May 23, 2006

Russian romances blossom in Norwegian Arctic town

By Alister Doyle

KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) - In a blossoming of post-Cold
War romance on the Arctic tip of Europe, one in four marriages
in the Norwegian port of Kirkenes involves a Russian.

The signs of cross-border closeness are everywhere: Street
signs in Kirkenes are in both Norwegian and Russian and around
a dozen Russian trawlers are tied up in the port for repairs.

"We're getting back to normal," said Jarle Forbod, managing
director of the Norwegian-Russian Chamber of Commerce.

The ties between Russia and Norway date back to Viking
times but during the Cold War relations collapsed, changing
lives in this remote area which is further east than Istanbul
and where snow covers the hills in May.

A century ago, the Arctic was a hub for trade -- Russians
bought fish from Norway and exported goods including furs and
timber. The nearby town of Hammerfest had six foreign
consulates and was the first in northern Europe to have street

All that changed after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and
following World War Two, NATO troops and Russia's communists
shivered through the Cold War along this frontier, although no
shot was ever fired in anger.

"The impression of Russia here is positive," said Rune
Rafaelsen, general secretary of the Norwegian Barents
Secretariat which promotes better ties in northern Europe.

Russians are popular in northern Norway partly because the
Red Army drove Hitler's Nazis out at the end of World War Two
-- and then withdrew.


"The most successful thing is that we've established person
to person contacts, and between businesses and institutions,"
Rafaelsen said.

Problems include how to manage a region with one of the
biggest wealth gaps in the world -- Norwegian per capita
incomes are among the highest at $36,680 in 2004 against just
$9,680 for Russians, according to World Bank data.

"My wages are maybe 10 times more here than in Russia,"
said Ljudmila Kristian, a Russian doctor working at the
hospital in Kirkenes. "We get a lot of Russian patients."

One in four marriages in the Kirkenes area, which has about
9,400 people, is a mixed Norwegian-Russian alliance. Most are
Russian women marrying Norwegian men.

The Barents Secretariat, which groups Nordic nations and
Russia, has channeled about 4 billion crowns ($660 million) to
projects in northwest Russia, mainly to help dismantle aging
nuclear submarines.

Hopes of deepening these links are now pinned on joint oil
and gas exploration in the Barents Sea, where Russia's Shtokman
is one of the world's biggest offshore gas fields and could
provide jobs on both sides of the border.

Rafaelsen said a former U.S. ambassador had visited the
Kirkenes region seven times, seeing it as a future center for
oil and gas.

"Seen from Washington, this is the center of Norway," he
quoted the ambassador as saying.


Despite the closer ties, businesses on both sides still
face some challenges in breaking into neighboring markets.

Operating with far higher costs, few Norwegian companies
have managed to attract Russian business.

"We can't beat a Russian yard on price but we can beat them
on quality and delivery time," said Greger Mannsverk, head of
the Kimek shipyard in Kirkenes. The yard has months-worth of
bookings for repairs to Russian trawlers.

Mannsverk said there were also differences between doing
business Russian-style, with its tradition of strong leaders,
and the Norwegian business ethos, with its emphasis on
grassroots democracy.

"If you're on the strong side of an argument you can say,
'we'll do it like this' and the Russians will accept your
decision," he said.

"Maybe in Norway we've gone too far the other way, it's
more difficult to make decisions. You almost have to call a
mass meeting to decide small things."

Trade with Russia still lags commerce with other Nordic
nations. Exports to Russia from Norway totaled 5.3 billion
crowns ($874 million) last year, mostly fish, while imports
were 8.3 billion crowns, mainly metals.

Bodil Emanuelsen, 43, who runs an arts shop in Kirkenes,
said that negative stories, such as prostitutes crossing the
border from Russia, often grabbed local headlines.

"But it's not all negative. It's much easier to travel now
-- there are many good arts festivals in Russia," she said.

Veronica Zubairova, 22, moved to Norway when she was 9 but
would like to move back across the border to nearby Nikel to

"I feel I'm Norwegian but there's Russian in my blood," she
said in fluent Norwegian at the counter of a Kirkenes kiosk.