Rune Rafaelsen is the mayor of Sør-Varanger municipality and one of the busiest people in the Northern hemisphere. He was put into quite the test this past year when some 5500 migrants and refugees came over the border from Russia to Kirkenes at the same time as the local iron ore mine closed, leaving some 380 people unemployed. This would easily cause other mayors’ brows to furrow, but not Rune’s: “There has been many challenges, but the people here are extremely positive, and we trooper on.
We are pleased to get a slot in the mayor’s busy press schedule. Our appointment is sandwiched between a conference in Murmansk, interviews with the New York Times, Helsingin Sanomat, YLE, TV 2 and NRK governmental debates. He has designated 30 minutes for our photoshoot on location on a bog above Kirkenes and we are standing in rubber boots overlooking a Kirkenes harbour in autumn colours. According to Rune we are eyeing “The most important geopolitical view in Norway. Here are enormous resources of oil, gas and fish, so this is the true hot spot and in many ways the most politicized area in the country.”
Rune talks confidently (and at a lightning speed) about politics and hardly misses a beat when we introduce the bright red fireweed sculpture that embodies his nickname ‘Red Rune’. We are clearly dealing with a professional here. The new mayor, elected in October 2015 just returned from an international conference where he was talking about the Barents cooperation. The situation is one of a kind, as the EU sanctions on Russia have no influence on the people-to-people collaboration up here. “Kirkenes is in a way a Russian town in Norway, our neighbour’s shopping and harbour activity is vital for us economically, so promoting an international approach is important.”
As a mayor, Rune sees the value in this neighbourly symbiosis, a view that isn’t always shared with his counterparts working further south in the country. “The fear of Russia seems to be inversely proportional to the distance to the border at Storskog. I think that is something the nation should be glad about. Most people up here have a realistic relationship with their mighty and complicated neighbour.”
Sør-Varanger is no stranger to the challenges of cosmopolitan living. When 5500 migrants and refugees arrived from Syria and elsewhere to Kirkenes over the Russian border last year, the city and its citizens were ready. The city was prepared partly in case of a potential mass invasion or environmental accident, and the people because they have long understood what it means to live up here; neighbours help each other out and you don’t have to go far back in history to be reminded of how much it matters to be there for your neighbour. 3500 refugees were welcomed and housed in the local sports hall within the first 24 hours of the wave, but it took a month for the state to get onboard and understand what was going on. The aftermath on who will ultimately pay the bill is still at the layer’s desk.
You can hear Rune’s first hand account of the refugee wave, the many bicycles that were left in the snow because of a Russian quirk and why the Norwegians are building an “absurd and tragic” 200 meter long fence at the border in this NRK radio feature (in Norwegian).