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Belarus-Norway: Informal partnership through family ties

On 27 July biathlon legends Darya Domracheva and Ole Einar Bjørndalen test-drove the world’s biggest dump truck. Visiting BelAZ enterprise, the Belarusian manufacturer of haulage and earthmoving equipment, they took the company’s monster truck for a spin. The famous...
Domracheva Bjorndalen

On 27 July biathlon legends Darya Domracheva and Ole Einar Bjørndalen test-drove the world’s biggest dump truck. Visiting BelAZ enterprise, the Belarusian manufacturer of haulage and earthmoving equipment, they took the company’s monster truck for a spin. The famous Belarusian-Norwegian biathlon couple has broken the ice in the complicated relations between the two states. They spend a significant amount of time in Belarus, sharing their pictures with numerous Instagram followers.

Political disagreements on issues of democracy and human rights in Belarus traditionally impede bilateral relations with Norway. Yet Norway has provided consistent and generous support to Belarusian NGOs and independent media outlets. Moreover, in the cultural sphere, the Belarusian-born singer Alexander Rybak won the Eurovision song contest for Norway in 2009.

Political relations frozen

At present, official inter-state relations between Belarus and Norway remain relatively weak. In particular, no high-profile visits have occurred between the two states over twenty-five-years of diplomatic relations. Norway consistently criticises the Belarusian regime for violations of human rights and has supported EU-imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenka.

Although diplomatic relations exist, partnership between the two states remains insufficient. Neither Belarus nor Norway possesses proper mutual diplomatic representatives. The Norwegian Embassy in Kyiv deals with Belarusian issues, including long-term stay visas, while the Belarusian Embassy in Stockholm covers Norwegian affairs.

The Belarusian-Norwegian trade partnership looks slightly better. In 2017 Belarus became the second biggest consumer of Norwegian salmon after Japan. Moreover, since 2014, Belarus has de-facto assisted Norway in exporting fish to the Russian Federation after the food embargo imposed in 2014 and Norway imports potash fertilizers and metal products from Belarus.

At the same time, Norway has traditionally provided generous support for Belarusian NGOs, independent media, and pro-democracy movements. In 2012 Ales Bialiatski, a Belarusian political activist known for his work with Viasna Human Rights Centre, received the Freedom of Speech Award of the Norwegian Writers Association. Also, the Norwegian government has provided financial support to the Polish-based satellite television channel Belsat, which aims its broadcasts at Belarusians.

The biathlon super-couple

Domracheva and Bjørndalen hold biathlon records. Bjørndalen, dubbed the “King of Biathlon”, has won 13 medals in the Winter Olympics — more than any man in history. Domracheva lists as the most decorated female biathlete in the world with four Olympic gold medals. In 2014 she received the Hero of Belarus medal, the highest honour in Belarus. Domracheva and Bjørndalen first met during the 2010 Winter Olympics and married in 2016. The couple raise their daughter, Xenia, as a dual citizen of Belarus and Norway.

Lukashenko Bjorndalen Belarus

Ole Einar Bjørndalen meets Alexander Lukashenka in Raubichi, near Minsk. Source: BELTA

Despite complicated political relations between Belarus and Norway, the Domracheva-Bjørndalen family alliance has successfully raised cultural and media awareness in both countries. The couple spends a significant amount of time in Belarus and frequently shares photos of their pastime activities with Instagram followers. Recently the couple has embarked on a road trip across Belarus with the hashtag #Norwegian in Belarus.

The Norwegian Bjørndalen has praised Minsk:

I like the fact that Minsk is the second cleanest city I’ve ever been in. The city is incredibly neat, with beautiful parks.

Bjørndalen also appreciates the quality of Belarusian food:

I can eat practically anything from your [Belarusian] cuisine. It reminds me a bit of the Scandinavian cuisine, the one I’m used to. I also like Belarusian milk.

When Bjørndalen failed to qualify for Norway’s biathlon team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, the Belarusian Biathlon Federation requested his inclusion in the Belarusian Olympic biathlon delegation. Bjørndalen coached and supported Domracheva and other members of the Belarusian team during the 2018 Olympics. On 25 June Domracheva announced her decision to quit a professional career in biathlon, citing the desire to spend more time with the daughter.

A fairytale violin

Alexander Rybak, the winner of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, represents another successful Belarusian-Norwegian integration experience. The Minsk-born Rybak emigrated to Norway with his parents at the age of four. Rybak’s parents, both professional musicians, continued their music careers in Norway and encouraged Alexander in his own musical pursuits. Rybak actively studied music and worked with a range of Norwegian musicians.

Alexander Rybak

Alexander Rybak. Source: eurovisionni.wordpress.com

In 2009 Rybak won the Eurovision Song Contest with his own song titled “Fairytale”, earning a record 387 points. Since then, Rybak has actively toured the countries of the former Soviet Union. Rybak has also participated in several Belarusian music competitions as a jury member. Rybak, a Norwegian citizen, cited warm feelings towards Belarus and Minsk, where his grandmothers live. This year Rybak represented Norway at Eurovision for the second time, although he failed to repeat his initial success.

Despite the lifting the sanctions against the Belarusian officials, the probability of a reset in Belarusian-Norwegian inter-state relations remains very low. Only ground-breaking changes in the Belarusian state’s attitude towards democracy and human rights might trigger positive changes. As for economic cooperation, only serious changes in the situation with the rule of law in Belarus might bring significant investment from Norway into the Belarusian economy.

So far, the Domracheva- Bjørndalen family alliance and Rybak’s success story serve as the reminder of a tremendous potential that Belarusian-Norwegian partnership holds.

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Olga Hryniuk
Olga Hryniuk
Olga Hryniuk holds degrees from Coventry University and the European Humanities University. She is based in Minsk, Belarus.
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