Interaction between Finland and Russia has transformed completely after end of the Cold War. The number of people crossing the border continues to grow at an intensifying rate, exceeding ten million a year at present. Finland has already a minority of 50 000 Russian-speakers, a great number of them being also Russian citizens. This immigration has a positive impact on the Finnish economy and culture.
While the increase of diversified contacts between individual citizens in the two neighbours is a welcome phenomenon, problems concerning for example family relations are also met more often than before, and we should improve our ways of dealing with them on both sides. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of the Finns’ migration to Sweden, Finnish and Swedish social welfare workers had to undergo a certain learning process, and it is no wonder that this is the case with Russia, too.
Having experience from chairing the child welfare board of the city of Helsinki over 40 years ago, I am aware that issues concerning children are always difficult and sensitive. According to Finnish legislation, individual cases cannot be discussed in public even if one party so does. It is important to bear in mind that conclusions should never be drawn based on the word of one party only. In countries that observe the principle of the rule of law, disputes are resolved in accordance with a prescribed procedure and decisions are based on the interest of the child, as the international agreements we have signed demand. It is possible that sometimes decisions made by child welfare authorities need to be corrected, because they too can make mistakes.
These disputes should not be politicized and certainly not as a theme of controversy; instead, we have to develop means to deal with such disputes in a good understanding. This is what we agreed with Foreign Minister Lavrov in August, when we responded to their idea of a separate joint commission by proposing that we provide them a list of the people and public authorities, who are competent to cooperate and discuss these issues with their Russian counterparts, whenever any problems or need for information arise. This has also taken place. Correct information and direct contacts clear up misunderstandings and eliminate those who spread intentional disinformation who unfortunately sometimes appear in these contexts.
There is plenty of room for development in the interaction between Russia and the rest of Europe even otherwise. Visa-free travel has been adopted as a common goal as soon as all the steps of the agreed road map towards it have been taken. This project must not be delayed even though it is realistic to note that it will still take a few years. Finland’s example shows that a visa system can be applied flexibly so that it does not form a barrier to a constant increase of interaction.
The multiplication of the number of exchange students between Russia and the EU should actively be promoted. It is slightly illogical that there are more Chinese than Russian university students in most EU countries – also in Finland. The former are naturally welcome, but it would be natural to have at least as many exchange students from the closest neighbouring country.