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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Borders And Frontiers

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 12 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Increased economic and cultural contacts across national frontiers have simultaneously reduced the practical importance of many borders for people living there while increasing political sensitivies in national capitals about these demarcation lines.

Both those trends were very much on public view last week during Finnish President Tarja Halonen's first official visit to Moscow. On the one hand, both Finnish and Russian officials welcomed the expansion of cooperation across the Finnish-Russian border.

But on the other, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that discussions in Finland and elsewhere about the possibility of changing that border could "ruin" relations between the two states.

Halonen spent last Tuesday and Wednesday in Moscow at the invitation of Putin, but she devoted much of her time meeting with regional officials in the Federation Council as well as with leaders of Russian businesses. During these sessions, she talked about promoting both cross-border cooperation and the European Union's Northern Dimension program.

Both of these links have become more important over the last few years as Finnish firms have expanded their activities not only in neighboring Karelia but also in adjoining Russian regions. Last week, for example, Karelia's foreign minister announced that his republic will join Finland to build a large wood processing plant near Lake Ladoga.

Moreover, Finland's trade minister who accompanied Halonen noted that Finland now serves not only as a major transshipment route for Russian exports but also as an increasingly important investor in firms in the northern regions of the Russian Federation, with approximately 4,000 Finnish enterprises now maintaining contact with them.

Russian Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroyev was among the many Russian officials praising Halonen's work in this area. "She has managed to coordinate work in this direction of not only European states but also of all Russia's northern regions -- from Kaliningrad to Chukotka," he said.

St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev also welcomed her work in helping his region to integrate into Europe as well as expanding cooperation with Finnish concerns in the energy sector.

Putin too praised Halonen's cooperative efforts, publicly noting that "not only are we both lawyers, but we are also both practical people," something he said "speaks well for the continuation of our dialogue."

But the Russian president introduced one jarring element into the conversation. At their joint news conference on Wednesday, Putin said that there must not be any discussion of changing the political border between the two countries lest that undermine relations between Moscow and Helsinki.

"I believe that engaging in such discussions is very dangerous," he said. "Finland and Russia have established good relations in the past decades," but he suggested that he was "worried" that "any discussions" about borders will "ruin these relations."

Putin's remarks appear to reflect three things: First, the otherwise entirely welcomed expansion of ties across the border between the two countries which have reduced its significance for many people living in the region Helsinki ceded to Moscow after the 1940 Winter War.

Second, a recent poll which showed that 70 percent of the inhabitants of that region would welcome its return in whole or in part to Finland and the opportunity that would bring with it for them to become Finnish citizens.

And third, efforts by some in Finland to promote the idea that these World War II-era border changes should be reversed in whole or in part. Among the most internationally prominent of these are a group of activists centered around the ProKarelia website (http://proKarelia.net).

These groups immediately denounced what they said were Putin's efforts to muzzle them and reported with approval Halonen's statement at the joint Moscow news conference that Finns have the right to talk about anything they want, including Karelia.

At the official level, however, both Moscow and Helsinki insist that there are no territorial disputes between them. But the consequences of increased ties across their border are likely to include ever more public discussions about the meanings of borders and frontiers for both sides.
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