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Archive for the ‘Nordic Land of Finland’ Category

Finland in pain as border closure blocks Russian tourists

June 01, 2020

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) — Finns in the Nordic nation’s eastern border region say they haven’t seen anything like this since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The closure of Finland’s border with Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic has put an abrupt stop to visits by the nearly 2 million Russian tourists who prop up the local economy each year.

Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) land border with Russia complete with several crossing points in what is one of the European Union’s longest external borders. It was shut down both by Helsinki and Moscow in mid-March due to the pandemic.

Given Russia’s sustained infection rate, there is little hope that the border will be opened for Finland’s summer tourism season — and many believe the border will likely remain shut even longer. “It definitely has had a big effect. You just wouldn’t imagine such risks relate to the border anymore in the year 2020,” said Petteri Terho, spokesman for the Zsar Outlet Village, a large upscale shopping area catering to both Finns and Russians near the Vaalimaa border station, the busiest crossing point between the two nations.

The closure has caused cross-border tourism to the South Karelia region, entry point to Finland’s picturesque lake district that is a favorite of locals and Russian tourists alike, to collapse overnight.

Above all, it has deprived local businesses of an estimated 25 million euros ($28 million) for every month the border remains closed. Finland has seen 6,859 cases of COVID-19 and 320 deaths but most have been in and around Helsinki, the capital. But in the South Karelia region, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Helsinki, only 24 positive cases have been diagnosed, with no fatalities so far.

Russia has over 405,000 coronavirus infections, the third-highest number in the world. It has reported 4,693 virus deaths, a figure experts call a significant undercount of the true situation.

“This is a whole new situation for all of us,” said Katja Vehvilainen of the Imatra Region Development Company, a local Finnish business promotion agency, adding that the South Karelia region enjoyed a growth of 15% in tourism last year. “The corona situation has unfortunately completely changed the direction.”

Still, locals remain unfazed, given Finland’s long history of dealing with the ups and downs of Russian tourism in the wake of its neighbor’s political and economic upheavals. The last tourism crisis hitting South Karelia took place in 2014-2015 when the value of the Russian rouble plunged against the euro, instantly denting visits by Russians.

“It looks pretty bad now,” said Markku Heinonen, development manager for the city of Lappeenranta, the region’s biggest center with 73,000 residents. “But the previous crises (with Russian tourism) have taught companies to prepare for something like this.”

The region hosted 1.9 million foreign tourists last year, most coming from Russia for shopping daytrips or longer holidays to enjoy spas, restaurants and lakeside cottages in an area known for its pristine beauty.

Lappeenranta, a key center for wood products, has been dealing with Russia since it was founded in 1649. It’s just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border station of Nuijamaa. From there, it’s mere 180 kilometers (112 miles) to Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg, whose population of nearly 5.5 million equals the entire population of Finland.

“Our business has dried up almost completely. One can say it melted away in one day (after the border closure),” said Mohamad Darwich, who runs the Laplandia Market, a grocery store catering to Russian tourists near the Nuijamaa border post.

Darwich, who arrived in Finland from Russia in 1992 after studying in St. Petersburg, listed fresh fish, cheese and dishwashing liquid among the most popular items bought by Russian visitors. He has reopened the store now for locals and hopes the border will be reopened by October at the latest “under an optimistic scenario.”

Citing a recent study, Heinonen said if the border stays closed until the end of the year or even beyond — a worst-case scenario — the South Karelia region is estimated to lose at least 225 million euros ($247 million) in tourism income this year and risks losing about 900 jobs, a large number in this region.

Locals are now eyeing domestic or European visitors as possible substitutes for the missing Russians this year. Ryanair, which suspended its European routes from Lappeenranta until further notice due to the pandemic, has indicated it’s ready to resume some flights in July, which could bring in western European tourists. But even the Irish airline has largely catered to Russian clients living near the Finnish border who used the Lappeenranta airport.

“There are plenty of summer cottages in the area and holidaying Finns around, so domestic travel is absolutely crucial for us,” said Terho, the Zsar Outlet Village spokesman. He said the venue reopened Saturday with high hopes following the Finnish government’s gradual relaxation of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Finland’s election topics: Climate change, welfare, aging

April 13, 2019

HELSINKI (AP) — Finns will be voting Sunday to fill the country’s 200-seat Eduskunta parliament after a campaign that saw debates over the country’s generous welfare model, its rapidly aging population and how far to go to fight climate change.

Here’s a look at the key issues and the main players in the election:

JUST THE FACTS

Some 4.5 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s parliamentary election in Finland and will be choosing between 19 political parties and movements.

Early voting is popular. Over 1.5 million people, or 36% of eligible voters, have already cast their ballots in advance. The results of that early vote will be published as soon the polls have closed Sunday at 1700 GMT (1 p.m. EDT), and fuller preliminary results are expected a few hours later.

CLIMATE CHANGE TENSIONS

Tackling climate change is a priority in a Nordic country that has one-third of its territory above the Arctic Circle, but there are clear tensions over what path to choose.

Finland is boosting its nuclear energy production by launching a new plant next year and lawmakers last month voted to completely phase out burning coal by 2029. Many parties back actions to fight global warming, include boosting the number of electric vehicles, cutting meat consumption through taxes or switching to more vegetarian food in public places like schools.

The populist Finns Party, however, has broadened its support by appealing to those who reject such sacrifices in the name of climate change.

QUALITY OF LIFE AND OTHER ELECTION TOPICS

Finnish voters have also been debating how best to preserve the country’s health and social system, which for years has topped global quality-of-life and happiness rankings and created a world-renowned education system.

There are some divisions over proposed reforms, which are getting more urgent since the country’s population of 5.5 million is rapidly aging. One plan aims to improve efficiency and reduce public spending by offering Finnish municipalities more freedom to choose between public and private providers for social needs and health care.

FINLAND’S MAIN CONTENDERS

Finland’s center-left Social Democratic Party tops a recent poll with 19% support, according to a poll this week commissioned by Finnish public broadcaster YLE. The party would still need to find coalition partners if it ended up trying to form the next government.

Led by Antti Rinne, a former finance minister, the Social Democrats plan to raise taxes and increase spending to preserve a welfare system that is under huge strain. The party has also vowed to continue the country’s pro-European Union stance.

Other key parties include the populist Finns Party led by Jussi Halla-aho, which is focusing on voters angry at urban global elites, and the National Coalition Party led by Petteri Orpo. Those parties took second and third places in the poll with 16.3% and 15.9% support, respectively. They are trailed by the Center Party and the Greens, who have strong urban support and back moves to fight climate change.

Finland’s outgoing center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Juha Sipila of the Center Party, pushed through an austerity package that has helped Finland return to growth after a three-year recession.

FINLAND’S OTHER BIG POLITICAL JOB

Finland will take over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union on July 1.

Finnish brewery creates quirky beer for Trump-Putin summit

July 14, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — A small Finnish craft brewery is paying a humorous tribute to the Helsinki summit. RPS Brewing has issued a limited-edition lager depicting cartoon U.S. and Russian presidents on its label, with text for Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin saying “Let’s Settle This Like Adults” and “Making Lager Great Again.”

The beer has been in high demand since it hit the shelves nationwide a few days ago and the whole 10,000-bottle lot had been sold out ahead of Monday’s summit. Samples have also been delivered to the U.S. and Russian embassies in Helsinki.

CEO Samuli Huuhtanen told The Associated Press on Saturday that “a couple of good beers can help any negotiations,” especially if followed by a visit to a Finnish sauna.

Finland’s president skates to overwhelming re-election win

January 28, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — Finnish President Sauli Niinisto crushed his competition with a landslide election victory Sunday that saw him receiving more than five times as much voter support than his closest challenger.

With all ballots counted, Niinisto had 62.7 percent of the vote, while his leading rival, Pekka Haavisto of the Greens, had 12.4 percent. Haavisto, the runner-up in the 2012 election, conceded the race long before the vote-count was completed, telling Finnish national broadcaster Niinisto “is the republic’s new president with this result.”

None of the other six candidates received more than 7 percent of the vote. Niinisto, 69, a former finance minister and parliament speaker, has been a highly popular president since he took office in 2012. He needed a majority to prevent a runoff and to win re-election outright.

He ran as an independent with no association to the conservative National Coalition Party that he earlier chaired. Finland’s president designs the blueprint for the country’s foreign and security policy together with the government. As head of state, the president is the key foreign policy player, particularly on issues outside the European Union.

The president also acts as the supreme commander of military forces and can veto legislation. To most Finns, the president’s key task is to assure friendly ties with both neighboring Russia, which shares a 1,340 kilometer (833-mile) border with Finland, and the West, particularly the United States.

Judged by his vast popularity, Niinisto seemingly handled the balancing act well. Finland joined the EU in 1995, but doesn’t belong to NATO. Recent polls predicted Niinisto would get between 58 and 63 percent of the vote and Haavisto of the Greens would garner some 14 percent.

Winter is here: “Game of Thrones” ice hotel opens in Finland

January 19, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — A “Game of Thrones”-themed ice hotel complete with a bar and a chapel for weddings has opened in northern Finland in a joint effort by a local hotel chain and the U.S. producers of the hit TV series.

Lapland Hotels said Friday they chose “Game of Thrones” to be the theme for this season’s Snow Village, an annual ice-and-snow construction project covering 20,000 square meters (24,000 sq. yards) in Kittila, 150 kilometers (93 miles) above the Arctic Circle.

Snow Village operations manager Janne Pasma told Finnish national broadcaster YLE that he was a huge fan of the series and it was “a dream come true” that HBO Nordic agreed to go along. The hotel, which stays open until April, suggests that guests stay only one night due to below-zero temperatures.

Japan leader Abe vows Arctic, Russia cooperation in Finland

July 10, 2017

HELSINKI (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday pledged to increase cooperation with Finland in Arctic issues and on furthering Russian relations, after talks with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

Abe noted that Finland is currently chairing the Arctic Council and said his country would increase its role in the agency by “positively contributing more than in the past to (its) activities.” “We will be enhancing our cooperation in the area of the environment regarding the Arctic regions,” Abe said in prepared statements by the two leaders.

Niinisto said that the two countries signed several agreements, including on developing environmental cooperation. Abe congratulated Finland on this year’s 100th anniversary of independence from Russia, with which it shares a 1,300 kilometer (800 mile) border, noting that Russia is “an important neighbor for both of our nations.”

“We reaffirmed our close collaboration in our relationship with Russia,” he said. Neither leader gave any details of the content of their talks. Before arriving in Finland, Abe met with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in Stockholm, where the two leaders demanded that North Korea halt missile tests, and pledged increased cooperation in the U.N. Security Council. They also agreed to combat terrorism together.

Former Finnish President Mauno Koivisto dies at 93

May 13, 2017

HELSINKI (AP) — Mauno Koivisto, Finland’s last president during the Cold War who led the Nordic nation out of the shadow of its huge eastern neighbor, the Soviet Union, and into the European Union, died Friday at the age of 93.

The Finnish president’s office said that Koivisto died in the evening in a Helsinki hospital. It gave no cause of death or other details. His wife, Tellervo Koivisto, said earlier this year that he suffered severely from Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer be cared for at home.

Koivisto served two six-year terms between 1982 and 1994, enjoying great popularity among ordinary Finns. His down-to-earth manner and dry humor, often laced with sarcasm and philosophical pondering, won him the heart of the nation but also brought political opponents.

For most Finns, his presidency marked the end of the long reign of predecessor Urho Kekkonen, who had ruled Finland with an iron grip for 25 years until his resignation in 1981. Koivisto was seen as ushering in a new, freer era, changing the face of the country by reducing the powers of the head of state and strengthening the role of Parliament.

Above all, he was recognized for his foreign policy skills with a fine balancing act of maintaining the small country’s good relations with the West — particularly with the United States — and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War years.

His second term in 1988-1994 was crucial in cementing the Nordic nation’s neutral status until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — a great concern for Finland that shares a 1,340-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia.

A fluent Russian-speaker, Koivisto developed a particular bond with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev but also stayed in close contact with U.S. President George H.W. Bush with whom he regularly exchanged views on developments in the crumbling and rapidly changing Soviet Union. In 1990, he hosted Bush and Gorbachev at a U.S.-Soviet Summit in Helsinki.

Earlier, he reportedly also had a good rapport with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who stopped over in Helsinki in 1988 for talks with Koivisto en route to Moscow. Ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991, Koivisto started to steer Finland out of international isolation. He unilaterally declared two treaties as null and void — the 1947 Paris Treaty, which placed restrictions on the Finnish military, and the 1948 Finnish-Soviet pact on mutual assistance, which hindered Finland’s integration with European security structures.

In 1992, Koivisto initiated the country’s application to join the European Community — the precursor of the European Union — and eventually led Finland to join the EU in 1995 after overwhelming support for membership in a referendum.

Born into a religious family in 1923, Koivisto was a rare breed among Finnish heads of state as he possessed first-hand war experience. At the age of 16, he served as a volunteer on the home front in the bitter 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviets.

He also fought in the Continuation War in 1941-44, when Finnish troops battled the Russians beside Nazi Germany. After the war, Koivisto joined the Social Democratic Party, completed his education, graduating with a philosophy degree and gained a Ph.D. in sociology in 1956.

Koivisto emerged a key figure among the Social Democrats in the late 1960s and helped raise the party’s popularity in Finland, which had been dominated by the former president Kekkonen’s agrarian Center Party in the post-World War II era.

Before becoming head of state, Koivisto held several ministerial posts, including of prime minister, and had served as the governor of the Bank of Finland. The tall and lanky Koivisto — a particular favorite figure among Finnish political cartoonists — was passionate about volleyball, playing into his elderly years with a group of industrialists and politicians.

Koivisto is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1952, and their daughter, Assi. Funeral arrangements were to be announced later.

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