FT: Norway and Finland thaw relations with Russia

12:12, 01 December 2016
World
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Norway and Finland have revived economic and trade contacts with Russian ministers for the first time since the annexation of Crimea in a sign of a thawing in relations, according to the Financial Times.

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Three Norwegian ministers met their Russian counterpart for natural resources this week in the first such bilateral meeting in more than two years and agreed to share seismic data in the search for Arctic oil and gas near their common border, FT wrote.

The Finnish-Russian trade commission — co-chaired by the Russian deputy prime minister and the Finnish trade minister — also came together for the first time since 2013 last week. Both Norway and Finland put the contacts on ice following Russia's annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014.

The governments of Norway and Finland insisted the re-establishment of contacts did not affect European unity over sanctions on Russia — particularly in energy matters — but some experts disagreed.

"We have a 1,300km common border with Russia so we have many issues that have to be dealt with from time to time. But it's in our interests that the west stays united over breaches of international law. These two things are not in contradiction," Kai Mykkanen, Finland's trade minister, told the Financial Times.

Monica Maeland, Norway's trade minister, said: "We want good neighbourly relations with Russia, especially in the north, where we have a common border and common interests."

Read alsoReuters: Norway resumes high-level trade talks with Russia after two-year breakBoth ministries said EU sanctions on Russia were not discussed in the meetings. But Indra Overland, Russian expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said the "mini-thaw" in relations signals a change in relations with Russia as the memory of what happened in Ukraine fades.

"It is the clear beginning of a slippage on sanctions. It's quite a big beginning. It doesn't affect the sanctions yet but the will to continue is slipping," added Mr. Overland.

Finland, which unlike Norway is not a member of the NATO military alliance, has long been among the EU countries to have kept some of the closest relations with Russia. The two states' presidents meet annually and foreign ministers also meet regularly.

Juha Sipila, the Finnish prime minister, is due to meet his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev next week.

Russia is still Finland's fifth-biggest export destination despite sanctions and Mr. Mykkanen said it was "important to support the work of Finnish companies in Russia." But he added that Russia's bombardment of Aleppo in Syria had made both the EU and Finland "more negative" towards Moscow. 

He also warned against over-interpreting the revival of the trade commission. "It's nothing so special and I wouldn't overstate the meaning of this," Mr. Mykkanen said. 

Both the Finnish and Norwegian ministers agreed to further meetings, with Ms. Maeland due to visit Moscow in April 2017 while the Finnish-Russian commission is set to reconvene next year.

As part of the visit by Sergei Donskoi, Russia's natural resources minister, to Oslo this week, the two countries agreed to hold future talks on how to allocate potential oil or gas discoveries that could straddle the border, as well as share seismic data in the Barents Sea.

"Companies have been pushing us to have a political dialogue with Moscow for some time," a Norwegian government official added.

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