Freedom From the Absurd

8 March 2011, 11:21

The culture gap between the Scandinavian world and Ukraine is much greater than the geographical distance between the two. Talking to Norwegians or Danes may make you feel ashamed of yourself, your country and the rules of living in it to the point of blushing. But as they say, everything is learned by making comparisons. The Ukrainian Week met with Norwegian Ambassador to Ukraine Olav Berstad to learn more about his country’s experience in solving a number of key national issues. Taxes on large business, the code of ethics in the police, and the Norwegian concept for promoting national culture abroad — even this short list gives you an idea of who is who and who is moving where.

Human rights

U.W.: Mr. Berstad, what changes in the area of human rights can you see today in Ukraine?

“We see that you have a lot of discussions about human rights, freedom of press, and democratic values. Norway does not have any particular position at the moment. As an ambassador, I am also responsible for issuing visas to citizens of Belarus. There is a huge difference between this country and Ukraine. But even Norway gets its share of criticism regarding human rights. We are being criticized, for example, of having protracted court proceedings and excessively long pretrial detainment terms. However, our violations are not as serious as in other countries, even though we are not faultless either.”

U.W.: How did Norwegian society react to the situation surrounding Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo of China last year? Ukraine was initially on the list of countries that said they were unable to attend the awarding ceremony “for various reasons” but changed its mind at the last moment under pressure from the EU.

“Most Norwegians are sincerely concerned about human rights protection. This is a legal issue, but at the same time it is linked to the nature of contemporary society. Human rights issues exist in many countries of the world, in particular in China. The Nobel Prize committee is independent and has nothing to do with the government of the country. Sometimes its decisions are inconvenient for Norway’s foreign policy. The most dramatic example was in 1936 with Germany when Carl von Ossietzky, an inmate in a concentration camp, was awarded the prize. But the committee was never stopped by challenges. This prize is also a political message, support for a certain person or organization and criticism of others. If a country decides not to participate in the ceremony, this may be a political signal that it does not share the values held by the Nobel Prize committee.”

Control and transparency

U.W.: What has Norway done to solve the issue of income and expense declarations by politicians and officials?

“I would not say that we have had a discussion on this as big as the one in Ukraine, because the Norwegian taxation system is open and transparent. Everyone can see how much the prime minister and the president in parliament earn, and what real estate they have. All this information has been available on the Internet for several years now. You can see the salaries of government officials, the leaders of the country, and compare them with their expenses and real estate assets. The media focus their attention on this, but I don’t remember any significant cases involving politicians being caught in recent years.”

U.W.: When a high-ranking Norwegian official or politician buys a large house, how does he report about the source of his finances?

“In these cases, the bulk of the money would come as a bank loan. How can it be otherwise? There may be additional questions when real estate is purchased abroad. For several years Norway has have lively debates about privileges for officials. About 20 years ago, the Norwegian national airline company offered tickets to certain categories of politicians free of charge, and some of them used these for private purposes. But this has been canceled. Moreover, we pay taxes on privileges. When I go on a business trip, I pay taxes on privileges, and I also pay for living in a place rented for me by the state. I deduct the tax from my salary, but then I receive compensation for it. Trade unions spoke out against the cancellation of privileges and then the government raised salaries to offset the introduction of taxes on privileges.”

U.W.: Does that mean that the administration of taxes is very complicated in Norway?

“No, because everything is computerized. Banks must submit all the necessary information to the tax agencies. There is also strict regulation about transferring capital from and to Norway. If large sums are involved, additional explanations are required.”

U.W.: What does the term “fighting corruption” mean in Norway?

“We rank 10th in terms of not accepting corruption (Denmark tops the list; Sweden ranks fourth, while Ukraine is 134th. — Editor). This is the lowest rank among the Nordic countries, i.e., all our neighbors are less corrupt, even though we are still free from large-scale corruption. It is very easy to expose a bribe in Norway, and the press are always on their toes. Perhaps our media are the most free in the world. Controlling government and corporate money flows is a difficult issue. This process has to be 100% transparent. Trust is important. But control and transparency are the guarantees of an effective fight against corruption.”

U.W.: Does this mean that one shouldn't start the fight by opening criminal cases against opposition politicians and that the correct system should be created in the first place?

“Yes, there are several aspects here. As a certain objective reality, the system has to be based on the principle of transparency and the rule of law. Then citizen ethics is very important. You see, for a Norwegian to accept money from people for something that is part of his professional duties is simply incomprehensible. It is an absurdity. And there is no material motivation for this. Policemen, judges, and officials have decent salaries. The Norwegian government pays special attention to this. A government official or a law enforcement officer must provide services to the population and help citizens rather than complicate their lives. To us, ethics is not just a matter of personal choice but also a kind of societal philosophy embodied in environmental and labor legislation and in the very concept of human rights.”

Culture and life

U.W.: How does Norway represent its culture abroad? In what way is the foreign affairs ministry engaged in this?

“The promotion of culture played a huge role in the development of the country in the 18th century. Norwegian identity was formed with the help of theater, music, literature, and fine arts. Then the country was modernized thanks to culture. Many years ago we developed our concept for Norway's cultural foreign policy. It is coordinated by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has two aspects: one is the promotion of national achievements abroad and the other one is introducing foreign cultures to Norwegians. Our activities are focused on Europe, North America, and East Asia and receive good financing. Moreover, we have many private initiatives financed by businesses. Life has no sense if we don’t develop culture. Furthermore, it is a positive tool in international relations.”

Stalwart in competition

U.W.: What structural changes in society, the economy, and the state apparatus is Norway carrying out to adapt to post-crisis conditions?

“The Norwegian banking system has survived. The government had enough capacity to finance the budget deficit in 2009–2010, so we went through the crisis quickly and lost very little. The Norwegian situation is largely different from what you see in the majority of European countries. But on the other hand, we are aware that we cannot preserve the current status quo in society. Therefore, reforms in Norway have addressed education, science and innovation. We have to take advantage of all of the opportunities given to us by our economic integration with the EU. This is a great advantage. We have free access to a market of over half a billion people. Most importantly, we are competitive on this market.”

U.W.: How did Norway reach this stage of economic integration?

“We made four attempts to join the EU, but the citizens said no. We had forms of free trade or other trade with the EU beginning from the 1960s. But contemporary free trade is totally different. We have been developing together with the system. The agreement that we have with the EU is perhaps even deeper than the one Ukraine is negotiating. We are a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), except for our agricultural and fishing sectors. Free trade is a hard thing, and there are sectors that need protection. We are very particular about protecting our agriculture and are under constant pressure from the WTO to liberalize our agricultural market. There’s also great interest in our fishing resources. The government has to seek balance, but free trade has given Norway a lot of advantages and has not become a threat. It is not difficult to take another step after many others have already been taken. But when you start virtually from zero, this is incredibly difficult. The EU understands this. As an EFTA member we signed a free-trade agreement with Ukraine in 2010. Your country requires a sufficiently long transition period before a full-scale free-trade zone with the EU begins to function.”

U.W.: The Ukrainian government says that we should not view a transitional period of 4–7–10 years as a gift. This is a strange position because our country now has very low competitiveness. How much time did Norway need to achieve this?

“If you have only a short period, all players are forced to adapt very quickly. We believe that Ukrainian industry will be totally compatible, but your country has to change its administrative procedures and counteract corruption. This is important. In order to become competitive, you have to make your way in a whirlwind of competition. Norwegian businessmen only benefited from the fact that after the Second World War they fought to survive in a competitive environment. Next to us were Sweden, Finland, France, and Germany. It hurts, but it gives the country strength.”

U.W.: Are Norwegian investors interested in making investments in Ukraine today?

“We already have a very big investor on the Ukrainian market — Telenor is one of the owners of Kyivstar. From a technical standpoint, this is a successful investment on the Ukrainian market. Now Kyivstar is owned by VimpelCom Ltd., which was set up after Telenor and Altimo’s stakes in Ukraine’s Kyivstar and Russia’s Vympelcom were merged. The rights of investors were not protected either in Ukraine or in Russia, i.e., this is a shortcoming common to both countries. In Ukraine, Norway is not a big investor, which is caused by the fact that many Norwegian investments go through third countries, for example Sweden. Norwegian investments are very globalized but are sometimes hard to identify as such.”

Biographical note

Olav Berstad was born on 19 September 1953 in Tromsø in northern Norway. In 1980, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1998–2001, he was the Norwegian ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Ukraine since September 2006.

This is Articte sidebar