Morten Strøksnes

The Barents region contains the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the North/Northwest of Russia. It is larger than Germany, France, Spain and Portugal combined and thus the largest region in Europe. The gargantuan creatiure – the formal name is Barents Euro-Artic Region – was born in 1993. The instigator (if not the inventor) was the Norwegian foreign minister at the time, Thorvald Stoltenberg, father of the current prime minister of Norway. He added the “Euro” to soften the (Northern) Norwegian hostility towards the European Union in advance of Norway’s referendum on EU-membership in1994. It didn’t work.

Barents was invented by politicians to mark the end of the cold war and the beginning of something new. Nobody knew much of what this “new” would be. Everybody hoped relations between nations – especially with Russia, obviously – would improve. They could not have been much worse. The Northern border was not a local border between Russia and Norway. It was between NATO and the Warsaw-pact – and thus the coldest part of the iron curtain, a militarized and sealed end-point with hardly any exchange whatsoever. The Barents-initiative was meant to lubricate a transition, and to create a border-dynamic from scratch.
Barents is a political invention, but not a political region. It has no common elections, budgets, administration or representation. There is however such a thing as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. On paper it looks like the missing link between the EU and the UN. The members are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the European Commission. Observer states to this council are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US. However, as impressive the list may be, it doesn’t add up to much. The Barents Euro-Artic Council produces some ultra-vague documents, and that’s about it. The Russians, who have been hosting the council until 2009, didn’t even produce an English website for this global organization.
The Barents-secretariat in Kirkenes is much more hands on. It is a centre for competence and a channel for distributing money to all sorts of projects in Norway and Russia. But it is a secretariat, after all, and not a power house for regional politics or agendas.

Barents is not a political region, but neither is it a region defined by a common language, culture or identity. So what is it? As reflected by the interest of so many of the worlds’ powerful states, and also within the national mindset of the Barents-nations, Barents “signifies” first and foremost natural resources. As such, it’s got a public relations problem and what could be called a “human resource deficiency”. Oil, gas, fish, forest and minerals are considered to be the Barents assets - not people, culture, art, natural beauty, knowledge, richness of history and ecological/human diversity. The only thing all the Barents people seem to have in common thus far is a harsh sub-Artic climate. To become more of a proper region – a region worth its name – the balance will have to shift more in favour of the human.
Barents is a transnational region without a transnational identity. Its people live in four countries and their identities either national, regional on a smaller national scale and/or ethnic and indigenous. The North of Norway (Nord-Norge) is not a formal region in itself, but one of five geographical national subdivisions. It contains numerous regions within, such as the administrative regions of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark. There are within these regions, Russian doll-style regions. They are defined by geography, history and culture, such as Helgeland, Salten, Lofoten, Vesterålen, Tromsø, Nord-Troms, East-Finnmark, West-Finnmark, Interior Finnmark and more. The same pattern of regions exists in Sweden, Finland and Russia.
When the Barents-region was invented, it was superimposed over another region already in existence: Nordkalotten. This region never formed its own identity. Nordkalotten hasn’t been officially declared dead. The reason is probably that it never really lived.

The Barents region is the new kid in town in this jumble of regions, and consists of all of the old Nordkalotten, plus more of North/Northwest-Russia than ever was a part of that defaulted transnational region.
All nations in Barents are centralized, and the political and cultural energy flows between the capitals and the several administrative layers in the provinces. These Northern provinces lack a common political or cultural agenda. They relate and talk more to Oslo than they do amongst themselves. There is for instance not a single common means of media covering the North of Norway, not to mention a political party. Oslo has a perfect rule-and-divide attitude towards the North.
That suits Oslo just fine. From an Oslo perspective the loyalty and nationality of the North has always, at least until very recently, been considered dubious and unstable. The North has been the romantic “land of the midnight sun”, but also an area of darkness, superstition and untrustworthy people with a weak “Norwegian” identity. Some of the formal borders, not only with Russia but also with Finland, were unsettled way back in the 19th century. The missionary, officer and priest have historically been central characters in this mission civilisatrice towards the North. In this process the old and “organic” connections became severed by borders and by the usual array of military and social matrixes of control within the framework of the national state.

The colonial dimension, with border disputes, vast resources of raw materials, weak local elites, “bought” by subsidies and redistribution from the government, is still an important part of the North/South relationship. Due to the successful penetration of the affluent Norwegian state, there is no serious “liberation-movement” in sight - with the exception of the mysterious, Finnmark-based Barents Liberation Army (this far following a non-violent tactic), of course. And the underground North-Norwegian exile/shadow government, arranging semi-clandestine meetings in damp bars in central Oslo.
Sweden and Finland already have a transnational identity as members of the EU. The Northern parts of these countries don’t have much of a Barents-identity, if any at all. Barents is after all named after the Barents Sea, and the dynamics and prospects is indeed happening in the waters, seabed and coastline of Barents. This leaves Finland and Sweden on the sideline. Russia and Norway are the core Barents nations, and in fact the cooperation is mainly between them.
Few people connect emotionally to Barents, even in Norway and Russia.
In other words, there is a great diversity of identities in Barents, but no Barents identity as such. Only a few subgroups, consisting of artists and people somehow on the fringe, especially close to the border, have something that can be called a Barents-identity. At least that’s my impression.
The Barents-cooperation, on the other hand, is very popular among all sorts of institutions, because it’s basically a flow of money going from Oslo to the North. If you write the right sort of application, there’s a real chance of a reward. At this level Barents is a “Potemkin-region” with an artificial life funded on funding.

From the outside, the Arctic, including the Barents region, is traditionally seen as a vast and inaccessible emptiness, a blank slate outside the habitable world. The extreme parts of the Arctic were totally unexplored until quite recently. Just in 10 years this has changed quite dramatically. The Arctic region has suddenly become a global hot spot, mainly for two reasons: global warming and the potential exploitation of fossil fuels. There’s an ongoing race for these resources and there are some parallels with the race for outer space between the US, China and Russia. The 21st century space race is not about expeditions, breaking new barriers and planting a flag. It’s about resources. The race towards the poles is also into its second phase. It’s not about honour and prestige anymore. It’s about natural resources. Both space and the extreme Arctic lack a legal framework regarding rights and ownership. Russia made this point very explicitly when in august 2007 they sent mini-submarines to plant their flag on the seabed under the North Pole. The point was not to set any record, but to symbolically claim the territory and its resources for Russia. Canada and the US contested that claim. The Russians made the space analogy clear by naming the min-subs Mir I and Mir II. Mir means both “peace” and “earth” in Russian. But the subs were obviously named after the Russian space-station Mir.

As a geopolitical frontier, Barents is about natural resources, about becoming “the new Middle East”, the main trade route between Asia, Europe and America (if the North-East and the North-West passages become navigable), and so forth. It’s about global control over highly important spaces of capital. The instrumental logic is dominating other and softer human aspects of the people living within the region. There’s an emerging post-colonial discourse regarding Barents and the Arctic. Sometimes the region is talked of as some no man’s land up for grabs – similar to 19th century colonies such as the Congo or Indonesia. Very powerful interests from all over the world are ready to turn the region into construction sites, oilrigs, gas-fields, mines and more. This is what Barents is heading towards today. The rest of the First World is moving in the opposite direction. What’s left of nature is being made into national parks. Wealth is being created by knowledge, creativity, information, tourism and other “soft” means. Barents? Mine it, drill it, fish it – just take it all and leave. That’s the implicit motto of Barents.
Heart of Darkness (1902) is Joseph Conrads famous masterpiece about the European colonial powers cruel and greedy exploits of Africa. But Conrad also wrote a largely forgotten science-fiction novel (The Inheritors), co-authored with Ford Madox Ford, on the colonial usurping of the North. The “Society for the Regeneration of the Artic Regions” is officially dedicated to bring the benefits of civilisation to the Eskimos. The real interest behind this benign rhetoric is the discoveries of oil and gold, and nothing else.

Barents is the new global pool of natural resources – an object for penetration and exploitation. Without a stronger regional identity the people of Barents will mot likely become the Eskimos of Conrad’s story, dominated from afar, according to “their own best interest”. I’m not sure if this could be avoided, because regional identities are not something that is agreed upon. They can be built or shaped, but it’s a very slow and painstaking process.
No matter what, identities are definitively not built around raw materials and pipelines. The infrastructure of identity is communication and culture in a broad sense. Identities are inventions made by symbols and (hi)stories. These can be made up, but the soil must be ready for receiving such seeds. Only to a certain extent can people be made to feel a common identity. There must be an energy to set loose already.
Maybe a Barents-identity is emerging, even if there are few and weak signals of that happening. To become a true region, some mutual cultural consciousness, an idea of shared interests and some sort of political agenda from within is required. Artists are also needed because artists are natural border-crossers and communicators. Barents needs stronger border dynamics and softer arenas for exchange. Stuff to make the flow flow, if there’s a flow at all.
At this point I don’t see much of a Barents identity to mediate. Local people are few and far between, unorganized and without a regional focus. The old pomor identity is far gone. The Nation-states keeps a very firm grip on the region. Something new and healthy might emerge. But then again, it might not.

Morten A. Strøksnes (born in Kirkenes) is a Norwegian historian, journalist and writer of creative non-fiction. He's been writing books from the Middle-East, Eastern Europe and more, and will be publishing a book from America (the US) in a few months. His latest book was the travelogue/essay "What's happening Up North?" (Hva skjer i Nord-Norge?) from 2006. Strøksnes lives and works in London, UK.