Last remaining Norwegian businessmen in Murmansk keeps secret who his customers are
“They will need a lot of concrete here,” founder Atle Berge thought when he first established a subsidiary in Murmansk sixteen years ago. He was right, the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s northwest corner has over the last decade seen a boom in construction; Novatek’s giant Kola Yard, the Murmansk transport hub, new mines, roads and windmill foundations, not least to mention countless new large weapons bunkers for navy missiles and ammunition.
When the Barents Observer visited Berge’s concrete production facilities outskirts of Murmansk in 2016, the main customer was Yamal LNG, Novatek’s first plant for liquid natural gas in the Russian Arctic.
“We can unfortunately not give any information about our customers,” Atle Berge says today.
Berge is the last Norwegian with a self-running business in Murmansk that continues to give full speed ahead in a time when thousands of international companies have curtailed operations and left the country after Vladimir Putin ordered a military invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
“Doing business in Russia is very okay,” he tells the Barents Observer.
“We have had several good years with the Russian company and have taken higher dividends from the Russian company to Norway.”
According to the Norwegian Register of Business Enterprises, Ølen Betong Murmansk posted a profit of 5,4 million kroner (€492,000) in 2021. Atle Berge says the 2022 accountings are not ready yet, but states “it will likely be a surplus this year as well.”
Accused of espionage
In 2016, Berge’s position in Russia’s Arctic capital came in jeopardy as he brutally was brought in by the FSB. The officers with KGB’s successors accused Berge of engaging in “collecting information”, allegedly for Norwegian intelligence services.
Later, when returning to Russia after a visit home to Norway, the businessman was stopped at the Borisoglebsk border checkpoint and denied entry. Berge was expelled from the country for a 10-year period.
Refused to return to his director office at the plant in Murmansk, Atle Berge decided to sue the Norwegian state for allegedly clumsy trying to recruit him and a fellow colleague to make reports to the intelligence community, which Berge said he instead had consistently resisted doing. Ølen Betong lost a potentially big contract with a Russian customer because of the case, Berge claimed and sued the state for 136 million kroner.
Berge and a key Norwegian employee in Murmansk said the FSB had shown photos from Kirkenes of a police security agent who had made contacts. Atle Berge’s colleague even said the photos showed his apartment in Kirkenes, concluding that Russian intelligence has its own operations in the border town.
Angry on Norway
Ølen Betong lost the case in court, but Atle Berge’s anger against the Norwegian state continues.
“Norway’s very negative view on Russia will do a lot of damage to the connection with Norway, not least to Finnmark [the northernmost region bordering Russia], Atle Berge today says.
He elaborates: “Norway’s policy is very little understandable, simply scandalous, also very ignorant.”
Meanwhile, Atle Berge’s 10-year period as Persona Non-Grata in Russia didn’t last ten years. Last fall he was back at his concrete production plant in Murmansk.
“I got good help from the Russian Embassy in Oslo,” he said to the Barents Observer at the time.