Illustration photo: Thomas Nilsen

Is there a better future for Nordic-Russian cross-border cooperation?

Public engagement in decision-making process may bring the regional collaboration closer to communities’ needs. Russia’s “bad governance” is an obstacle.
May 21, 2021


For the Barents Observer, journalist and researcher Gleb Yarovoy discusses the past, present and possible future of the Russia-EU-Norway cross-border cooperation (CBC) programs.

Gleb Yarovoy

During the spring 2021, discussions on the priorities of the Russia-EU-Norway cross-border cooperation (CBC) programs for the period up to 2027 has begun. Despite the fact that the first projects in the new programs are unlikely to begin before 2024, it is currently a good time to think about how to make these programs as effective, as close to the realities and needs of local and regional communities and as societally sound as possible. Cross-border co-working as the last chance 

Cross-border cooperation is perhaps the last area of the EEA (including Norway) ​​interaction with Russia where “co-operation” is still possible in its etymological sense of “co-working”, “co-creation”, “co-ownership” of the results. In other words, joint activities for the common good. Until recently, education and research could have been considered as another area of “co-operation”. It is not the case anymore: enormous control of foreign researchers’ activities in Russia and Russian universities’ international affairs significantly complicate the everyday interaction of Russian researchers with their Western colleagues. Particularly alarming is the desire of the Russian special services to use (pseudo-)science and (”third-class”) historians to propagate “the image of an enemy” towards the “West” inside Russia. Thus, attempts to accuse Finland of genocide of Russians during the occupation of Karelia during World War II might have been looking comical if this did not challenge the image of Russian historical science internationally (or at least Karelian historical science in Finland).

Against this background, as well as against the background of the failed ideas of the formation of four “common spaces” in EU-Russian relations, and against the background of a forced, almost tortured, cooperation in the energy sector, cross-border cooperation looks neither failed, nor tortured, nor even forced.

Even ardent critics of Russia’s “bad governance” (a very accurate term by Vladimir Gelman, professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki, which in Russian sounds even more accurate, “unworthy governance”, ”недостойное правление”) cannot fail to notice that CBC structures and programmes continue to work. Within the framework of the Euregio “Karelia” and the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, Russian regional and state officials meet with their counterparts from the EU countries and Norway. The number of CBC projects, where representatives of non-state and “semi-state” (under “semi-state” I mean e.g. public universities and research centers) organizations, not public officials, cooperate, account for hundreds. The budgets of the EUropean-Russian CBC programs, which have entwined the state borders from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea, accounts for hundreds of millions euros. These programs are co-financed by the European Union, EU member states, Russia and Norway. And they are managed by joint administrative bodies, where Russian and Western officials must agree on the priorities of cooperation and projects to be supported, and make decisions by consensus, that is, unanimously. These programs are well received not only by Western politicians, but also by representatives of the Russian “bad governance”, e.g. Foreign Minister Lavrov, or the Chairman of the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee Slutsky. Joint CBC projects summaries and results are published on the CBC programmes’ webpage and on the website of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

This is where the optimistic part of the paper ends. Let’s now talk about the “new normal” present and the outlines of a possible future for cross-border cooperation.

Present as inertia of the past 

Using the terminology of the covid era, I will undertake to assert that (too) many Russian and European participants of cross-border cooperation keep a (too) long “social distance”, which also becomes political and mental distance. And the sanitary distances recommended by the WHO have nothing to do with it.


One may criticize Samuel Huntington, who called the border between Russia and Norway-Finland-Baltic countries “civilizational”. But not to recognize “Russians” and “Finns-Norwegians-Balts” (here, of course, I am forced to simplify, because this is not about national identity, but rather about political affiliation) as representatives of different civilizations would be a deceiving idea. Of course, in different strata these differences may be more or less obvious: there are fewer similarities than differences between a “deep” Russian (a term introduced by Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov) and a typical “gay-ropean” (a Russian term pejoratively reminiscent of European tolerance), but there are fewer differences than similarities between the representatives of academia.

In their turn, the officials responsible for CBC coordination and development, are moving further and further away from each other. The Russians, who have undergone a “negative selection” process, are sinking deeper into the abyss of “bad governance”. While their Western colleagues continue to follow the values of consensual and participatory democracy and welfare state, where the state exists for the sake of citizens, and not vice versa. This “social distance” is, in my opinion, the main reason for almost zero progress of cross-border cooperation after 2014. In other words, continuing inertia was obviously the dominant trend in CBC over the years.

Inertia is, of course, better than the ongoing degradation of relations between Russia and EUrope. However, the “follow-the-big-brother” mode on for many Russian public officials and some societal actors is definitely a challenge for cross-border cooperation. Putting this idea in scientific-ish way, I am about to say that the geopolitical imagination of CBC actors - from regional elites to ordinary people - follows the geopolitical imagination of state elites. Imagination rules and changes the practices of interaction. It is not a difficult task to find confirmation of this trend even in those regions of North-West Russia that are actively involved in cross-border cooperation with the EU/Norden, i.e. Republic of Karelia and the Murmansk region (there is also St. Petersburg, which is for many good reasons a rather specific story).

Karelia: from a “model” to an ”ordinariness”

In short, Republic of Karelia had a long and fruitful history of cooperation with Finland starting from at least 1960s. In the 1990s, Republic of Karelia and the like-named cross-border region considered to be a model of EU-Russian CBC. The then Karelian Minister of external affairs Valery Shlyamin was a friend of many Finnish officials on regional and national level. This made Euregio ”Karelia” a child of Finnish-Russian love and trust, and pinned many hopes in its future. However, this potential remained mostly untapped.

Simplifying and generalizing, the top leadership of the region with the longest border with the EU has noticeably lost interest in cooperation with its neighbors, especially after 2014, when the annexation of Crimea and Ukrainian crises spoiled the European geopolitical game. This cooling is felt until today, and it is, in a certain sense, mutual. In 2014, Alexander Hudilainen, the then head of the republic, changed his rhetoric from self-presentation as a “refined Finn” to mentioning the “nuclear missile carriers that could wipe out not only America, but also half of Europe.” Soon after, the Karelian minister of economic development Valentin Chmil called Karelia an “taint republic” and admitted that in order to replenish the regional budget it is easier for him to “engage in prostitution in Moscow/Kremlin” than to search for foreign investors. Well, the current Karelian governor, Artur Parfenchikov, though originally from “deep Karelia”, remembered about neighboring Finland only a year and a half after his appointment as regional leader (only after Valery Shlyamin has been invited to the position of governor’s unofficial adviser). However, the visits of Parfenchikov and Co. to Finland and other countries that have taken place since then did not add a noticeable volume of foreign investments to Karelia.

In the current Karelian government, not a single person who understands international affairs holds any leading positions. The Ministry of External Affairs of Karelia was defeated in 2002, at the very beginning of building the “vertical of power” and “sovereign democracy” in Russia, and today’s officials responsible for the region’s international cooperation are the typical representatives of the “negative selection” process. At different international regional forums, whether it is the Barents Euro-Arctic region, or the Baltic region, or the Euregio “Karelia”, Karelia is currently represented by people who are far from being understanding both Finland and the “internationalisation” in general. As a result, despite many hopes, during 20 years of its existence, the Euroregion “Karelia” has not turned into any influential institution for the coordination of interests between Karelia and Finland.

Murmansk: from Calotte committee to Kolarctic programme

The Murmansk region began to be perceived as Russia’s gateway to the international Arctic even before the emergence of the independent Russian Federation. Murmansk was on the edge of international cooperation in the European Arctic since the appearance of Calotte peace movement in the 1960s, and continued to be the informal leader in cooperation with the Nordic countries after the famous ”Murmansk speech” of Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1987, and even more after the creation of the Barents Euro-Arctic region in 1993.

External border of Murmansk region with Norway and Finland is far longer than its administrative border with the only Russian neighbour, Karelia. This is reflected in the Strategy regional development 2025, where a separate (albeit small) section is dedicated to international cooperation. At the same time, judging by the reports on the strategy implementation (the latter is available for 2019), the main goal of international cooperation - the growth of foreign investment and the growth of financial resources from abroad - are not being fulfilled. 2019 was the worst year in terms of these indicators since 2012 (even though in is counted in ruble, whose exchange rate significantly fell after 2014).

Obviously, for the Murmansk region, Arctic allocations of Russian government, which does not prioritize (in reality, not on paper) international or cross-border cooperation beyond the Northern Sea Route development, remain a priority for the regional budget fundraising. On the other hand, all international business projects aimed at cooperation in the energy sector, which could benefit the regional development of Murmansk region, like the Shtokman gas field, had been shut down due to the technological sanctions imposed by the West or due to other uncertainties.

However, there are signs of prioritising the cross-border cooperation in Murmansk nowadays. Largely informed experts say the “young” governor Andrey Tchibis himself is quite active in both bilateral communication with Norway and multilateral cooperation within the framework of Barents region structures. During the COVID year, he initiated a number of international webinars devoted to the current issues of international cooperation in the Barents region. Unlike Karelia, there are “cross-border professionals” in the higher layers of regional decision-making. Still, as shown above, this doesnt have a visible effect on regional development in terms of economic (no foreign investments) or societal development (the notorious stories around Sami activists or the dissolution of Sami parliament).

From inertia to development? So far, only in dreams …

When discussing the future, it is typical to draw “scenarios”. And there are usually three scenarios: pessimistic, optimistic and “objective”, that is, the most probable.

In the case of cross-border cooperation, the pessimistic scenario is the complete stop of interaction and the rupture of relations between the Russian regions and its neighbors, Finland and Norway. I will not discuss this scenario, leaving it to alarmists and supporters of conspiracy theories.

The most likely scenario is the continuation of inertia. Cooperation programs, joint projects and initiatives are not going away. Currently, there is an ongoing discussion of a new stage of the Russia-EU cross-border cooperation programs, which will begin no earlier than 2023-2024. However, saying that these programmes will grow to the new highs is being a great optimist (and this is a different scenario, which will be discussed later). Over the next few years, Russia’s “bad  governance” will not fade away, neither will the bad officials, bastards of the “negative selection”.

In my opinion, there is only one path to an optimistic scenario. This is a triumph of participatory decision-making over the “bad government”, or at least the expansion of the former and the reduction of the latter. To do this, it is necessary to convince the Russian officials who have occupied the joint cooperation bodies that it is necessary to involve regional “social partners” (or, simply, “experts”), who have mastered numerous CBC projects, into the decision-making process. There are many of them, representatives of non-profit organizations, research and education institutions, and in local business.

What can force Russian “bad” bureaucrats to play democracy at least within the framework of specific CBC programs? To be honest, not much. I have only hope for their European colleagues. The regional politicians of Finland and Norway are interested in continuing programs and projects of cross-border cooperation with Russia. These projects bring additional funds to their regional budgets and help solve problems that would otherwise hardly be solved. For example, in the field of ecology, whether it is the lack of water treatment facilities in Russian cities on the shores of the Baltic Sea or the need to clean the Barents Sea from radioactive and other hazardous wastes.

In my opinion, the regional politicians of the Nordic countries should also be interested in making the program management style more “Europeanized”, and the programs themselves as distant as possible from corruption schemes. This is also required by the policy principles of the European Union, which is the main sponsor and regulator of cross-border cooperation projects (except for those directly and solely financed by Norway). The partnership principle is laid down in the EU Cohesion Policy, so should also apply to cross-border cooperation financed by EU structural funds.

In addition, it is necessary to convince the experts/partners themselves that their participation in the decision-making process is an important step towards turning cross-border cooperation - thanks again to Vladimir Gelman - into an “efficiency pocket” in the system of Russian external relations. This condition, it seems to me, will be easier to comply with than the former one.

By the way, thanks to COVID, the partnership principle has already begun to be partially implemented: joint stakeholder hearings (at least in Karelia CBC program) are held online with the open participation of social partners from the both sides of the border. This will be continued with joint public hearings in the Autumn. The influence of these events on the final program outline is not yet evident. However, it is a good step forward in participatory decision-making.

Thus, my most optimistic scenario provides for the revival and expansion of cross-border ties between residents of the Russian borderlands and the Nordic countries, building an atmosphere of trust between neighbors, joint regional development based on an open, equal and “inclusive” partnership and by bringing policy-making closer to the regional and local realities and allowing for greater societal input. But this hope can come true only if Russian domestic and foreign policy priorities change and the problems of “bad governance”, which has significant influence of cross-border co-operation, are being resolved.


Disclaimer from the author. The present article is a revision of my previous article on EU-Russian CBC recently published in the Russian-language online journal Region.Expert. Here, I will only mostly speculate about ”Russian” share of cross-border governance. Covering governance issues on both (or, rather, three) sides of the EU/Nordic-Russian border requires additional research and analysis, meaning more time, resources and lenght of an article. To me, those are next steps, which will follow.

You can follow the author on Twitter: @GlebYarovoy 



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