On August 1-2, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a quick visit to Finland. Relations between the two neighboring countries are in an excellent state now, and the level of bilateral cooperation is intense, Finnish President Tarja Halonen told a news conference in the city of Turku after talks with her visiting Russian counterpart. Halonen said she and the Russian president had discussed a “wide range of issues of mutual concern” and were both willing to cooperate in “tackling the shared problems.” Among the issues that the two leaders reportedly discussed were forestry, high technology, innovation, and common border arrangements. But there are also some problems that cloud the otherwise quite bright horizon of Russo-Finnish relationship. The Kremlin appears annoyed by Helsinki’s support of the Baltic nations’ “arrogant” stance in their ongoing disputes with Moscow as well by the Finns’ “suspicious” interest in the rights of the Finno-Ugric peoples resident in the Russian Federation.
For decades, Russia and Finland have been developing close economic ties. For Finland, Russia is the third-most important trading partner. In 2004, the trade volume between the two countries reached a record 9 billion Euro. Geopolitically, some Russian analysts argue, Helsinki’s importance for the Kremlin will likely grow also, due to the internal reconfiguration of the European Union as well as to the prospective changes in the political landscape of the bloc’s two leading powers — Germany and France. Furthermore, with Finland assuming the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2006, Halonen said EU-Russian cooperation and the Northern Dimension program would be among the key priorities of her agenda. (The Northern Dimension program was initiated by Finland in September 1997 and launched as an official EU strategy in June 1999. It is aimed at balancing the development in southern and northern Europe by drawing on the abundant natural resources of northern Russia.)
But despite the seemingly unproblematic and mutually beneficial nature of Russo-Finish interaction, several issues recently surfaced in the relations between the two countries, issues that visibly irritate the Kremlin.
First, Finland and other Northern European countries, as well as the Baltic states, have elaborated a single position on the issue of ecological standards with regard to the Baltic Sea. Northern Europeans appear to be very concerned about Russian oil tankers and port facilities that Russia intends to build in the area. The littoral countries seem to believe that Russia’s plans to use the Baltic Sea basin for the massive export of energy resources present a significant danger to the ecological security of the entire region. Symptomatically, it is probably not incidental that Putin has recently criticized the ecologists, saying that whatever action they undertake, it always takes on an anti-Russian component.
Also, last May a powerful Kremlin aide unexpectedly lashed out at Finland. In his May 16 “secret” speech at the meeting of a group of Russian businessmen (the transcript of the address was later made public by Radio Liberty), the deputy head of Putin’s presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov, said, “Finland, Estonia, and the European Union have sharply intensified their activity focused on [Russia’s] Finno-Ugric peoples.” According to Surkov’s interpretation, the Finns and other Europeans accuse Moscow of suppressing the Finno-Ugric ethnic groups purportedly because the regions where they reside possess “strategic deposits of our oil.” (Curiously, while listing various Finno-Ugric peoples that the regional Russian authorities are allegedly discriminating against, the Kremlin official mentioned, along with the Komi, Khanti, and Mansi, also the Chuvash, who are, of course, Turkic.)
What Surkov was probably referring to was the May 12 European Parliament resolution on the violation of the human rights of Mari people living in the Republic of Mari El. This document was indeed adopted at the initiative of a group of Finnish political and cultural figures. Significantly, even some liberal-minded commentators seem to agree that behind Finland and the EU’s concern about the rights of the Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia lurk “someone’s geopolitical interests.” The fact that this topic suddenly popped up now should be regarded as “rather strange,” other Russian observers say.
Finally, the Kremlin is likely displeased with Finland’s tacit support of the Baltic nations’ position vis-à-vis Russia on such sticky issues like the border treaties and the recognition of the post-war Soviet occupation (see EDM, August 3). At the same time, Russia accuses Estonia and Latvia of discriminating against their large Russian-speaking minorities through education, employment, electoral policy, and citizenship rules. It would appear that Putin counted on Finland’s help in influencing its Baltic neighbors on the issue. “Finland, with its rich democratic traditions allowing all people permanently living in the country to participate in municipal elections regardless of their citizenship … can serve as a good example for Riga and Tallinn,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
(RFE/RL, July 11, AP, Kreml.org, Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 1; RIA-Novosti, Moscow Times, August 2)