The former Foreign Minister of Norway, Thorvald Stoltenberg, was not pleased when he first heard about the plans for the Arctic Council.
Today the 84-year-old former minister and diplomat celebrates the 20-year anniversary of the Arctic Council with great happiness. "We need the Arctic Council as an arena for circumpolar cooperation, but I have to admit that Norway was not a driving force in the creation of the Arctic Council back then. We did not try to stop or postpone it in any way, we just did not encourage it," explains Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg was foreign minister of Norway from 1987–1989 and 1990–1993. During the last part of the 1980s, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev had a new approach and a new policy towards the West. In a speech in 1987 he encouraged new forms of cooperation in the North between the East and the West. "When I became the Foreign Minister three years later, politicians in the northern parts of Norway had been discussing some kind of regional cooperation for years. My focus was on establishing Barents cooperation, and I did not want the Arctic Council to come in its way," Stoltenberg says.
His first approval on forming a regional platform for people to-people contact and business cooperation came from the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev. "When I called him the first time he was very positive, but he needed to get consent from President Yeltsin. When he called me back the day after, we never looked back."
In 1993 the Kirkenes Declaration was signed, establishing the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. "During the first years there were several attempts to make Barents cooperation into something more like today’s Arctic Council, and to me that was taking it in the wrong direction. We needed a more local arena, not a big geopolitical stage," says Stoltenberg.
When he saw that Barents cooperation was strong enough to survive its creation Stoltenberg strongly supported the Arctic Council. "But as I predicted back then, the Arctic Council will have geopolitical challenges that Barents cooperation does not have to take into consideration," Stoltenberg concludes.