Why Sweden and Russia are fighting over soil

Both Russian and Swedish media have been debating whether the Nordic nation is set to seal a controversial deal to buy Ukranian soil. Russia analyst Elena Bazina shares her take on what the fuss is about.

Why Sweden and Russia are fighting over soil
Poltava, where much of the black soil is. Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP/TT

While Ukraine is on fire, other countries are trying to benefit from it.

Over the past week, Russian media sites have been discussing rumours that Swedes are set to buy a huge amount of Ukrainian black soil – a rich soil that contains a number of chemicals that help plants grow.

It's been claimed that around 50-100 million tonnes of very fertile Ukrainian chernozem (the technical term for the soil) will be delivered to Sweden and used at a nature reserve in Dalarna.

According to rumours, the soil will be taken mainly from Poltava region which is of historic importance when it comes to the relationship between the two countries.

The area is well-known for hosting the Battle of Poltava, when Russia's Peter the Great defeated Swedish forces under Karl XII in 1709.

So, the news that Swedes could end up possessing Poltava’s soil wounds the feelings of some Russians, who believe Sweden is still trying to get its revenge.

A reinactment of the Battle of Poltava in 2006. Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov/TT/AP

But while Russian social media have been rife with speculation that a deal is set to be done, with the soil to cost just five euros per tonne, Swedish officials have denied the rumours.

“It's the first time I've heard of it”, Andreas von Beckerath, the Ambassador of Sweden to Ukraine, told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter last week.

However even without any firm evidence of the information that the Swedes are going to take soil from (formerly Russian land) in Ukraine, the fact that such a stir has been caused is highly significant.

It demonstrates the current tensions between Sweden and Russia and the ongoing competition between western and eastern countries for Ukraine's resources.

Remember, the conflict in Ukraine kicked off amid a row over whether it should push for closer links to the European Union or with Russia.

READ ALSO: Russia blames Sweden for Ukraine crisis

Ukraine has a lot to offer with its rich black soil. The country is often described as “Europe's bread basket”. It has the eighth largest agricultural area on the planet and it is the world's third largest exporter of corn and sixth largest grain grower.

Taking advantage of the current unstable political situation, plenty of foreign investors have increased their shares in the Ukrainian agricultural sector in recent months. 

Under Ukrainian law, farm land cannot be bought or sold, but companies can sign long-term leases for up to 49 years. And it seems that in this sector, companies are leaning towards welcoming more firms from the west rather than Russia.

About 20 percent of Ukraine's most fertile land is already controlled by large foreign firms (with long leases) including American companies Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont.

According to Land Matrix, an independent global database that monitors land investment and ownership, the biggest investor in the Ukrainian agricultural sector is the US firm NCH Capital which controls 450,000 hectares, while Russian Renaissance Group is in second place with 250,000 hectares. 

But Sweden, represented by Agrokultura AB and East Capital, also holds a sizeable chunk: 103,700 hectares.

So, as the real war goes on in eastern Ukraine, a war of contracts is going on in the Ukranian agricultural sector.

The current unstable situation certainly seems like a good opportunity for many foreign investors to sign profitable contracts.

However, if the hostilities in Ukraine continue, it will damage the agricultural sector and this could have a global impact – no matter who has invested in the country.

Farmers need credit to buy seeds and special equipment. But currently the interest rate is around 30 percent and the falling Ukranian grivna has led to increased costs for farmers seeking to import new tools.

The United Nations Food Agency has already reported that the Crimea crisis has pushed up global food prices by 2.3 percent.

If the fighting goes on in Ukraine it may no longer be able export grain.

In the most extreme scenario, we could have a major food crisis on our hands.

READ ALSO: Sweden sees Ukranian asylum seeker boom


INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”