Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 162

Russian President Vladimir Putin completed a largely successful two-day visit to Finland this past weekend that, in both its symbolic and more substantive content, fully reflected the many ambiguities that continue to condition and complicate Russia’s foreign relations with neighboring countries and with the West more generally. Indeed, the issues touched on during Putin’s brief stays in Turku and Helsinki ranged from Russian-Finnish trade and border problems, to Moscow’s relations with the European Union, to NATO enlargement and the status of Russian-speakers in the three former Soviet Baltic states, to the continuing face-off between Moscow and Washington over the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and missile defense.

That Finland should serve as the locus of such broad-ranging discussions is perhaps no surprise. Soviet-Finnish relations were very much emblematic of the Cold War period, and Helsinki’s rush toward membership in European institutions in the decade since the old empire’s dissolution mirrors similar efforts in some other former Soviet and Soviet bloc countries. At the same time, just as the Soviet Union often trumpeted “Finlandization”-the set of arrangements under which Finland remained formally outside of the Soviet bloc while surrendering much of its sovereignty to Moscow-as an ideal model of state-to-state relations during the Cold War period, so Russian leaders are applauding current ties between the two countries as a useful post-Soviet model for relations between Russia and other neighboring states. That is largely because Finland, while it did join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, the European Union in 1995 and the European Economic and Monetary Union in 1999, has not sought formal membership in NATO. Moscow has strongly suggested that the three former Soviet Baltic states should emulate the Finnish example, a sentiment reflected during Putin’s visit in a comment by the Russian president to the effect that “Finland has in a magnificent way shown the benefits of neutrality over the decades.”

Putin arrived with his wife and a delegation of Russian government officials in Turku on September 2 for his first state visit to Finland, and headed off immediately for informal talks with President Tarja Halonen at the Finnish head of state’s nearby summer residence at Naantali. On September 3 Putin traveled to Helsinki for the start of formal discussions that included more talks with Halonen, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, speaker of the Parliament Ritta Uosukainen and Finnish business leaders. Few Finnish citizens turned out to welcome the Russian president, but there were reportedly a small number of demonstrators on the streets who called for Moscow to return to Helsinki territory grabbed by the Soviet Union in 1944 following Finland’s defeat in the Winter War. Putin’s visit, described as a courtesy call by some reports, came at the invitation of Halonen, who had herself visited Moscow in June of 2000. Putin is reported to have numerous ties in Finland from his days in the St. Petersburg city government, and had visited the country a number of times previously.

There were no agreements of major importance reached during the Helsinki visit, and the failure to finalize a long-negotiated accord on mutual protection of investments was depicted by some Russian sources as a significant failure. The visit appears nonetheless to have been a successful one. Perhaps most important was a symbolic gesture: On September 3 Putin laid a wreath at the tomb of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the field marshal who led Finland’s outnumbered troops in their heroic battle against the Red Army in World War II. As one Russian daily pointed out, Mannerheim had been portrayed in the most unflattering terms by Soviet propagandists, and Putin’s visit to his grave marked a major departure for the Russian leadership. In more substantive terms, the visit did yield the signing of several minor agreements. These included three-year cooperation agreements between the health and trade ministries of the two countries and, according to Russian sources, two deals between Russia’s Norilsk Nickel and the Finnish metals firm Outokumpu. One of these involves the construction of a new enrichment plant in Norilsk and the other, signed during Putin’s meeting with Finnish business leaders, expands the capacities at a factory in Talnakh. The two sides reportedly also moved forward in talks aimed at facilitating construction of a high-speed rail link between Helsinki and St. Petersburg and addressed anew-albeit only in general terms-a proposed gas pipeline that would run from northwestern Siberia to Germany via Finland.

Both sides also used Putin’s visit to underscore the extent to which bilateral ties have improved in recent years-Lipponen was quoted as saying that “relations could hardly be much better”-and to highlight what they believe to be the importance of these improved Finnish-Russian relations to Moscow’s ongoing integration with the EU. Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was part of the Russian delegation, expressed this last sentiment in remarks suggesting that bilateral Finnish-Russian ties could be productively used as model in building Moscow’s relations with the EU. Russian media likewise portrayed Putin’s visit as an effort to use Finland as a “window” to Europe, and at least one report suggested that the Helsinki talks had opened that window a little wider.

For all the happy rhetoric, however, it remains unclear how much Putin’s visit served to boost relations in real terms. Some Russian sources, for example, intimated that the border issue-that is, the enduring bitterness of many Finns over the Soviet Union’s seizure of lands centered on Karelia-could ultimately emerge as a point of contention between the two countries. In this context, they depicted Putin’s visit to Mannerheim’s grave as a purely symbolic gesture, one that was more than balanced by the Russian president’s more pragmatic unwillingness to discuss World War II or the related border issue. It is likewise unclear whether the Russian delegation’s talks in Helsinki will help boost still-modest levels of trade between the two countries. According to Russian government figures, Russia is currently Finland’s fourth leading trade partner; Finnish government figures put Russia in fifth place. Trade turnover has reportedly increased in recent years, with 2000 figures surging to US$5.2 billion, a 50-percent increase over 1999. And trade was said to be up another 20 percent through the first five months of this year. But some of the recent increases are said to be due less to increased volumes of trade turnover than to rising energy prices.

Some tension may continue to fester between Helsinki and Moscow, finally, over the issue of NATO enlargement. Although it is making no moves toward formal membership in the Western alliance itself, the Finnish government has supported enlargement in principle and Halonen asserted publicly after her talks with Putin that “it is only a question of time until the Baltic countries are admitted to NATO.” Moscow, conversely, continues to oppose NATO enlargement both in principle and, especially, with respect to the Baltic countries. Indeed, the Russian president used his visit to Finland as a soapbox to excoriate the alliance once again for its expansion plans. He was quoted as saying that Moscow did not see “any objective reason for the Baltic states to become members of NATO,” and that “only in a sick imagination could one think that some aggressive elements could emerge from Russia.” Those comments, taken together with some provocative and seemingly ill-intended remarks about alleged rights abuses against Russian speakers in the three Baltic countries, were perhaps the most discordant note (AFP, August 30, September 2-3; Reuters, September 2-3; AP, September 3; DPA, September 4; Novye Izvestia, Vedomosti, Vremya Novostei, Izvestia, September 4; Moscow Times, September 5).