Sanctions taint Norway love affair with Russian liberators


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In the far north of Norway, sanctions imposed on Russia have left a bitter after-taste as the region celebrates the anniversary of its liberation from Nazi rule by the Soviet army.
Seventy years ago, Soviet soldiers pushed into northern Norway, liberating a vast region that had been devastated by a scorched earth policy by retreating German troops.
Even though the local population feels it owes a huge debt of gratitude to the heroism of the Red Army, the anniversary takes place against the backdrop of high tension between the West and the Kremlin over the crisis in Ukraine.
As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov prepares to visit the town of Kirkenes in Finnmark county on Saturday to mark its liberation on October 25, 1944, locals find themselves in an awkward bind.
"No one in Finnmark wants to let the Ukraine question interfere with the friendly relations that are maintained here with Russia," said Arvid Petterson, a local historian and author.
"We don't want our friendship to suffer because of a distant crisis in southern Europe."
Even though it is not a member of the European Union, Norway has followed the sanctions imposed by Brussels against Russia for its role in the conflict in Ukraine.
But in 1944, the Soviet forces received a hero's welcome in the northeast of Norway, after chasing the 20th German Mountain Army from its positions near the strategic port city of Murmansk.
The German Wehrmacht had carried out a "scorched earth" policy, laying waste to an area "one and a half times the size of Denmark", according to Petterson.
After liberation, the local inhabitants who had evaded a German-ordered mass evacuation from the area, were allowed to move into the few buildings still standing.
The Soviets, meanwhile, slept outside in the snow, Petterson said.
According to official Russian histories of the war, about 2,000 Red Army soldiers died on Norwegian soil.
"I don't know how big our losses were, but we buried comrades every day," Russian veteran Ivan Dvonin told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
He himself was injured and flown back across the border to Murmansk tied to the lower wing of a biplane, he said.
Partners, not adversaries 
After staying for 11 months, the Soviet army pulled out of northern Norway in September 1945, shortly before the Iron Curtain descended on the rest of Europe.
"This withdrawal, which happened without any kind of compensation, probably was due to the very old friendship between our two countries," Petterson said. "Norway and Russia have never been at war."
In addition, he said, the Soviets felt a debt of gratitude after Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen helped save millions of lives by organising a global effort to relieve mass starvation in the early Soviet period in the 1920s.
During the Cold War, Finnmark experienced a chill in its relations with Russia, as the area became a jousting ring for spy planes and submarines from the Soviet bloc and NATO.
Kirkenes, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Russian border, is a thriving town where you hear Russian spoken almost as often as Norwegian and where signs are also written in Cyrillic. But townsfolk now worry about losing some of the post-Cold War peace dividend.
The maritime border in the Barents Sea was subject to a 40-year territorial dispute between the two countries, which only ended when the frontier was clearly delineated in a bilateral agreement signed in 2010, opening up for promising oil and gas exploration.
In addition, the inhabitants of the border area can now travel freely, without visas. In 1989, people crossed the border only 2,000 times, but this year, the figure is expected to reach 400,000.
"We support the sanctions," said Rune Rafaelsen, head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, a public organisation responsible for regional cooperation.
"But we can't jettison the cooperation that has evolved over the past 20 years with Russia. We want that to continue."
"In the long term, Russia is a partner, not a military threat," he said.

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