July 29, 2011

The end of the Norwegian fairytale


The well worn tourist route between Norway's quaint capital of the Middle Ages, Bergen, and its modern day equivalent, Oslo, is one of the most enchanting on the globe. The 12-hour journey via heritage train, ferry and bus took our tour group on a tranquil crossing of a fiord ringed by shroud-covered peaks, followed by a steep zig zag up to 900-metre snow-caps, and ending with a ride across glacier-covered plains. It was lovely, peaceful voyage, punctuated only by the constant click, click, click of cameras. Amidst this spellbinding scenery, the only imaginable danger seemed to be mythical trolls emerging from the thick forest to menace any children who refused to come in before nightfall.

As we descended to Oslo on the afternoon of July 22, dozing after a dreamy day, I remarked to a fellow traveller on the unusual number of ambulances racing past us in the opposite direction. Approaching the city centre, our bus driver seemed confused by the congested traffic and frustrating detours, so rare in well ordered Norwegian cities. On disembarking at our city hotel, our tour guide shakily informed us that a bomb had ripped through the city centre a few hours earlier and that a gunman was currently on a rampage shooting youths on a nearby island. She instructed us that we were confined to the hotel. Inside, the lobby was mobbed with tourists who had been relocated from the one-kilometre area around the government buildings, now strewn with shattered glass and debris. With internet access congested due to people wanting to reassure loved ones back home, the hotel allowed me a free call so I could reassure my own small children that I was unharmed. Our fairytale journey through Norway had just come to an abrupt end.

Likewise, Norwegians all over the country that day were awakening to the realization that their reputation as a peaceful, stable and tolerant society was no more. We would later learn that the city bombing was only a sideshow, a distraction created by the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, so he could gun down children attending a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoya while police and soldiers were preoccupied reacting to the earlier drama in the heart of the city. The tragedy that would eventually claim the lives of 76 people, most of them aged between 15 and 19, ushered Norway into the reluctant group of nations that have experienced horrific instances of politically motivated violence. It is a shock to a nation renowned for being the custodian of the Nobel Peace Prize, and one that quietly celebrates the notion of "jante" - someone who doesn't think he is better or worse than the next man; he is always in the middle. The shock was magnified by the fact that the perpetrator was one of their own: a blond-haired, 32-year-old ethnic Norwegian.

Homegrown extremism is a foreign concept in Norway.

The following day, as locals slowly returned to the deserted city centre, many I spoke to told me they were surprised the attack hadn't come from a Muslim extremist. They commented that this is what they had long expected, given Norway's active role in NATO forays in Libya and Afghanistan, and its open borders. But Breivik is a Christian conservative opposed to the "islamification" of Norway. His target was the "watermelon" coalition government (Labour and the Greens) and what he perceives as lax laws on immigration. Terrorism, it's clear, is not exclusively a Muslim weapon.

The incident represents a loss of innocence that parallels Norway's other coming of age tale: its transformation over the past 20 years from a poor nation of fishermen and ship builders to an oil- and gas-rich economic powerhouse, thanks to the discovery of massive offshore fields in the late 70s. Its emergence as the wealthiest nation in Europe has raised its profile, and its attraction to migrants. Once one of the poorest countries on the continent in the years following WWII, Norway today is the wealthiest in the world measured by per-capita income. It has enough resources to fuel Europe's energy needs until 2050, and taxes on oil profits have generated a sovereign wealth fund (the Norwegians refer to it as a "pension" fund) valued at more than $500 billion. Norway sailed through the global financial crisis and is easily weathering Europe's repeated convulsions over the Greece credit crunch, thanks to its decision to retain its own currency and remain separate from the European Union. In short, Europe needs Norway more than Norway needs Europe.

Wealth has brought rapid change to the country's 4.9 million inhabitants. The country's cost of living is the highest in the world, as measured by the Economist's reliable Big Mac index (it costs almost $10 in Oslo, the most expensive capital on the planet). Its lowest-paid workers earn amongst the highest rates in the world (about $28 an hour), and residents enjoy free education up to tertiary level, socialised medicine and plentiful public transport (including an abundance of clean, green trams in most big cities).

It's an attractive proposition to refugees - economic and political - looking for a better life. Three per cent of Norway's population are refugees fleeing political persecution. The biggest group is from Iraq, followed by Somalia. Most refugees resettle in Oslo. Norway does not detain asylum seekers while they are having their refugee status confirmed. In addition, Norway has huge number of Pakistani migrant workers. The most common name for new born babies last year was Mohammed.

Scratch the surface of ethnic Norwegians and you'll quickly find there's a perception that many of these recent arrivals are taking advantage of generous government handouts. This fuels a growing anti-immigration backlash, shrewdly exploited by the opposition Progress Party, which is calling for huge cuts in immigration. This was a policy keenly embraced by Breivik in his statement to police.

The Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has vowed the incident will not change Norway's way of life. But it is inevitable that some things will change. The low security traditionally provided for ministers and the royal family is bound to increase. There are no barriers or bomb-proof glass in government buildings - this is bound to come under review. And the debate on immigration is certain to escalate.

There is one other thing that is likely to change, too: the Norwegian national sense of their place in the world, their perception that they are somehow protected due to their historical role as mediator, a nation adept at helping others find the middle way. At about the same time the first bomb was exploding in the centre of Oslo, on our bus our tour guide was preparing us for our approach to Oslo by describing the typical Norwegian character: he is most comfortable in his hut, far from the city, in tune with nature, away from crowds and the need to communicate any more than necessary to get along with the outside world.

After last week, the winds of change have blown open the door to that idyllic hut, and a new, uncomfortable reality is settling in at home.

Rose-Anne Manns is a journalist with the Australian Financial Review


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