Profiles of Norwegian science: Russia, Norway’s High North neighbor

Geir Aas moderates the NORRUSS research conference in Oslo in May

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Geir Aas moderates the NORRUSS research conference in Oslo in May.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Do “Good fences make good neighbors”? Robert Frost did not think so. What about for the geopolitical jockeying around the northern latitudes?

A Research Council of Norway program, NORRUSS, seeks to improve our understanding of social and political developments in the High North, especially with respect to Russia. This research was showcased on May 23 at a one-day workshop in Oslo.

Poignant analyses examined what is happening today in Russia and the High North, as well as what could happen in the future. The relevance of Russia to Norway—given the border, the fences along it, and mutual Arctic and European interests—played a key role in the inquiries.

The scientific program is set up to inform Norwegian policy directly, interpreting challenges and opportunities of politics, the economy, and society in Russia and across the High North. Supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NORRUSS activities generate knowledge and connections for counseling Norwegian interests.

Many projects explore Russian mindsets and developments around the vast country. The role of civil society, the legal culture including corruption, and views of nationalism are all probed, helping to inform Norway how to work with different sectors within Russia.

Resources and economics play a leading part. Projects cover food, fossil fuels, forestry, and shipping. Analyses of trade and defense as part of the Russian economy provide a deep picture of what keeps Russia’s government funded, how it is changing, and possible future trends.

The High North and the Arctic are paramount. The region and its peoples are undergoing major social and environmental changes, bringing destructive threats and exciting possibilities. Different groups pursue and promote different interests.

Petroleum exploration and extraction brings perceived economic benefits in both Northern Norway and Russia. Often, many people in the affected areas provide strong social support for the oil and gas industry, even while knowing that environmental consequences could result. The actual economic benefits are harder to discern.

The social benefits of industrial development can be as important, as expected, and as desired as the financial ones. One project on corporate social responsibility for Arctic petroleum looks at community perceptions of the gains and losses experienced, comparing Norway and Russia. Another project highlights the cross-border collaborations for and by industry.

Peoples and cultures receive deserved prominence. Governance, government, indigenous peoples, land rights, education, and knowledge exchange feature in plenty of the studies. Land and resource use, power relations, political advocacy, and democratic decision-making feature among the subjects raised during interviews and focus groups.

Tension and complementarity between tradition and modernization recur. Communities and social groups do not always agree. The data require careful unpacking of perspectives to report the diversity and to discuss the implications of majority and minority viewpoints.

Similar themes swirl around high-level geopolitical interactions. NORRUSS also examines the interests of non-Arctic countries in the north. China’s presence is felt strongly, permeating resources, energy, militarization, and nationalism.

With NATO, the EU, Schengen, and the Eurozone bordering Russia, the country represents an influential player in European security. Researchers dare to speculate on the post-Putin era and a fully democratic China, as both are core to Norwegian strategic interests.

Deciphering and managing this complex interplay of topics requires the thoughtful and deep investigations permitted via NORRUSS. One key is working directly with Russian researchers and institutions. Russian partners have been and must be major contributors to project formulation and implementation.

The work, then, is not just Norway researching Russia. It additionally creates collaborations to learn from each other by using the differing languages and cultures as bridges rather than divides.

The ethos of “good neighbors” becomes ever-present. Russia and Norway have so many overlapping interests and close collaborations, including in the High North, that “good fences” might not be feasible, even where some parties seek them.

Yet possibilities always remain for conflict and for Russia becoming more assertive and more aggressive. The NORRUSS program provides a solid scientific basis for understanding and anticipating developments around Russia and the High North, helping politicians and policy makers to shape Norway’s direction.

This article originally appeared in the June 30, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.