Russia, Norway ease borders, seek oil cooperation


Russia and Norway agreed on Tuesday (2 November) to ease frontier controls and said they hoped for cooperation on oil and gas exploration after a deal earlier this year ended a four-decade dispute over Arctic seas.

Foreign ministers of the two nations signed a deal in Oslo enabling people living less than 30km (19 miles) from the border to travel in the zone on either side for 15 days by buying a 20 euro permit. Currently, visitors need a visa.

The accord would apply to 9,000 people in Norway and 45,000 in Russia, easing ties along a former Cold War boundary.

"It's an important, small step," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the deal he signed with his Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Stoere. Lavrov said it might be a model for Russia's enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

The ministers said the deal was a sign of closer ties after the two nations signed a deal in September settling a maritime dividing line off the northern tip of Europe after four decades of talks (EURACTIV 08/09/10).

Parliaments are set to ratify that maritime boundary deal by the end of 2010. "When it enters into force we would be discussing specific projects, including the joint exploration of the deposits which are there," Lavrov said of possible oil and gas activities.

"There is a great potential for close cooperation between the two countries in what is one ecosystem," Stoere said. He added that each nation would decide within its own region.

Tuesday's meeting, including Nordic ministers and the European Union, also agreed to improve cooperation on the environment, such as a short-cut shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as ice on the Arctic Ocean shrinks.

The accords contrasted with a Russian row with Japan over disputed islands after a visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to one island on Monday. Lavrov said Medvedev planned new visits to the archipelago.

In Europe, a problem with relaxing border controls is that Norway, Poland and Lithuania are members of the Schengen border-free area in Europe while Russia is not.

"We are finding a solution that is creative and Schengen-compatible," Stoere said of the 30km travel accord.

Lavrov said any deal to ease Kaliningrad border controls on the Baltic Sea would have to allow travel for Russians throughout the enclave, not just 30km from the borders.

"The [European] Commission seems to be ready to compromise on this," he said. He said that Poland was also willing but that Lithuania was "not yet ready for a similar arrangement".

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The resource-rich Arctic is becoming increasingly contentious as climate change endangers many species of the region's flora and fauna but also makes the region more navigable. Up to 25% of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas could be located there, according to the US Geological Survey.

No country possesses the North Pole or the region of the Arctic surrounding it. The surrounding Arctic nations of the USA, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland) have a 200-nautical-mile economic zone around their coasts. 

Norway covers between 10 and 18% of EU oil demand and about 15% of its natural gas. The country, a member of the European Economic Area since 1994, is the world's third largest exporter of oil and gas after Saudi Arabia and Russia.

By 2015-2020, natural gas deliveries from Norway to the EU are expected to grow from 85 billion cubic metres to 120 bcm, covering 7-9% of the EU's entire gas consumption by 2020.

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