Kirkenes' international reputation in jeopardy over Severomorsk friendship
Continued Kirkenes-Severomorsk friendship agreement would put foreign investments into Kirkenes in jeopardy, says Peter Vesterbacka to the Barents Observer.
It is “very clear that this friendship agreement should be ended.” … Severomorsk could of course condemn the war, Vesterbacka adds but underlines: “If they don’t, Kirkenes should end the friendship. As simple as that.”
Peter Vesterbacka is known for developing the game company Rovio, making the popular Angry Birds mobile game. He has later continued in entrepreneurship, including the company planning a railway from Rovaniemi in northern Finland to Kirkenes on the coast of the Barents Sea.
Kustaa Valtonen, a co-founder of Finest Bay Area Development together with Vesterbacka, elaborates: “We do a lot of business activity in Kirkenes and would love to do more, but local attitude is very important to be aligned with the reality of a world that changed one year ago. We need to stand on the right side of history,” Valtonen makes clear.
A new friendship agreement was signed between Kirkenes and Severomorsk in 2016, two years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Last fall, the municipality council voted down a proposal by one of its members to abandon the agreement in protest of the war on Ukraine.
Severomorsk is not an ordinary northern Russian town. It is home to the headquarters of the powerful Northern Fleet. Due to its military strategic importance, Severomorsk is closed to outsiders not holding a special military permit to enter.
Very few from Kirkenes have ever been allowed in.
One is Rune Rafaelsen, the former Mayor of Kirkenes. He was there three times. The two last as an official guest at the annual Navy Day weapons parade; in 2018 and 2019. The parades consisted of, among others, soldiers that had returned from Syria and the battlefields of the armed conflict in Donbas. On the waters outside, in Kola Bay, were surface warships and nuclear-powered submarines armed with Russia’s most potent weapons, the ballistic missiles tipped with multiple nukes.
Today, Severomorsk has only one sister city in addition to Kirkenes: Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic ruled by the authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kenneth Stålsett, CEO of Sør-Varanger Utvikling, the public Kirkenes-based business development company, fears the lack of will to cancel the friendship agreement with Severomorsk could harm potential foreign investments.
“Kirkenes is a brand and no brands want a bad reputation and negative associations,” Stålsett says. He takes the reactions from Finland seriously.
“Clearly,” he answers when asked by the Barents Observer if Kirkenes should cancel the friendship agreement with Severomorsk.
“The agreement is on a governmental level and has nothing to do with people-to-people relations the politicians are afraid to lose. Severomorsk, by itself, is a strange place to continue to have agreements with today,” Stålsett says.
Harald Sunde was one of the municipal council members that last fall didn’t vote in favor of ending Kirkenes’ friendship agreement with the north Russian military town.
Today, he has changed his mind.
“I support disapproving the draft agreement from 2016,” Sunde says and points to uncertainties in regard to the signed agreement’s validity. The question is whether the Mayor could enter such an agreement without prior support from the municipal council.
Harald Sunde says he expects the case to be on the agenda at the next council meeting in late March.
Meanwhile, the County Governor of Troms and Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost region, has sent a letter to the town-hall in Kirkenes recommending ending cooperation on topics of sensitive importance.
“In the current security situation, the Governor does not recommend that the municipality cooperates with Russian authorities in areas of sensitive importance,” the letter reads.
The Barents Observer has previously reported on the paragraph in the 2016 agreement stipulating cooperation on municipal technical matters.
In 2019, a delegation of Orthodox priests from Severomorsk came to Kirkenes. They wanted to see and learn more about the supply systems for drinking water in the Norwegian border town.
The main water supply is some 10 km south of the town. A pumping station and pipes are in the harbor area. The men from Severomorsk wanted to see it.
Further insights, however, were not given as the Mayor and the Chief of Police decided it was not a good idea to make an excursion detailing how the water supply in Norway’s nearest municipality to Russia is organized.
Kirkenes and Severomorsk signed their first friendship agreement in 1988. Today, nobody in the municipality recall who took the initiative and why it was considered to be a good idea to team up with the Soviet Union’s most important navy base.
From Peter Vesterbacka, though, the message is clear. “Friends of Russia are enemies of the rest of us.”
Vesterbacka argues by quoting Desmond Tutu:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If the elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
For business development manager Kenneth Stålsett, the road ahead is clear.
“Our local society has asked for more collaboration with Finland for years, and the doors are now open. If we really want a bright future, we should adapt and find new ways. The international society loves our region, so let’s put momentum into that and attract talent, collaborate and develop.”
Stålsett adds that there could come new possibilities in collaboration with Russia after the Putin regime collapses.
In addition to Severomorsk, Kirkenes (Sør-Varanger municipality) has a friendship agreement with Pechenga, the Russian municipality bordering Norway and home to the 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade and the 61. Naval Infantry Brigade. The two brigades have sent thousands of soldiers to the war in Ukraine.
The Mayor of Pechenga region, Andrey Kuznetsov, shows support for the war by driving around in a car decorated with large letters Z.