Diplomatic Talk

Finnish EmbassyThe Finnish ambassador Matti Antonnen, left, talking with the Finnish trade minister Paavo Väyrynen.

An interview with Matti Anttonen, Finland's ambassador to Moscow

Russia wants visa-free travel with Europe, but opinions within the EU on this differ considerably. What is Finland's position?

Nobody can deny that we have a goal to abolish visas. And little by little we are getting there. But it is a two-way street. It is not only a question of Russians traveling freely to Europe but also of Europeans traveling and moving freely in Russia.

So Finland also demands an end to Russia's registration rules for foreigners?

Yes, this is part of the package. As you know, coming to Russia is not always unbureaucratic — especially for people who work here. The idea is to make the movement of people easier. We would like to see more Russian tourists coming to Finland. But there should be easy access to Russia as well.

Despite the visa regime, you have pretty impressive numbers. According to the State Statistics Service, Russian citizens crossed into Finland 2.96 million times in 2009, making it by far the most popular destination for Russians outside the CIS, even beating Turkey, which had 2.4 million entries in 2009. How do your Consular offices cope with the work?

The number of visas we grant is much lower because more than 80 percent of them are multiple-entry. In 2009 we gave about 750,000 visas to Russians. I think this year the figure will be almost 1 million.

How difficult is it to get a Finnish multiple-entry visa?

If you can prove that you need it and there is no reason to deny it, then you will get one.

What makes Finland so attractive to Russians?

For many Russians, especially those living close to the border, going to Finland is an every month thing. So the key is proximity. We are very near St. Petersburg and, because of the daily night train, also to Moscow. On Dec. 12, the new fast train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki will start operating, cutting travel time to 3 1/2 hours. This is Russia's first international speed-train connection. And for St. Petersburg, this means that Helsinki will be nearer than Moscow — trainwise!

What do Russian travelers do in Finland?

First of all, there is a big number of shopping tourists. Not necessarily because prices are so much lower. But because of the Orthodox calendar, the Russian high season coincides with the Finnish after-Christmas sale season. Also, Finnish nature is very attractive in summer. Many people also come in winter, most of them, again, after New Year's. This is really positive for both sides because otherwise this is a low season where few other people travel. In one year alone we had an estimated 100,000 Russians in Finland celebrating New Year and Orthodox Christmas!

For many Russians, especially those
living close to the border, going to Finland is an every month thing.
So the key is proximity. 

The number of Finns traveling to Russia is much lower  — official statistics recorded 1.06 million entries in 2009, but it is nevertheless the highest of any non-CIS country. Is this also because of proximity?

Many Finns come to buy petrol on the other side because petrol costs only half the price. But I think many people do not go much further than the first gas station. Many have multiple-entry visas and come to buy petrol every week!

Sounds like bad business for Finnish petrol station owners!

They tried to warn Finnish car owners that they might risk their warranty when using Russian petrol, but people are willing to take that risk.

Turku will be the European Capital of Culture in 2011, but the title is shared with Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Will there be rivalry?

They are very different cities. Together we can be more interesting than alone. I think it is good for the whole Baltic Sea region — one of the world's most dynamic places but little-known.

Russia-Finland Facts
  • Finland and the Soviet Union signed a peace agreement on October 14, 1920. Diplomatic relations began between the two countries at the end of that year.
  • The first Finnish diplomatic accommodation was a railway wagon.
  • The Finnish Embassy at 15-17 Kropotkinsky Pereulok was designed by famous Finnish architect Hilding Ekelund and was built in 1938.
  • A monument to Soviet-Finnish friendship from 1968 still stands by Helsinki harbor.
  • In 1809, Tsar Alexander I went to Finland for the Diet of Porvoo, which gave more rights and autonomy to the Finns.

Do you think a Russian city should become a European Capital of Culture? The title was given to Istanbul, a non-EU city, this year.

Why not? If there are no prohibiting obstacles, that would be interesting because Russia always has been and always will be culturally part of Europe. The country was closed during the Soviet period but it is rapidly catching up now. We should recognize that there is a Europe beyond the European Union!

How likely is it that Russia will ever become an EU member?

Difficult to say. But I was based in Geneva 20 years ago and witnessed Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia negotiating a free-trade agreement with the European Union.  Fifteen years later they became members!

Today we hope that Russia will become a member of the World Trade Organization as soon as possible. That will help the EU to negotiate a new agreement with Russia, which in turn could lead to a free-trade agreement.

The Finnish government very much supports closer cooperation between the EU and Russia. I think it would be good for the European Union and Russia if we get economically closer.

But Finland has recently had quite a lot of problems in trade with Russia. Last year's spat over timber is not entirely solved, and this summer brought a looming ban on Finnish dairy and meat.

Most trade with Russia is without problems. The problems became prominent mainly in the media. The timber issue is now being settled at the WTO accession talks.

Concerning milk and meat products, most Finnish producers have been able to satisfy the requirements of Russian authorities. I think there are still problems for meat exporters, but these are not major. The really big problem in the past was caused by the economic crisis, which resulted in a 60 percent drop of exports to Russia. Compared to that, what we are seeing now is microscopic.

What exactly caused the sudden problems with meat?

The authorities found some irregularities with Finnish products. These problems were corrected.

So you have no suspicion that politics played a role?

No, these sort of things just happen. In some areas, Russian requirements are very tough and there are no alternatives but to fulfill them if you want to be in this market.

Are there any fears that an open Russian market will be a dangerous source of cheap goods that will dent Finnish businesses?

We benefit from a rich and developed Russia. We love to have wealthy neighbors. And the wealthier Russia is, the better for Finland! We can see this in tourism!

Language remains a salient issue in mutual ties. How popular is learning Russian in Finland and Finnish in Russia?

Russian has never been very popular in Finland. The Tsarist government [Finland was part of Russia from 1809 to 1917] did everything to make it unpopular. And the Soviet Union did not increase its popularity either. Now we have a much more natural interest. More and more jobs require Russian.

Regarding Finnish in Russia, there is interest in the regions close to the border but of course English is quite useful too. There is more interest in the Finno-Ugric speaking areas of Russia, but overall, the interest will probably remain limited.   

Russia - Finland 2010
Russia - Finland 2010
<p>This business bilingual colour publication is devoted to Russia and Finland with a special focus on the city of Turku.</p> <p>The supplement opens with an interview with the ambassador of Finland, Matti Anttonen which addresses the most important political and economic issues in Russian and Finnish relations.</p>
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