closer cooperation, according to Foreign Minister spokeswoman Maria Zakharova:
– We have noticed that the Norwegian Labor Party has previously spoken out in favor of trying to improve the climate in our bilateral cooperation. We will take a closer look at the new coalition government and their declared policy towards Russia, Zakharova said at a press conference in Moscow a few days after the parliamentary elections.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated on Thursday that “relations with Russia have been at a low point since the Cold War”.
On Wednesday, NATO expelled eight Russian diplomats from Russia’s delegation to NATO.
– They participated in activity that is not compatible with their status, and therefore their accreditation has been withdrawn, Stoltenberg told VG at a press conference on Thursday.
– They were intelligence officers, he added.
It has now been more than a year since the NATO-Russia Co-operation Council met. Stoltenberg tells VG that he met Foreign Minister Lavrov in New York during the UN summit:
– It was not possible to be someone about a new meeting. But NATO and I are ready as soon as they are willing to meet us, says Stoltenberg.