Norway border town welcomes Russian workers | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.07.2013
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Norway border town welcomes Russian workers

As western European countries worry about a possible influx of people from new eastern EU member states, Kirkenes, a town in Norway's Arctic north has been accommodating its Russian workers and visitors for years.

For decades, people in Kirkenes in the high Arctic north of Norway lived just minutes from a Cold War frontline. Only 15 kilometers south-east lay the the Soviet Union, and soldiers on either side of the border would eye each other with suspicion until the fall of the iron curtain in 1991.

"The first years with the open borders with glasnost and perestroika, there was a lot of suspicion. It was a lot about selling vodka, a lot of prostitution," Hildur Eikaas, Kirkenes' chief librarian told DW.

Now, the relationship between Norwegians and Russians in Kirkenes couldn't be better, she added. The Russian influence on the town is obvious; Russian can be heard spoken everywhere, and street signs are written in both Norwegian and Russian. The library sign is also spelt in both languages.

Lars Bevanger für Seine Artikel über Norwegen und die Grenze zwischen Russland und Norwegen. Alles die Fotos sind rechts Lars Bevanger für DW, Er ist einen unsere Korrespondenten und war in Norwegen.

The library is bilingual too

"Sometimes we hear more Russian than Norwegian, so I think in our minds we are a sort of Norwegian Russian library," said Eikaas, who also offers a separate Russian section of the library, filled with Russian books in Russian.

"We have a lot of Russians visiting. They want to keep up their mother tongue, and it's also important to keep up the mother tongue for the children."

Successful integration

While the Russian language can be heard spoken in most shops, pubs and restaurants in Kirkenes, Russians who have come here to work also learn Norwegian as part of the integration progress.

"There isn't much to miss here [about Russia]," said Luba Limstrand in fluent Norwegian. She is one of around 300 Russians who live and work in Kirkenes, a town of less than 3,500 people. She came here after falling in love with a Norwegian man. Now she works in a second hand clothes shop where around half of all her customers are also Russian.

"I work with other Russians, many of my friends here are Russian, and if I want to visit friends back in Murmansk, where I come from, I can just get in my car and drive," she explained.

Her Norwegian boss, Baard Ramberg, said Russians are being welcomed to Kirkenes because they are a stable workforce and have good work ethics. But history also plays an important part in the special relationship between the two peoples, he explained.

A picture of Luba Limstrand, a Russian woman living in Norway and married to a Norwegian.(Photo: Lars Bevanger DW)

Luba Limstrand is a Russian who lives and works in Kirkenes

"Many locals in Kirkenes have in keen memory that they were our helpers in the World War II, and they made major sacrifices for us locally. That's a thing that locals remember."

World War II liberation

Soviet troops liberated Kirkenes from Nazi German occupation in October 1944, several months ahead of the liberation of the rest of the country. But after World War II, as the iron curtain was lowered between east and west and the Warsaw Pact was pitted against NATO, the nearby border with the then Soviet Union became heavily guarded.

Since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, the border has gradually opened up. Since last year people living within 30 kilometers on either side have been able to apply for a border pass, allowing them to travel freely to each other's countries and stay for up to 15 days.

The close regional cooperation also allows young Russians to find work closer to home, even if it is in a foreign country. Alexey Morev, an engineer from nearby Arkhangelsk in Russia, chose to work in Kirkenes because it was closer to home than the alternatives in his native country.

"If you want to have a really good job [in Russia] you need to find it in Moscow or St Petersburg - huge cities," he said.

For the past five years Alexey has been working as an engineer at a Kirkenes shipyard, where his background comes in very handy. His employer's main business is servicing the local Russian fishing fleet.

Librarian looking through some Russian books in her library. (Photo: Lars Bevanger DW)

There is a growing Russian section in the library in Kirkenes

Europe 'can learn'

Some politicians in western Europe have warned of a potential influx of eastern European workers as EU border restrictions are eased for Bulgarians and Rumanians next year. Politicians in Kirkenes think their colleagues further south in Europe might have something to learn from them.

"I have already been in Turkey to talk about border cooperation and about how we are building our relationship," Kirkenes Mayor Cecilie Hansen told DW.

"Of course the key is to start with the young ones, start with culture, sports - people to people work is the best and it's the right medicine," she said, and pointed out that cross-border trade has been beneficial to both peoples.

"We are earning a lot of money when the Russian people come here to do their shopping. And we can go over to Russia to buy things cheaper than in Norway."

"As they say in politics: 'we ought to talk together.' And the library is occupied [with sharing] knowledge and to mingle Norwegian and Russian things," Librarian Hildur Eikaas said.

Despite language and historical differences, people in this remote part of the world have for centuries shared the challenges of the harsh natural climate, and sometimes natural resources too.

Today both Norway and Russia are exploring potential enormous gas and oil resources in the Arctic waters lapping their shores. Time will tell whether that will lead to more cooperation - or more competition between these Arctic neighbors.

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