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Ukraine – Norway: a historic visit

Ole T. HORPESTAD: “We have condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine as well as joined the EU and US sanctions”
19 October, 2016 - 18:49
To enable him to better understand the contemporary history of Ukraine, we presented the Norwegian ambassador with a copy of the English-language book from Den’s Library series, A Case without a Statute of Limitations / Photo by the author

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko began his official visit to the Kingdom of Norway on October 18, the first such event in the history of the two nations’ bilateral relations. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited Ukraine for the first time in the fall of 2014. What are the expectations in Norway for this visit of the Ukrainian president, what prospects do Norwegians see for bilateral relations, and what kind of a distant past is linking Ukraine and the Scandinavian countries? The Day learned answers to these questions during an exclusive interview with Ambassador of Norway to Ukraine Ole T. Horpestad.


“This is the first visit of a Ukrainian president to Norway. It may even be called a historic visit. It demonstrates the importance of relations between Norway and Ukraine. We hope that the visit will lead to a deeper relationship and partnership between our countries.”

Are any documents or agreements to be signed, and if so, in which areas?

“We are working on three documents that we are going to sign. Firstly, it is a joint declaration on bilateral relations between the two countries, which will give us directions for the coming years. Secondly, there will be an agreement on technical and financial cooperation. Thirdly, an interagency agreement on justice cooperation will be signed as well.

“We will also hold a major business forum involving all Norwegian and Ukrainian businesspeople who would like to take part. The president of Ukraine and the prime minister of Norway will address the forum’s participants. I hope that this business forum will lead to an increase in trade and investment flows.”

Can you identify promising areas of cooperation?

“Norway is already a major exporter of fish to Ukraine. You can see Norwegian fish in Ukrainian stores. Fish makes up 85 percent of our exports to this destination. Another important area is information technology. The Norwegian companies which are involved in outsourcing employ around 5,000 Ukrainians. Another promising area is construction of small hydropower plants that can provide electricity to a small town. We hope to develop cooperation in the energy sector. In particular, we target energy efficiency, nuclear safety and oil and gas technology. Joint shipbuilding projects also hold out a promise.”

Your country is the world’s third largest exporter of natural gas and meets over 20 percent of the EU’s gas needs. When could we see Norwegian gas getting to Europe and – via Poland – to Ukraine?

“Norway already supplied gas to Ukraine via the EU in 2015. Thus, we can do it on commercial terms.”


What about cooperation in the field of military technology?

“We support military reforms here and cooperate through NATO in the framework of the Comprehensive Aid Package. We are conducting military training projects. We support Ukraine as it adapts its armed forces to Western standards.”

The first visit to Ukraine by a Norwegian prime minister happened in the fall of 2014, and now we are seeing the first visit of a Ukrainian president to Norway. What was the basis for this intensification of relations?

“The Revolution of Dignity was the impetus. Norway has supported Ukraine since the very beginning of these events. We clearly support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and have condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine. We joined the EU and US sanctions as well. We stand together with our allies.

“Since Ukraine has decided to get closer to European standards and integrate into the EU, we have decided to support these reforms. And when our prime minister was here in November 2014, she announced the support package for Ukraine covering four areas: judiciary and law enforcement, energy and nuclear safety, improving trade relations, and humanitarian aid. This year, the funding under this package amounts to 22 million euros.”

You said that Norway provides support to Ukraine under NATO programs. But what is the position of your government on our country’s aspirations to join the alliance?

“We support the position taken in the Bucharest Summit Declaration of 2008: NATO’s doors remain open to Ukraine. NATO membership is not on the agenda now. The prospect of it is there, but only if we see implementation of reforms and strong democratic and civil control over the uniformed services. So Ukraine has a lot of work to do, and NATO will assist in this process.”


We had Norwegian experts coming to our office who said that the Norwegian public generally agreed that Ukraine was facing ongoing Russian aggression. What is your vision of solving the conflict in the Donbas, then, given that Russia does not comply with its commitments under the Minsk 2 Agreement?

“We believe that we have no other mechanism than the Minsk 2 Agreement. We need to get all the parties to comply with all the terms prescribed in the Minsk agreements. Unfortunately, the security situation in the Donbas is a serious problem and an obstacle to progress.”

Then maybe we need new sanctions to force Russia to comply with the agreement’s primary provisions, thus providing security and enabling us to implement the political terms?

“I do not think that any new sanctions are on the agenda at the moment. Norway supports the present sanctions against Russia. Let us hope they will work.”


In a recently published report of the Foreign Policy Council, they say that Russia is continuing with its hybrid warfare as it buys up Europe’s media, politicians, and assets. Is your country feeling that hybrid warfare’s impact? Two years ago, your prime minister told Ukrainian media that Norway did not perceive a growing military threat from Russia. However, the most recent reports say that Norway is building a fence along its border with Russia, its military budget will grow by 230 million dollars, and the country has declared its readiness to host US troops.

“As far as I know, no Norwegian media is Russia-owned, so we have not seen a particularly large impact in this regard. Of course, we monitor Russia’s military activity to the north. The increase in the military budget is mainly due to investments and the modernization of the armed forces under the new long-term defense plan. In general, we want to have good neighborly relations with Russia.”

How has Norway managed to resolve the multiyear territorial dispute with Russia in the Barents Sea?

“It was a very long process. Negotiations began in 1972 and ended in 2010. I participated in several rounds of them myself when I worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and lived in Moscow. In my opinion, that success was due to our shared interest in managing resources of the Barents Sea. When there are no clear lines and regulations, it is difficult to exploit natural resources, which include, apart from fish, oil and natural gas. We and Russians were both interested to have a clear legal basis enabling us to exploit these resources.”

What do you think of building that fence on the Russian border, what was the reason for it?

“As you know, there was a large inflow of refugees across the border past fall, but we reached an agreement with Russia in a few weeks, and that inflow stopped. This year, we decided to build a fence to be able to restore order at the border in case a similar situation emerges again.”


Your country joined many rules of the EU, but does not want to join this community. Can you name the main reasons for the Norwegians’ unwillingness to join the EU?

“Indeed, we are very integrated into the EU through the European Economic Area. The Norwegians said ‘no’ to EU membership twice, at referendums in 1972 and 1994, perhaps because we are very attached to our independence. We are a relatively young country. We gained independence in 1905. Agriculture, fishing, oil and gas are our key natural resources, over which we want to preserve national control. The Norwegians do not like to be governed from the outside... (laughs). We value a sense of independence, a feeling that we can cope on our own. About 70 percent of the population oppose a possible EU membership at the moment. On the other hand, I want to emphasize that we are very integrated with the EU, the Schengen Area and the European Economic Area. Our main trading partner is the EU, and most of our closest allies and friends are EU members.”

What do the Norwegians think about the monarchy? What importance do they ascribe to preservation of that institution? How important is the King’s role in the nation’s life?

“The monarchy holds a strong position in Norway. Our first King Haakon VII was effectively elected in a referendum in 1905, and the current monarch Harald V is his grandson. The King and the Queen are very popular and respected by the people, they celebrated the 25th anniversary of their reign this year. I believe that most people consider the monarchy to be a stable non-politicized institution that represents the whole country pretty well. The King and the Queen also do a great job representing Norway in the state and official visits, which is an important responsibility. Your president and his wife also will meet with Their Majesties during the visit to Oslo.”


Ambassador, you have probably read the British ambassador to Ukraine’s interview with The Day, in which she stated that her country led the world in the use of soft power. Is not Norway famous for its soft power as well?

“Our country has an extensive program of assistance to developing countries. We strive to present our culture abroad too. We may do it in Ukraine as well. We place a great emphasis on advocating our values, such as democracy, human rights, equality between the sexes, and equal rights of people having different sexual orientations.”

This newspaper lately ran a story about the efforts of the great Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen who had saved millions of lives in Ukraine. Do the Norwegians remember it?

“Yes, I saw that article, and this fact is widely known. I know that, for instance, the village of Mykhailivske opened a Nansen museum recently, since he donated part of his Nobel Prize to fund a machine station there. I intend to go there and visit the village. I also know that the Ukrainians honor Nansen’s memory due to the contributions he made here back then.”


Do the Norwegians remember that back in 1043, Yaroslav the Wise gave lands that stretched up to Altafjord and the Alta River as dowry of his daughter Elizabeth, the bride of the Norwegian king?

“(Laughs.) I remember it very well because I studied history. Yaroslav the Wise married his daughter Elizabeth off to Norway, and the second and third daughters went to other countries. Perhaps it is not widely known among the general public in Norway. It is an important part of our common history, as the Vikings came here to Ukraine, served local princes, and some of them returned with local brides. (Laughs.) So, Elizabeth, whom we call Elisiv, was the queen of our last king of the Viking era, King Harald, who died in 1066.”

While invading England?

“Precisely, he was killed in that battle. Still, Elisiv remained in Norway. We have a good shared history which has connected us since ancient times.”

Indeed, Ukraine has long history that begins with Kyivan Rus’, but Russia, which is constantly seeking expansion, has expropriated, or stolen, our history. What do you think about that?

“In any case, the roots of Ukrainian history are in Kyiv and Kyivan Rus’. This is the basis of the Ukrainian state. Ukraine has had a dramatic and change-prone history. But your nation has survived and has attained statehood again in our era. We can rejoice at having common roots, which have connected us from the very beginning of our existence.”


Ambassador, when have you become interested in Ukraine?

“I have long taken an interest in your history. I came to Kyiv for the first time in 1981, back in the Soviet era. The city made a big impression on me back then. I came here on a few later occasions as well. I was interested in languages, cultures and histories of the Slavic peoples. I am studying the Ukrainian language now to be able to learn more about your history and culture. I am already a fluent reader of your newspaper. Speaking is harder, but I still hope to master the language.”

What Ukrainian trait has impressed you most?

“I have had a very good impression of Ukraine in the month and a half of my stay in your country. I have seen young and engaged people who speak foreign languages and are interested in studying abroad, including in Norway. So, there is a generation that wants to cooperate closely with Europe. I hope that the Norwegians will see that Ukraine is a great country, rich in historical monuments. Ukraine’s nature is just beautiful.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day