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Sipilä meets Medvedev as Finland weighs approaches to Russia

As Juha Sipilä began the first prime ministerial visit to Russia in three years, researchers and officials in Helsinki pondered how they might improve border co-operation with the neighbour to the east.

Juha Sipilä ja Dmitri Medvedev tapaavat Pietarissa.
Juha Sipilä ja Dmitri Medvedev tapasivat Pietarissa perjantaina. Image: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva

On Friday Finnish Premier Juha Sipilä met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Saint Petersburg. There was plenty on the agenda including Ukraine and Syria, but the migrant crisis is high on Finland's priority list. There are concerns over a recent rise in the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Finnish Lapland from Russia and of the possible involvement of human smugglers.

The Russian news agency TASS quotes Medvedev as saying that migrant flows in the EU threaten Russia as well. He dismissed talk of asylum seekers arriving in Finland being part of Russian foreign policy or being organized as "nonsense".

Earlier this week the two countries' interior ministers agreed on a range of measures to step up bilateral monitoring of the frontier.

Helsinki seminar probes EU-Russia ties

A day earlier, international researchers gathered in Helsinki to discuss an eternal question dear to Finnish policy-makers: what to do about Russia. The seminar was organized by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), and focused specifically on EU-Russia relations.

These days Russian relations have an EU dimension, but in Lapland there's a pressing, specifically Finnish concern too: asylum seekers arriving here in clapped-out Ladas to try and seek a new life in Finland.

That's a new development. For decades Russia's internal security agencies have traditionally kept a tight grip on movements towards the border, preventing any large-scale migrations of Russians or foreigners looking for a new home.

Soviet echoes

Finnish politicians have spoken very carefully about the issue so far, approaching Russia much as some of their predecessors approached the Soviet Union. Researcher Markku Kivinen says that's in part due to a desire to deal with it bilaterally rather than via the EU.

“When there’s been this EU sanctions policy and we’ve had this really exceptional situation where we haven’t organized ministerial-level meetings, then we have to wonder a little how we should handle these things,” said Kivinen, director of Helsinki University's Aleksanteri Institute – the Finnish Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

The last time a prime minister visited Russia was three years ago, which seems like a long time to the higher echelons of the Russian government.

Future goals

Friday sees one step towards redressing that as the two PMs met on Friday. Kivinen says this is probably the most effective way to approach the migrant issue.

“Yes, I think that that’s a realistic approach at this moment,” said Kivinen. “It’s an illusion to think that there would be some kind of common EU approach to this situation.”

FIIA researcher Teija Tiilikainen, however, believes that the big issues will still in future be settled at the EU level.

“That surely remains Finland’s goal in future, that there’s a common and joint basis to EU relations with Russia,” said Tiilikainen.

Sipilä’s visit is his first official trip to Russia, and he will arrive and leave on Friday.

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