Welcoming words by Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Colleagues
Finland and Russia share a long history and a long border. We all are aware that our common history has involved conflicts and war, but today we can look back at this history without hard feelings and discuss also issues that used to be controversial. Interpreting our histories is not a subject which governments should occupy themselves with. We better leave it to those who specialize in history. If governments have a role in these matters, they could help bring historians together and see that their archives are open to serious historians from both countries.
Today we have also come to recognize that our common history is much more about successful cooperation and the mutual benefits that we have derived from our cooperation and influence on each other than about conflicts and controversy.
Finland has been a member of the European Union for over ten years. When the possibility of membership of the EU was debated in Finland, Russia was in important factor in our deliberations. Many, including myself, were concerned whether joining the EU will have adverse effects on the relations, trade and other cooperation with Russia.
We came to the conclusion that, as things stood ten years ago, it was evident that Finland as a member of the EU would have better opportunities for developing its trade and other relations with Russia than if it remained outside the EU. We considered that also Russia would benefit from Finland’s membership of the EU, and Finland as an EU Member State would be a more interesting partner for Russia than before.
This assessment has proved to have been right. We have never imagined that there could be rivalry between our membership of the EU and our relations with Russia. We have rather regarded that being an EU Member State provides depth and scope to our relations with the eastern neighbour. There are no grounds for presenting our bilateral relations with Russia as contradictory with our strong support for developing and strengthening the EU’s relations with Russia. The better the EU is able to work together on and with Russia, the better the benefits for all parties.
Bilateral relations with Russia are important for all EU Member States, and for Finland even more than for others.
The significance of Russia for Finland is obvious: we share a borderline of 1200 km, there are more than six million border crossings annually, our trade is growing at a rate of 25% per year. Russians have an everyday presence in Finland, particularly in our bordering regions. Of course the constantly increasing cooperation also creates challenges and even problems, but these, such as bottlenecks on the border, are practical, not political. Issues relating to new threats to security, such as nuclear and maritime safety, environmental pollution, HIV/AIDS, cross border crime, drugs or trafficking, call for enhancing cooperation, not isolation.
For the European Union, Russia is a strategic partner of critical importance. We have many overlapping interests and are economically highly interdependent. For a year, the EU and Russia have negotiated the road maps of the common spaces, which will deepen and strengthen the strategic partnership. We certainly hope and are actually positive that it is possible to conclude the negotiations by the Moscow Summit in May.
During the past year, there have been many positive developments in the EU – Russia relationship. An agreement was reached on the extension of the PCA to apply to the new Member States, the EU and Russia signed a bilateral protocol on the WTO and Russia joined the Kyoto Protocol. The Commission and Russia started negotiations on a visa facilitation agreement.
At the beginning of this month, the first human rights consultations between EU and Russia were held in Luxemburg. They were conducted in an open and constructive spirit. It is very important that this mechanism can be established as planned. Then we will have a forum to discuss human rights with Russia twice a year.
The situation in Chechnya is a difficult challenge for Russia as well. The EU hopes to be able to engage Russia in a constructive dialogue on Chechnya to help alleviate the appalling humanitarian situation and find a sustainable political solution. The Commission will send a needs assessment mission to North Caucasus and, security conditions permitting, the EU will soon be able to provide aid to the reconstruction of the area.
However, Russia will have to live up to its promises. The killing of Aslan Maskhadov in unclear circumstances can seriously damage the prospects for peace and lead to the escalation of violence and terrorist attacks in Russia. We are also concerned about the continuing disappearances of people and harassment that NGOs are facing.
As Russia’s next-door neighbours, we follow its internal developments closely. The liberal reforms carried out during the past decade or so have proved quite successful in reshaping the economy, but have largely left the social sector without corresponding improvements. Today Russia is heavily dependent on energy exports. We believe that foreign investments could play an important role in the diversification of the Russian economy. The high price of energy is providing Russia with a unique window of opportunity to press forward with further reforms to modernise its administration and judicial system.
Finland will take over the EU Presidency in July 2006 – just over a year away from now. Our preparations are well under way. It will not come as a surprise to anyone if I tell you that Russia will be one of the priorities on our presidency agenda We hope to contribute to the building of a true strategic partnership and its effective implementation.
Our Presidency will coincide with Russia’s Presidency of the Council of Europe and the G8. We will also address the renewal of the PCA Agreement between the EU and Russia and give new impetus to the EU’s Northern Dimension when the second Plan of Action expires in 2007. We hope that Russia will join us in drafting a new and more effective framework for the Northern Dimension.
As concerns the research community, we hope to receive a clear, penetrating analysis of Russia.
Thank you for your attention. I hope you will have a successful day with fruitful discussions.