FSB’s arrest of Frode Berg resounds in Norwegian border town
The polar dark seemed somewhat lighter as hundreds of people on Saturday lit torches and marched through the streets of Kirkenes, the small Arctic town located only few kilometres from the border to Russia.
It was a powerful sight, and a strong sign of solidarity with Frode Berg, the much-respected former border inspector who is now behind bars in Moscow on charges of espionage.
About 450 locals took part in the rally which started on the central square and proceeded through the streets of the town with about 4,000 inhabitants. A small stop was made near the building of the Russian General Consulate, as a kind of quiet protest against the Russian authorities which are keeping the local man locked up in a high-security Moscow prison.
Pressure against cross-border cooperation
«Frode must come home, and Norwegian authorities must do what they can to get him out», says town Mayor Rune Rafaelsen. He admits that the case might have a negative effect on local cross-border relations.
«It is not a good signal when such a positive and distinguished bridge-builder like Frode is arrested, it is not a good sign», Rafaelsen underlines to the Barents Observer and adds that only a political deal can now help resolve the situation.
«People are confused and puzzled, because Frode is a man who has stood up for the Norwegian-Russian cooperation, he is not the one you would expect behind bars».
The Frode Berg-case has triggered massive reactions in Kirkenes, a town which over the past 30 years has built an identity as a «Barents Capital», and a place with well-developed and smooth cross-border cooperation and people-to-people relations with nearby Russia. Local streets signs show the way in both the Norwegian and Russian languages, and Russians are warmly welcomed. A local border traffic agreement has since 2011 made it possible for locals both on the Norwegian and Russian side to easily cross the border without visa.
Big politics goes local
Relations between east and west, between Moscow and Oslo, have for years deteriorated. But many locals in Kirkenes have still insisted that their cross-border cooperation with Russia is proceeding as before, unaffected by big politics.
That is still a local mantra. But the Frode Berg-case is certainly adding strain.
According to Robert Nesje, a local politician and himself a close friend of Frode Berg, the case could have serious consequences for the small local society.
«People are getting afraid of traveling to Russia, and that could have a major negative effect on this town which is so dependent on cross-border traveling», he says.
«If this is allowed to cement itself in local society, then I do not dare predict what could be the outcome.»
At the same time, Nesje underlines, local Russians must not become victims of the situation. «Ordinary Russians can not be blamed for any of this, and no Russians, neither the ones living in Kirkenes, nor the ones visiting, must suffer».
Letter to Moscow
During the rally, an open letter addressed to the Russian Foreign Ministry was officially handed over to a representative of the local General Consulate. The letter, authored by a newly established Support Committee for Frode Berg, was titled «Help Frode come come, support people-to-people cooperation», and reads that «Frode Berg is no spy, but a bridge-builder and a proponent for an active cooperation between our countries’ peoples».
«The people of Sør-Varanger requests help to get Frode Berg home as soon as possible,» the document reads. The Russian diplomat promised that it would be sent to Moscow shortly. He was himself present at the rally and, paradoxically, also joined parts of the downtown march.
The letter is sent as the Russian Foreign Ministry this week for the first time commented on the case. In her weekly press conference, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on 28th December underlined that she «would not characterise the case as a global attack on bilateral relations».
«We have a relationship with Norway which develops in different areas», she said.
«These kind of things happen, and it is uncomfortable, [but] our national legislation provides for adequate measures.”
«Cooperation must be strengthened»
One of the authors of the letter to Moscow is Torbjørn Brox Webber, a local priest and member of the Frode Berg Support Committee.
He admits that local Norwegians now are starting to make more considerations before crossing the border, but underlines that «people must not be afraid of traveling to Russia».
According to Webber, people in Kirkenes are not angry, but sad, about the situation. Still, he argues, what is needed is more cooperation.
«It is very important that the good cross-border cooperation is preserved and strengthened», he told the Barents Observer.
«This must not become a conflict between Oslo and Moscow, because also the Norwegian side has a considerable responsibility, not only for getting Frode back home, but also for normalising the relationship with Russia.»
According to Webber, both Frode Berg and Kirkenes are victims of big politics.
«Once again we see the effects of big politics hitting us here locally, and we demand an end to that!»
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