Leaving politics in 2005, former Prime Minister of Norway KJELL MAGNE BONDEVIK founded the Oslo Center for democratic governance. He tells us about life after the premiership, and how his organisation has gone from strength to strength…
On his achievements as prime minister
I’ve been engaged in politics all of my life, and I was born into it. I grew up in Molde, on the west coast of Norway, where my father was deputy mayor. My uncle was leader of the Christian Democratic parliamentary group, entering cabinet as Minister of Church and Education. Primarily, however, it wasn’t family, but friends, who brought me in. My friends were also interested in politics, so I was active in the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Party at home, and when I moved to Oslo to study. I became a member of parliament, leader of the party, a minister in government, and finally prime minister for two terms.
As prime minister, my government increased Norway’s development to a level that has remained constant ever since. A test came in 2003 when, under pressure from the US and UK to invade Iraq, I had to choose a standpoint. It wasn’t easy for a small NATO country like Norway to stand up to Bush and Blair, but we did. And I’m increasingly convinced that it was the right thing to do. I was also involved in interreligious dialogue between Jews and Muslims, improved childcare, and created an action plan for mental health provision in Norway, which was something that was lagging behind in our general health provision.
On life post-premiership
Leaving office, I was offered diplomatic jobs around the world, and was asked to be a candidate for various international organisations. But I’d already made a choice to stay in Norway. I’ve ten grandchildren, and I wanted to see them grow up, as that was something I’d missed during my time as prime minister. As premier, my freedom had been restricted by bodyguards. I was, I believe, the first Norwegian prime minister to have 24/7 protection, after threats were made against my family. I became used to the security, as did my wife, but it was nice the guards could leave me a few weeks after I vacated my prime ministerial office.
My experience of coalitions and minority governments has put me in good stead to advise governments at the Oslo Center. I had to negotiate constantly in government and in parliament, and I found that it’s important to develop good human relations. Politics is, at the end of the day, about people. It’s about budgets: yes. It’s about legislation: yes. But, fundamentally, it’s about human beings. And an integral part of that is understanding. I managed that through three ‘C’s: coordination, communication and compromise.
On founding the Oslo Center
I founded the Oslo Center with a colleague from politics. I wanted to have my home in Norway, with my children and grandchildren, but still travel internationally. It was relatively unusual for a former prime minister to found a centre in Norway, but I did, and we set out in a path of interreligious dialogue. I’m a theologian, after all, so it was a core interest for me.
We made our own report on human rights in Eritrea, and contributed to a report on human rights in North Korea. We were then invited to work with politicians in Kenya, and today we have an office in Nairobi, working on projects around the world: in Somalia and Tanzania, among other countries. We focus on democratic assistance, but we’re constantly evolving.
On current world events
The world is going through a very tragic and turbulent time, and the Oslo Center has been directly involved with projects in Ukraine. I’ve been to Kiev many times, working primarily with Ukrainian members of parliament. They were very eager to learn about our country, and delegations came to Oslo to experience how things are done in our ministries and parliament. The idea that the ‘winner takes it all’ isn’t democratic. Democracy is how you take care of the interests of minorities, and in 2014/15 we put this to Ukraine and received very positive feedback. It’s why it’s so sad to see what’s happening over there, and why I’ve been thinking of the politicians we had contact with. At the moment, of course, it’s difficult to get in touch with them. But I’m thinking of them all the same.
The war is important for Norway, as we share a border with Russia. We had good relations in the high north between our two citizens and now, of course, that has changed. We feel safe as a member of NATO, and I don’t believe Putin has ambitions to invade Norway. But, that said, we’re concerned for Europe, particularly since the nuclear issue has been raised. I can’t see how this war will end, and I won’t speculate on that. But it will end. Wars do, sooner or later. I met Putin several times as prime minister, but I stepped down in 2005, before his authoritarian methods began. And I must say, I had very encouraging discussions with him back then, so I struggle to understand how his attitude changed so dramatically.
KJELL MAGNE BONDEVIK served as Prime Minister of Norway in the 1990s and 2000s. He now leads the Oslo Center organisation.
This article is a Fika Online exclusive.