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Northwestern Europe: Barents Sea Council Celebrates 10 Years Of Cooperation

Nordic prime ministers -- from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland -- and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov meet today and tomorrow in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes to mark the 10th anniversary of the Barents Sea Council, a forum for cooperation in Northwestern Europe after the end of the Cold War. Officials from Greece, the current European Union president, will also be present.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Despite extreme low temperatures in the region, the Nordics feel they have something to celebrate. Today and tomorrow, they are holding a festive gathering of prime ministers in the northern town of Kirkenes to mark the 10th anniversary of the Barents Sea Council, a forum for cooperation among the five Nordic countries -- Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden -- with Russia.

Kjell Magne Bondevik of Norway, Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, Paavo Lipponen of Finland, Goran Persson of Sweden, and David Oddsson of Iceland will be joined at the meeting by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

On the agenda will be, among other things, the issues of improving nuclear safety and public health. Both those headings relate to the situation in Russia, where dumps of nuclear waste materials in the Mormons area are a serious concern not only to Russia but to its neighbors. Mormons is a graveyard of decommissioned nuclear submarines from the Soviet era, many of which are considered unsafe.

Security expert Dan Keohane of the Centre for European Reform in London said the situation is bad: "Certainly on nuclear safety, Russia needs help -- probably all the help it can get. I think that's fairly obvious, when we look at incidents like the [submarine] 'Kursk,' when Russia was hesitant to use Norwegian help and the help of other countries at the time. They needed it."

As to health issues, diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis are spreading in the Russian high northwest, and that is also a cause of concern for neighboring states. The Nordics hope to cooperate with Russia to contain these diseases. Also on the agenda of the meeting are topics like regional economic development, energy transportation, the environment, and indigenous people's affairs.

Sweden's ambassador to the Barents Sea Council, Helena Odmark, said there is a strong desire to help Russia and to cooperate with Moscow on all these issues, but that money can be a problem. "Of course, in some of the areas where there is a lot of financial assistance needed from the West, our countries will be trying to organize financing, to assist Russia to do things quicker than would otherwise be possible, because that is in the interest of both that country and the neighboring countries."

Although the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- are not part of the Barents region, Ambassador Odmark said they are beginning to take an interest in the regional grouping. "The Baltic states are becoming more interested in cooperation up here in the high north, and we have registered now the first project initiated by a Baltic state, in the Barents region. It was an environmental project initiated by Estonia, done in cooperation with Russia primarily, and with some participation from the Nordic countries."

Odmark believes Baltic participation will continue to grow, in view of the tightening web of relationships around the Baltic Sea.