With bilateral trade crippled by economic downturns and sanctions, the Finnish-Russian trade commission, set up at the end of the Cold War, met in Moscow on Wednesday for the first time in three and a half years.
Formally known as the Intergovernmental Commission for Economic Cooperation, the body is now co-chaired by Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak and Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Kai Mykkänen. The last time it convened was in March 2013, before a tit-for-tat waves of mutual sanctions were imposed by the EU and Russia. The body was set up in 1992, when the Russian Federation replaced the USSR, and has met 14 times since.
In his opening address at Wednesday's meeting, Mykkänen said that it is positive for Finland that Russia has declared next year to be the Year of the Environment. He said that may benefit Finnish firms with know-how in the cleantech sector, for instance in producing energy from waste.He later told Yle that renewed cooperation at the state level opens new trade opportunities.
But what can the commission for companies that the foreign trade agency Finpro or the Finnish Embassy can't do, for instance?
"Well, maybe at the level of Deputy Prime Minister, who has been mandated by President Putin to ensure that investments succeed in Russia...It would be difficult to take matters to his level via the Embassy without this shared chairmanship of the commission," replied Mykkänen.
State support crucial
The Finnish delegation includes representatives from three ministries as well as the Finnish Customs, the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), and others.
Business executives on hand included Ilpo Kokkila, chair of the large construction firm
SRV and a veteran of many such meetings over the decades.
"It's important that Finland shows that it remains on the Russian market even during difficult times," he says. "The Russian business scene is challenging and Finnish companies need background support from the state."
20% slump this year
Kozak said that trade turnover between the two countries totalled nearly 5.9 billion euros in the first nine months of this year, a decline of 20 percent year-on-year.
He blamed the downturn in oil prices for the dip.
But Kozak noted that volumes of bilateral exports and imports have rising, despite the fall of trade in monetary terms.
"In money terms the trade turnover substantially dropped in 2014 and 2015, while in physical terms exports and imports have even started rising this year. Exports from Russia have grown by almost three percent and imports from Finland by almost 10 percent," he was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Tass.
No end to sanctions in sight
Next month the EU is expected to extend its sanctions against Russia despite questioning of the measures' effectiveness by countries that have close business ties with Moscow.
The sanctions, including restrictions on the access of Russian banks to international money markets, were first imposed after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and Russia followed up with counter-sanctions.
Finland has suffered a decade-long economic stagnation and the Russian recession, exacerbated by the Western sanctions, has pressured Finnish exports further in the past few years.