Not so long ago, the shooting in Utoeya, a small island near Oslo, in which at least 84 people were killed, made headlines across the world. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg called it a national disaster. Today, news media report that the Norwegian krona is getting stronger while the euro is on a downward curve. The Kingdom of Norway is known for a very low unemployment rate (about three percent). More on how this is possible during a world financial crisis, Oslo-Kyiv relations in the following exclusive interview with Jon Elvedal Fredriksen, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Norway to Ukraine.
Mr. Ambassador, your first diplomatic posting is in Ukraine. How did you feel when you learned about it?
“The Norwegian ambassador has two tasks to carry out: (a) represent his Government, his King, and (b) head the diplomatic mission. When I was told I was assigned this task, I treated it with respect. This will be my second diplomatic assignment. I flew to Kyiv after heading the Norwegian Consulate General in Murmansk (Russia). That mission is large enough, so I know enough about the paperwork part of my job, but being Norway’s ambassador to Ukraine is a great honor. Honestly, I’m glad I’m in Ukraine.”
What did you know about Ukraine and how did you picture this country before you were assigned this posting?
“I have long dealt with matters relating to the former USSR, mostly those concerning Russia. I have also studied issues pertaining to Central Asia. I’d never focused on Ukraine, although I knew basic data and I watched what was happening in your country. I had to familiarize myself with the bilateral relations. I knew I had to learn more about today’s Ukraine as a new country. I couldn’t wait to receive first-hand information about your country. I was eager to learn about how your people live after 20 years of national independence. I’ve been here six weeks, trying to read more [about Ukraine], meeting with people, learning from them. I’m beginning to see the overall picture.”
How does Ukraine look compared to Russia, your recent posting?
“Comparisons can be made, but for me, a specialist on Russia, making any comparisons with Ukraine would be dangerous. From what I know, Ukraine is a European country. It is in Europe. I also know that Europe’s geographical center is in Ukraine. This makes Ukraine part of Europe, of course. Another question is, when speaking about politics, Ukraine has several options in Europe, just as Norway has all kinds of options. At one time, Norway could become a member of the European Union, but our referendum showed that most Norwegians were against it. Nevertheless, we are closely and effectively collaborating with the EU. Norway is active on the EU domestic markets, so we have enough topics to discuss and EU cooperation experience to share with Ukraine.”
Does your country share the EU and US point of view about Ukraine’s selective justice in regard to opposition leaders?
“Our Minister of Foreign Affairs said that, should there form a public opinion about Ukraine’s selective justice, this would alarm Norway as Ukraine’s partner. He asked to secure a fair trial [over Yulia Tymoshenko] and reminded that Ukraine, currently presiding over the Council of Europe, has shouldered the big responsibility for justice and democratic values.”
Would you describe the tasks assigned you as an ambassador to Ukraine?
“There are numerous trends with good potential, primarily in terms of fishing. Norway has been supplying Ukraine with enough fish and to spare. There are certain problems that must be resolved. I’m sure we can discuss problems such as marine resource management and the construction of a new [modern-equipped] fishing fleet. Norway has small investments in Ukraine, particularly in the Telenor Group. Norwegian ship-owners are investing in the Mykolaiv Shipyard. There are small and medium-sized Norwegian businesses with their feelers in Ukraine. The problem is that Ukraine remains terra incognita in Norway. Even experts on Ukrainian business aren’t sure. I think Ukraine is where all risks and opportunities have to be very carefully examined. Any Norwegian businesses willing to operate in Ukraine should be well financed, considering the specifics of the Ukrainian market.”
Is this why you expect a warmer business climate in Ukraine?
“I hope this business climate will change. Norway is glad to see Ukraine as a member of the World Trade Organization. This is proof that you’re doing business following the same rules we do on an international scale. I’m sure that your 2008 membership has been giving a positive impetus to foreign inland investments.”
How would you comment on the ongoing EU crisis and eurozone?
“We are following these events closely and with apprehension. So far this crisis hasn’t dealt Norway a heavy blow due to its specific economy — fish, oil and high-tech exports. However, there are no guarantees. Our national currency, the krona, is very strong. This has its advantages and threats, especially in terms of exports. I have stated that Norway is part of the European market, so any negative phenomena there will eventually affect Norway.”
How can Norway secure economic growth and low unemployment rate under the circumstances?
“Indeed, we have a low unemployment rate. I think this is the result of a policy waged by various governments over a long period, combating inflation and struggling to provide job placements and national currency stability. In Norway, there is consensus on the notion of employment. We make no secret of the fact of the aging of our population, with many living on social grants.”
How many Ukrainians live and work in Norway?
“I don’t have exact data, but I know that there are Ukrainian students enrolled in our universities, that there are top-notch [Ukrainian] engineers, programmers, schoolteachers, and builders. I can say that all Ukrainians are well integrated in Norway.”
Many old European countries, including Germany and Great Britain, have acknowledged the fiasco of multicultural policy. How is the integration issue resolved in your country?
“Our society also consists of various [ethnic] cultures. I can’t say that we have as many problems as do countries with many immigrants. Now and then people come to settle in Norway as refugees and immigrants, then, of course there are integration problems. I would say that there is a low conflict rate, God be praised. Swedes form the largest immigration group in Norway (laughing). Most foreign nationals come from the neighboring countries and the rest are from more distant countries. The immigrants’ children can receive a post-secondary education.”
What lessons has your country learned from the Utoeya tragedy?
“This tragedy couldn’t have been foreseen. One man planned and did it. At the same time, our people were happy to hear the political leadership, our parliament declare that our society would remain open. The situation would have been much worse, had our administration decided to take rigid retaliatory measures, curbing human liberties. Norway is a markedly transparent society. A lot of foreigners believe it is too open, considering that people have free access to government buildings; there are no security guards. Well, this is our culture, our lifestyle. Trying to change it would be a mistake. International experience shows that rigid security measures affecting the man in the street can’t prevent acts of terrorism. Every such tragedy teaches us a lesson. The one of the island of Utoeya is that we must keep believing in the civil liberties.”
Your country has immense hard currency reserves, I mean oil trade proceeds. Isn’t Norway going to follow China’s example and pay some European countries’ public debts to help Europe overcome the financial crisis?
“We have no such policy. As you know, our oil trade proceeds are transferred to the Pension Fund. This money is invested in business securities across the world. The Fund’s policy isn’t to purchase businesses or public debts but to acquire small business interests across the world; such investments have no political basis, unlike repaying public debts. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t concerned about the crisis. Several years ago Iceland had a very big problem and Norway gave it a loan.”
Has your Pension Fund bought any interests in Ukraine? Would you recommend such purchases as ambassador?
“I have no information about any such transactions on the part of the Pension Fund (laughing). It is safe to assume that Ukrainian business interests are among its acquisitions.”
Norway has had two referendums concerning EU membership. Would you care to comment on your country’s unwillingness to join the European community? Does Norway fear losing its freedom or what?
“This is a puzzling issue. It’s hard to say what made the Norwegians vote the way they did. Perhaps because they saw no benefit in this membership in the mid-1990s. Norway is a young country, founded 106 years ago. A very short historical period for an independent [nation-] state. When cast our ballots in 1994, Norway wasn’t even 89 years old. I can assume that many citizens believed this country wasn’t old enough to give away a part of its sovereignty.”
What kind of media did you use to learn about what’s happening in Ukraine?
“There were many information sources: newspapers, television programs, contacts with colleagues, Ukrainian partners, political analysts. I’ve tried to read and hear as much as I could. There is a great deal of information and I have to sort it out as a new ambassador.”
Did you try reading our newspapers in Ukrainian?
“Yes. When I came I found reading Ukrainian very difficult. Now it’s a bit easier and I’m trying hard. There are certain aspects in your language that have to be mastered.”
And then you will add to the number of Ukrainian-speaking ambassadors.
“I know that some of my colleagues can read, understand, and even speak Ukrainian. I would like to join this number eventually.”
I wish you the best of success in this field of endeavor.