René Nyberg – 23th may 2016
I can never resist an invitation to come to St. Pete, the city of my youth where I started to speak Russian and were our oldest daughter spent her first eighteen months and a city, which in many ways was my formative experience.
The invitation to share the floor with Ambassador Bruce Oreck intrigued me for several reasons. Bruce is an extraordinary man who turned out to be an extraordinary ambassador in Helsinki. Not only did he literally rebuild the whole American embassy complex in Helsinki, he also restored using his own funds the American residence to its splendor dating from the late 1930’s. That Bruce decided to continue living in Helsinki tells you more of his qualities!
It is without prejudice that I agreed to this unusual invitation to come to St.Pete and talk business and networking in Russia with Americans. We all know the facts that changed the political landscape. Sanctions are in force for reasons that we know. To remove these sanctions the root cause has to be addressed first. Without peace in Ukraine we remain in an impasse.
Still St. Petersburg remains a fixture on the Finnish map and mind. The city today is closer than ever before thanks to “Allegro”! The border is open and we Finns do not stand with our backs to Russia.
Of course sanctions hurt and impact trade and business. They have also reduced the scope of bilateral contacts, despite the fact that the important dialogue between our two Presidents has continued. It is our sincere hope that as the Nordic leaders and President Obama noted in their common statement last week: “Our countries recognize the need for an appropriate dialogue with Russia to be maintained to enhance transparency and reduce risk, and to address issues of common concern…”.
I am a member of the board of the Technical University of Lappeenranta, a border town and a university that from the inception has oriented itself to exchange and partnership with Russian universities and especially with universities in St. Petersburg. And I am proud to note, with considerable success. Russians remain the largest group of foreign graduate students of the university and exchange with Russian universities is intense. There is no reason whatsoever not to continue this cooperation. We need more exchange, not less. And Finland and its industry need more expertise in Russian to be able to profit from its geographic situation and its traditional ties with Russia.
As to business, not all is somber and not everything is contracting. More than sanctions it is the exchange rate of the ruble that has hurt Finnish exports and reduced Russian imports. To sum up, the effects have been felt especially in certain sectors of the Finnish industry like the dairy industry and also regionally, especially in the South-West of Finland that has lost tourism and shoppers. But the Finnish companies established in Russia and above all her in St.Pete who are concentrated on the Russian internal market and who’s costs are mainly in rubles have been doing well, some of them very well, indeed. Nokian Tyres remains the largest Russian exporter of consumer goods to name only one and the most shining example. Others basing their business on imported goods paid in euros have suffered and some have even withdrawn from the market. Stockmann remains even in the future the proud owner of its magnificent department store on Nevski Prospekt, but alas, not anymore as a department store.
Finland remains an important hub for St. Petersburg especially because of its developed flight connections to Asia. The number of Asians entering Europe via Helsinki airport is constantly growing. In a way the Trans-Siberian railroad ends in Finland. Logistically our two countries and especially St. Petersburg and Finland form an entity.
Despite our differences I see no reason not to maintain contacts and continue exchange. Historically trade but especially tourism has had the most significant impact on the relations of our two countries. The positive image Finland enjoys in modern Russia is to a large extent a result of the phenomenal tourism – and ice-hockey — that we have experienced during the past decades. I doubt there are many pitertsy who have not been in Finland!