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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finland's New Prime Minister Pays Her First Visit

Finnish Prime Minister's OfficeFinnish Prime Minister Jaatteenmaki
HELSINKI, Finland -- Women in political leadership are a rarity in most of the world, except in Finland, the only nation governed by a female president and, since April, a female prime minister.

But the only thing Prime Minister Anneli Jaatteenmaki finds odd about this is why it took so long, especially in Finland, the first country in contemporary Western history where women were simultaneously given the right to vote and run for election, nearly 100 years ago.

"Why only now, in the 21st century?" she asked during an interview last week.

Jaatteenmaki, 48, runs the government from an extremely modest office in the Finnish parliament. A set of shelves and a computer are all she seems to have at her disposal; there is not even a secretary to be seen. Her staff, she said, has another, slightly more impressive office in the government building.

Jaatteenmaki was elected by the parliament on April 17. According to tradition, every new prime minister visits three key neighboring countries shortly after taking office -- Estonia, Russia and Sweden. This time, Moscow came last.

On Sunday evening, Jaatteenmaki was to fly into Moscow for a two-day working meeting with her Russian counterpart, Mikhail Kasyanov. The issues on the prime ministers' plates are expected to include energy supplies to Finland, the safety of Russia's crude oil shipments from the Baltic port of Primorsk, investment, and cooperation between the European Union and Russia.

Jaatteenmaki said Russia, which is Finland's third-largest trading partner after Germany and Sweden, deserves more attention, particularly when it comes to investment.

"Just today I discovered that Finnish investment into Estonia is still bigger than that that goes into Russia. So there is a lot of work to be done," she said.

Finland invested the equivalent of 458 million euros into post-Soviet Russia from 1991 and 2001, according to the Bank of Finland. Over the same period, Finnish investment into Estonia reached 554 million euros.

Stressing that wide cooperation between Russia and Finland remains the main goal, Jaatteenmaki said energy imports from Russia are still most important.

Last year alone, Finland purchased 1.23 billion euros' worth of crude oil from Russia, or a whopping 34 percent of the Russian import bill of 3.59 billion euros. After oil came 444 million euros' worth of natural gas, followed by timber, refined oil products, coal, electricity and metals.

In exchange, Finland sold to Russia goods worth more than 3.12 billion euros, including telecommunications and other high-tech equipment, and paper and printed matter.

But the large oil exports from Russia are also related to one of the most acute problems souring relations between the two countries -- crude oil transportation.

Last winter, seemingly the whole of Finland was in an uproar over the safety of oil tankers setting sail from the Russian port of Primorsk, the outlet for the Baltic Pipeline System, which went on line in late 2001. Finland argues that most of the tankers Russia uses are not strong enough for the icy waters. Russia insists they are.

The issue was raised again at the end of May, when Finnish President Tarja Halonen brought it up in a discussion with President Vladimir Putin during St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations. Putin said Primorsk was safe.

Jaatteenmaki said Finland is determined to protect the ecology of the Baltic Sea and is ready to work through the European Union and various maritime transportation organizations to do so.

"Finland's concern over crude oil transportation from Primorsk is based on the ecological threat of such operations," she said. "We are working on the rules to transport oil within the EU, and the specifications for ships transporting crude in the severe icy conditions of the Baltic Sea."

Jaatteenmaki dismissed the notion that Finland also has a commercial agenda, such as wanting to win a spot for its own icebreaker fleet in transporting oil from Russia.

"All our concerns are about the ecology. And, please note, that the same rules will be applied to Finland," she said.

And pushing the issue with the nearly all-male Russian government is unlikely to be a problem, she said.

"Throughout my career I have always worked in places were men have dominated," said Jaatteenmaki, a lawyer and career politician. "And throughout all this time it has not been a problem."