Vladimir Putin in Finland: In Search of Two-Way Interaction

On August 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin will pay a working visit to Helsinki. During negotiations with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, key topics of bilateral cooperation are slated to be discussed, as well as a number of key issues on the international and regional agenda. Russian-Finnish relations continue to enjoy a special status, writes Nikolay Mezhevich, Professor at the European Studies Department of St. Petersburg State University. 

Vladimir Putin and Finland’s Presidents regularly hold bilateral talks. These meetings take place at least once a year. At the same time, the nations’ prime ministers, other cabinet ministers, governors, regional officials, professors and experts, as well as road workers and fire-fighters from bordering areas, also meet frequently. In this context, the statement of the President of Lithuania that he has nothing to talk about with Vladimir Putin evokes the kind of sad smile normally elicited by a misbehaved guest who interrupts a great performance at a prestigious European theatre.

In the eyes of generations of high-ranking Russian politicians, Finland, of course, has a special status. The establishment of this privileged relationship did not begin with the participation of Brezhnev in the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. On the contrary, the fact that the conference in Helsinki brought together the leaders of the USSR and the United States of America was a testament to the fact that that by that time (1975), the special status of Finland was no longer up for debate.

In Leningrad and later Saint Petersburg, this has always been felt. It was there that the regional corporation Lenfintorg was established; the unique enterprise later fell under the aegis of the Committee on External Relations of the St. Petersburg Mayor's Office.

Let’s also recall that trade with Finland itself was not carried out with the help of Finnish marks or Soviet rubles, but through the so-called “clearing ruble,” a conditional account unit, a “close relative” of the European ECU, the predecessor of the euro.

Subsequent geopolitical changes destroyed this model. To a large extent, the Finnish market was opened to the West and, partially, was closed to the East with its limited purchasing power. Trade between Finland and Russia, having gone through its worst crises in 1989-1993 and 1997-1999, was nonetheless preserved and continues to have a strong influence on bilateral relations.

The special status of Russian-Finnish and Finnish-Russian relations continues to exist in Europe today. Security matters have become more important in bilateral dialogue. These issues between Moscow and Helsinki are nothing new.

Let us turn to Vladimir Putin’s interview with the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and the Finnish TV channel Yleisradio TV on the eve of his official visit to Finland on September 2–3, 2001. Two programming theses were voiced 18 years ago and still retain their relevance: “In our opinion, it would be more correct to create a unified security architecture in Europe that would not create new dividing lines”, and “After ... the options will be offered to resolve issues in the field of strategic stability, in some other issues, our dialogue will take a substantive character”.

Possibilities for constructive talks and the search for models of two-way interaction aren’t tantamount to a complete absence of problems. Characteristically hostile common European stereotypes about Russia have literally “captured” Finland. Let’s take an example; in the second half of August this year, Finnish media reported that “police have uncovered a historically large criminal money laundering operation – a Russian organised crime group laundered more than 100 million euros through a Finnish company.” It turns out that two Estonian citizens had allegedly laundered money through the Finnish construction company HTR Talonrakennus Oy. Back in 2014, about €140 million was transferred to the company’s accounts with Nordea bank (Scandinavian capital) and Danske Bank. The police saw this and labelled it Russian organised crime. The “Russian mafia” theme thus cast a strange shadow on subsequent media coverage of the visit of the President of Russia. At the same time, no one remembered that the problems of the European banking system, the “inconsistencies” between EU legislation and national standards, and the crises which had hit Nordea and Danske Bank and some others have long been a concern among experts. Gossiping about the Russian mafia serves as a way for the Finnish media to conceal its own incompetence. Unfortunately, in this regard, Helsinki is practically indistinguishable from Tallinn and Riga.

Russia, alas, is “toxic enough” for the average member of the political class of the European Union. To some extent, Finland has followed the “European fashion”. However, the position of Finland is much more complicated, and more rational than that of other EU countries. Finnish medium and large businesses are well aware that it is difficult to work in and with Russia, but the profit margins are much higher, and the Russian market is almost unlimited.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.