Interview with Matti Anttonen, Finland's ambassador to Russia

Embassy of Finland in Russia

What makes Finland so special among Russia's neighbors?

We were the first neighbor to join the European Union in 1995, and through us the EU for the first time got a border with Russia. We also have a long history of good relations with Moscow during the Soviet period which is not an automatic thing. Finland showed during the Cold War that being part of Western civilization and its values is compatible with having positive relations with Moscow.

But wasn't the cost of this Finlandization surrendering your foreign policies to an all-powerful neighbor?

Finlandization was a way of explaining something difficult to understand from an outside perspective. For many people in the West, the idea of being next to the Soviet Union automatically meant to give up your values — which we did not! In reality we managed rather well, taking into account where we started after the war. In 1944 it was not at all clear if we could maintain our democracy plus the market economy — many Western observers just did not believe that a country so close to the Soviet Union geographically and not part of NATO could be really independent.

And there is no danger that Finland will join NATO in the near future?

The population is rather happy with the present status quo. The situation in the region is better than ever in the last 800 years — at the moment there is no majority support for joining NATO.

Among the advantages of neighborhood are booming trade relations. Russia was Finland's top import and export partner in 2008.

There are few EU countries that have bigger trade figures with Russia. Over the years, our eastern neighbor has been the number one importer into Finland and Russia has become a very important partner for Finnish companies seeking to export.

Yet trade with Russia has never been easy, and Finland had its disputes recently over wood tariffs.

Russia decided to introduce export duties on wood, and they were supposed to go up to 50 euros per cubic meter from Jan. 1, 2009, but that decision was postponed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow in autumn and hopefully it will be postponed again. But even the present level of 15 Euros per cubic meter has led to a dramatic decrease of imports from Russia. At the same time, Finnish industry cut back capacity as it could not get enough material. Several factories have been closed, also because of the global recession and changes in the forest sector as a whole. Consequently, our wood imports have decreased.

One of the main hurdles ahead is Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the signing of a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. Brussels says that agreement needs Moscow's WTO accession. Negotiations have stalled, especially since Putin's surprise announcement this summer that the country will join only in a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. What are the prospects for them to go forward again?

We have always been very a strong supporter both for Moscow's WTO accession and for improved relations with Europe because Russia is such an important trading partner. We believe that both in the long run and in the short run the EU will be the country's number one economic partner, and I think Russia recognizes that.

This idea that Russia would negotiate in the framework of the custom union came as a big surprise for us. We hope that this won't cause a major delay in the negotiations, but the ball is very much on the Russian side. Our vision is that they join as soon as possible. But without WTO membership, the negotiations for the EU Agreement will be greatly complicated.

How is the Nord Stream pipeline project going forward in the Finnish sector of the Baltic Sea?

Nord Stream will cross our economic zone, and there is a very clear law about this. The question is very much that this is the very first pipeline of this sort in the Baltic Sea.

Actually, the route was first investigated by Finnish-Russian consortium NordTransGaz ten years ago, but it was abandoned because demand for gas in Western Europe was too weak and Russia was hit by the crisis of 1998.

From our side, since we are not going to buy gas from that pipeline, our duty is to ensure that when it is being built the environmental consequences are manageable, and that process is going on. The next stage will be the government decision on whether construction can go forward.

When can we expect that decision?

I think this autumn. It has taken longer because it is a huge project that influences the sea environment of five countries, some of which do not have as clear laws as we do. Nobody else has given the green light yet.

'There are few EU countries that have bigger trade figures with Russia.'

I would like to say that Finland is also buying gas from Russia via another pipeline, but in our energy balance gas only makes up 10 percent and is on decline as we try to implement the EU decision to increase the share of renewables from presently 25 percent to about 38 percent.

And what is the current share of nuclear power?

About 25 percent of electricity production.

That is quite a lot. Finland is often mentioned as being one of the world's few countries where new nuclear plants are being built.

We are in the company of China, India, the United States, Russia and France, just to mention a few countries, so we are not so different from the majority of mankind.

The idea that the world is not building any more nuclear plants comes from a very narrow western European perception.

Prime Minister Putin mentioned the possibility of nuclear cooperation between both countries during his visit in Helsinki. How likely is a technology transfer in this sector?

The two reactors built in the 1970s by the Soviet Union in Finland have probably been the world's most successful nuclear stations. They have been equipped with extra western security and have been making good money for their owners. So far, three Finnish companies have shown interest in developing new nuclear plants. They will get the necessary government and parliamentary approval no earlier than 2010. Of course, Russian companies are also interested in bidding because we already have Soviet technology in the country. But that decision is still quite far away.

What is the situation at the Russo-Finnish border? Have the terrible lines of traffic improved?

The situation has improved a lot, of course because Russian imports have really gone down a lot because of the crisis, especially imports of foreign-made cars. I think they are down by more than three-quarters, and most of these cars came through Finland. The overall transit trade through our country has slumped 60 percent. This has changed the whole situation at the border and it is much easier than it used to be.

Does Finland have a special role to play within the EU versus Russia?

The EU covers a very big area today, and Finland simply is among those countries for whom Russia is important. We would like to see this relationship to develop, but the other party has to be committed, too. When Finland joined the EU (in 1995), it initiated the Northern Dimension policy to underline that, by the way, Finland has a 1,300-kilometer common border with Russia. One of the priorities of our policy is that more interaction creates more stability and welfare for our region and for the EU as a whole.

Your Foreign Minister Aleksander Stubb recently said Nord Stream was undermining European unity and that Finland would like to see more coordination.

Yes, we would like to see more foreign policy coordination for the European Union — as a whole and not just with regard to Russia. The Lisbon treaty is an attempt in this direction and therefore we are strong supporters of that treaty.

What can Finland do to promote the integration of Russia with Europe?

As a practical example, we will have a fast train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg by 2011 that covers the distance in 3.5 hours. And in addition a new flight connection, Yekaterinburg to Helsinki, connects to a whole range of international flights. This will lead to more contacts.

Also, last year we gave 750,000 visas to Russian citizens. I think nobody else in the Schengen zone had such a high figure.

What can Russia do to promote ties with Europe?

Most of the world's Finno-Ugric nations, to which the Finns belong, live here in Russia and enrich its culture. Europeans should understand that Marii-El, Mordova, Komi and Udmurtia are small European cultures with a right of existence. In that way, Russia could also make an additional  positive contribution to European culture by showing its diversity — like with the fact that it has rather peacefully integrated its major Muslim population.

Russia - Finland 2009
Russia - Finland 2009
This business bilingual colour publication is devoted to cooperation between the two countries in business and tourism and is published in partnership with the Embassy of Finland and the trade enterprise Visit Finland.
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