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Thursday's papers: Secret Sipilä meeting, train to China, northern light show

Papers this Thursday run pieces on a clandestine meeting indicating that PM Sipilä may have known about the Finns Party break-up in advance and lied about it, a new train track linking Kouvola with Xi'an in China and stunning aurora borealis seen across the country.

Revontulia Uudessakaupungissa 07.11.2017.
Aurora borealis shimmering in Uusikaupunki on Tuesday. Image: Helena Lindström

Regional daily Aamulehti this Thursday runs an unusual story involving a secret meeting between a Finns Party member and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, conflicting reports as to the verity of the encounter and a politician stowed away in the trunk of a car.

One of the biggest shake-ups in recent Finnish political history has been the splintering of the populist Finns Party into two distinct factions – the still-kicking original party and the newly forming Blue Reform group.

AL writes that Sipilä met with then-party head Timo Soini's representative State Secretary Samuli Virtanen as early as June 11, 2017 – during the party conference that would later result in the influential break-up of the anti-immigration-platform party.

The issue is that Sipilä has denied all speculations that government would have been in the know about the coming rift, a claim that is in contrast with the allegation of a secret meeting.

"I am not aware of any plans to pre-emptively prepare for the crack in Finns Party lines," Sipilä is quoted as saying. "These are just imaginative stories that are being propagated. No such discussions took place."

The Tampere-region paper writes that Virtanen's alleged visit to the official Kesäranta residence was covered up. To pull this off, the story goes, Virtanen allegedly clambered into the trunk of a waiting car to be smuggled out of the residence compound unseen.

Virtanen admits to having sent a text message to Sipilä and to have met with him twice around the time of the party conference, but staunchly rebuffs assertions as to "close contacts".

"There was no conspiracy or plan that the Prime Minister could have known about," Virtanen states.

However, National Coalition Party chair Petteri Orpo says that "2-3 weeks of work" went into preparing for the party conference and its possible outcomes – and that on the Sunday of the talks the potential sundering brought on by the then-potential stepping up of right-wing populist Jussi Halla-aho as party leader "seemed clear".

Finland joins the Silk Road

Top circulation daily Helsingin Sanomat features an article on a new cargo train connection linking the south-eastern city of Kouvola to the famed "Silk Road" route into China.

HS writes that if all goes according to plan, on Friday a cargo train with 41 large containers (a small batched compared with the 10,000 that fit on massive cargo ships) will be pulled by engines into St. Petersburg and onward through Kazakhstan to Xi'an in northern China. It is the first of a total of five trains that are set to make the long trip, hauling Finnish machinery, timber and workwear textiles.

Transporting goods by train is more expensive than shipping by sea, but much faster. Director Jari Grönlund from cargo operator Unytrade says that the direct land connection will be used largely for products that are needed quickly along the trade route.

"Goods take 45 days to reach China by ship, whereas the train gets there in just 10 days," Grönlund says in HS.

The Kouvola station is optimal for the long-distance cargo network, Grönlund says, due to its effective loading bays (constructed for busy Russian-bound traffic), its proximity to the Russian border and Kouvola's own initiative in contacting Kazakhstan over the cargo deal.

"There's still room for exporters in our containers," Grönlund says.

Aurora borealis light up skies

Back in Aamulehti images and descriptions abound of one of nature's most stunning displays – the northern lights or aurora borealis. This week electromagnetic activity over Finnish skies has caused colourful sheets of light to appear far and wide, including Southern Finland where the phenomenon is rarer.

"This has been a great autumn for aurora sightings, because the sun has been active and night falls relatively early," says Riku Järvinen from the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

So-called solar winds sweep particles into the Earth's atmosphere and cause multicoloured lights to appear in the sky. The most powerful surges for this autumn are now past, Järvinen says, with the sun's 11-year activity cycle coming to a close. But northern lights may still be seen throughout the rest of the week.

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