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Russians Need To Respect Themselves

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM) promotes cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, and free speech.




Teemu Matinpuro, executive director of the Finnish Peace Committee, and Kerkko Paananen, information secretary of the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM), gave an interview to Lyudmila Mamina, editor-in-chief of Kasparov.Ru, about the Finnish edition of Novaya Gazeta, the attitude of Finnish society to Anna Politkovskaya, the war in Chechnya, and the current political situation in Russia. Below, an edited translation of the interview.

Q: How did you come by the idea of publishing Novaya Gazeta in Finland?

Teemu Matinpuro: Soon after the death of Anna Politkovskaya, some people began to think about ways to show respect for her work and the work of other independent journalists in Russia. I myself felt that merely lighting a candle in front of the Russian embassy was not enough.

There were various ideas about how to support Novaya Gazeta and independent journalism in Russia, but it seemed that many of those who where eager to point out the problems in Russia and accuse Putin of being behind Anna’s murder, were not really interested in doing something tangible to support those in Russia who continued her work. The Finnish version of Novaya Gazeta came about as a joint project with the Russian Novaya Gazeta.

Q: How would you define the publication’s readership? Who are your common readers?

Teemu Matinpuro: This is, in fact, difficult to pinpoint. I think our readership consists of all sorts of people who are interested in Russia. There is a small but enthusiastic “crowd” in Finland who are genuinely and deeply interested in Russia, in the Russian economy, in Russian culture, and in the human rights situation in Russia.

I would say that there is real interest in Finland in our great neighbour, and, more specifically, in having a chance to hear Russian voices — instead of relying on the reporting of foreign journalists and international news agencies, which, in the end, offer a very limited knowledge about the actual situation in Russia.

Q: Is Anna Politkovskaya well known in Finland?

Kerkko Paananen: Yes, quite well known. Anna Politkovskaya had a great many personal and professional acquaintances in Finland. On the night of Anna’s death, there was a silent demonstration of around 3,000 people outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki. The street outside the embassy was absolutely jampacked.

This was one of the largest demonstrations in Finland in recent years, and certainly the largest ever spontaneous demonstration in Finnish history. One can say that almost the entire Finnish intelligentsia was present. The event was truly extraordinary by Finnish standards.

Since then, Amnesty International Finnish Section has invited people to a demonstration each year on 7 October. This year, on the 5th anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s killing, there were close to 100 people outside the embassy — in pouring rain, I might add. The demonstration was organised by Amnesty, Finnish PEN, and the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM).

Q: Do you think that the topics that the Finnish edition of Novaya Gazeta covers are of interest to Finnish readers?

Kerkko Paananen: There is a chronic lack of information in Finland about what is really happening in Russia. It can be said that the same situation is evident in most other EU countries, possibly with the exception of the Baltic States. This is something that the Finnish version of Novaya Gazeta has tried to address.

However, a quarterly publication that is largely produced through voluntary work cannot really solve the problem. It is a modest attempt at informing Finnish readers of the current state and condition of our eastern neighbour. Speaking as a member of the editorial collective of the Finnish version of Novaya Gazeta, I can say that we do try to pick stories that we think would be of interest to the Finnish reader as well.

As for Anna Politkovskaya’s works, as far as I know, Finland was the first country where her books were published outside of Russia. Her first books appeared in Finnish before her death. Politkovskaya’s Second Chechen War and Putin’s Russia were published by the Finnish publishing house, Like, and the Finnish Peace Committee.

Q: Is the problem of killings of journalists and pressure on reporters important for Finland?

Kerkko Paananen: If we talk about the security situation of journalists in Russia, many organisations in Finland have indeed raised the issue on various levels: Amnesty, Finnish PEN, FINROSFORUM, the Finnish Union of Journalists, and others.

Several Finnish journalists — including ones working for our leading media channels and newspapers — have faced problems in obtaining visas to Russia, quite obviously because of their critical reporting on events in Russia. Some Finnish journalists have even faced prosecution in Russian courts. This issue has been raised in discussions with the Finnish Foreign Ministry, particularly by Finnish PEN and the Union of Journalists.

Q: Do Finnish media have a problem with censorship or self-censorship?

Kerkko Paananen: If we talk about how Finnish media reports on events in Russia, the problem, as far as I can see, is not self-censorship, but lack of resources. The reason for this sorry state of affairs is that media groups in Finland — like in most countries with high internet penetration — lack the funds to finance a large pool of foreign correspondents. I personally think that this situation is a major problem in view of our close vicinity to and interdependence with Russia.

As for media reporting in general, I see no signs of media censorship in Finland. There are individual cases where media outlets could have handled stories better, but there is absolutely no systematic censorship in Finland.

As for self-censorship, Finnish media have come a long way since the time when even our mainstream media served the foreign policy goals of the Finnish government. If there have been cases of self-censorship in Finnish media in recent years, I would argue that the reason has been mainly to protect the business interests of the owners of media outlets. I do not see this as any more of a problem in Finland than in any other Western European country.

Q: Do you think the investigation into Politkovskaya’s killing has been objective enough? Are you satisfied with the official version of the investigation?

Kerkko Paananen: I think it can be clearly said that the investigation has not proceeded in anything close to a swift manner. This is something that many organisations in Finland have pointed out. Most recently, Amnesty International Finnish Section criticised the slow progress in the investigation of the case. Given the lack of progress, I think there are strong reasons to believe that the investigation is being stalled by the authorities.

Q: What is the attitude toward the Chechen problem and Chechen immigrants in Finland? Has the attitude changed during the past few years?

Kerkko Paananen: There are very few Chechens living in Finland, and I do not think that their presence has had any major impact on the attitude of the Finnish society toward Chechens and Chechnya. Overall, I would say that the attitude of Finnish society toward the suffering of the Chechen people is quite sympathetic. Most Finns do recall the brutality of the two Chechen wars, and Finnish television has screened quite a number of documentaries on the war.

That said, given that there are very few Chechens and Ingushetians living in Finland, and they are spread out in various cities throughout the country, the number of Finns who have met Chechen or Ingush refugees is very small. However, those Finns who do have Chechen or Ingush acquaintances, do sympathise with the fate of the Chechen and Ingush peoples. We still remember how our nation suffered during the years of the Second World War.

The fact that the war in North Caucasus has deteriorated to a dirty war of terror on all sides has not, in my opinion, made Finnish public opinion turn hostile toward the fate of the North Caucasian peoples. I think Finnish society, by and large, recognises that the people in North Caucasus are hostages to a nightmarish situation that is quite beyond their control.

The attitude of ordinary Finns to individual Chechen and Ingush refugees is quite warm and welcoming. I think most North Caucasian refugees can confirm this. The problems that they have had have mostly been with unfriendly state officials, but I would say that this experience is quite common for many refugees in most EU countries.

It must be said, however, that there is, in fact, very little information in Finnish media about what is happening in North Caucasus currently. This is mostly a result of the problem of media resources that I talked about before, but also an indication of the general lack of interest or “compassion fatigue” of the Western public to the horrible and apparently unsolvable situation in North Caucasus.

The attitude of the Finnish immigration authorities — just as that of immigration authorities in many other EU countries — has often utterly failed to take into account the actual security situation in the region. The problem has been brought to the attention of both the Finnish Immigration Service and the Finnish Foreign Ministry by members of the Chechen diaspora, FINROSFORUM, and Amnesty. It seems the immigration authorities are knowingly basing their decisions on asylum applications on outdated and often erroneous reports about the security situation in the region.

Amnesty, FINROSFORUM, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, and other organisations have continued to highlight the dismal human rights situation in North Caucasus in their reporting and public campaigns.

One step that Amnesty, FINROSFORUM, and Finnish PEN recently took was to invite Anton Ryzhov, legal expert at the Nizhny Novgorod-based Committee Against Torture and member of the so-called Joint Mobile Group, to Helsinki to talk about the current human rights situation in Chechnya. Amnesty arranged for a meeting with the lawyers at Finland’s Refugee Advice Centre, where Mr Ryzhov was able to convey first-hand knowledge about the situation in Chechnya. The Refugee Advice Centre provides legal counselling to asylum seekers in Finland.

Q: What is the opinion in Finland about the president of Chechnya and his record in office?

Kerkko Paananen: My personal opinion is that the rightful place for Ramzan Kadyrov and his Kremlin puppet master, Vladimir Putin, is in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. These people are among the most egregious human rights violators in the world, and the international community should take measures to bring them to justice.

Moreover, I find it quite unacceptable that official representatives of Kadyrov’s administration are being permitted to enter Finnish territory and other EU member states. The EU should impose a total and unconditional visa ban on all people representing Kadyrov’s regime. This is also a matter of national security for EU member states.

Q: What do you think about the current political situation in Russia and the announcement by Putin and Medvedev regarding the upcoming presidential elections?

Kerkko Paananen: This is a vast question… In short, I can say that the theatrical announcement at the United Russia party conference on the intention of Putin and Medvedev to switch seats laid bare the reality of the political system in Russia today. The current regime has never had any intention of allowing free and fair elections in the country. In fact, there has been no genuine popular plebiscite that would confirm the legitimacy of Russia’s current government. Statements about majority popular support for Putin’s regime lack any basis in electoral fact.

The announcement at Putin’s party conference must have been a cold shower to a great many people in the West who had hoped to be able to hang on to the illusion of “Medvedevian modernisation.” Indeed, the announcement may have jeopardised the career of many pundits, analysts, consultants, and other witch doctors in the West who had joined in the choir with their ideological colleagues in Russia.

It is time to recognise that the policies of the current regime in Russia are a major source of instability in Europe as a whole, and to take measures to mitigate the negative effect that Russia’s corrupt system has on European economies. Sooner or later, dirty money corrupts even healthy economies.

Also, it should be recognised that the current regime in Russia is the reason for the state of abasement that the Russian people find themselves in. Russia is unlikely to respect the rights of the multitude of peoples living in and around the Russian Federation before the Russian people learn to respect themselves. The first step could be to establish a government that meets the genuine aspirations of the Russian people.

Q: Some Europeans value Vladimir Putin for his hard position on the international arena. Is this attitude common in Finland as well?

Kerkko Paananen: Unfortunately, yes, there are such opinions in Finland as well. Fortunately, the most avid admirers of Putin’s kleptocratic dictatorship are in the absolute margin of Finnish society and politics. However, my main concern is the cynical attitude of many mainstream politicians and especially of the business community toward doing business with companies and institutions linked to Russia’s corrupt elite.

One of the most striking examples of this is the decision of Finland’s former Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker, long-time Chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Paavo Lipponen, to take on a job as consultant for Gazprom’s Nord Stream project — much like his German colleague, Gerhard Schröder. Mr Lipponen is now his party’s candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, due in January 2012.

The deep entrenchment of corrupt Russian business interests in the Finnish economy — let alone in many other EU countries, especially in the Baltic States — is extremely worrying, and it should be a reason for serious concern to our authorities. Unfortunately, this situation has been allowed to develop, ostensibly unchecked, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Q: Do you think the idea of blacklists — for example the Magnitsky List — against various officials suspected of violating human rights or of being involved in corruption is an effective instrument? Do you think such methods will achieve real results?

Kerkko Paananen: The only way to combat organised crime is to go after their money. This is what visa bans and financial blacklists strive to achieve.

I think the measures taken in relation to those officials who were involved in the murder of Sergey Magnitsky — and, earlier, Belarusian officials taking part in election fraud and suppression of the opposition — are indeed an effective method to put pressure on human rights violators, corrupt officials, and members of criminal organisations. Such sanctions send a clear message both to their targets and to our own domestic audience that our government and our society consider these people outcasts and a danger to our common European security.

Read the original interview (in Russian):




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