LAPPEENRANTA, Finland (CN) — Since the moment Russia invaded Ukraine in February, its Nordic neighbor Finland began the process of political, cultural and financial detachment from Moscow.
That process culminated a few weeks ago when the Finnish government agreed to put 6 million euros ($5.95 million) aside for a pilot project to construct a small fence at the Russian border. If the project succeeds, the plan is to build several extensive walls along the 832-mile eastern border over the next four years.
In September, Finland followed other countries like Latvia and Estonia and banned all regular tourist visas for Russian applicants. The decision has put a stop not only to Russian travelers entering the European Union, but also to a long tradition of free movement between the two countries.
Juhana Aunesluoma, professor of political history at Helsinki University, said the planned fence is an expected development given the current circumstances but is also a significant break from the tradition of an open border.
“Although Russia and Finland are quite different in economy, political structure, and social conditions, they have historically been very close," he said in an interview. "There has been frequent exchange of people, goods, and money over the border. It used to connect rather than divide. But that has changed now."
Aunesluoma noted that before the war began, many people journeyed back and forth between Russia and Finland for work or weekend visits, especially to and from the western Russian city of St. Petersburg.
Even though border traffic was low in the decades after Finland obtained independence from Russia in 1917, the two countries have had continuous cultural exchanges between their residents, according to Aunesluoma, and mutual trade has been significant.
A decade ago, one-tenth of all Finnish exports went to Russia.
”The conditions for trade are excellent when you look at the two economies. They match each other perfectly. Russia has raw materials and energy, while Finland can deliver manufactured consumer goods, services, and tourism," Aunesluoma said.
But he said Finnish government officials and trade partners took notice of how Russia became more radicalized with Vladimir Putin´s return to the presidency in 2012, which has led to a gradual detachment. By last year, Finland's exports to Russia had dropped to 5.3%, according to data provided by the Bank of Finland.
The deterioration of relations is particularly evident in the Finnish border city of Lappeenranta. The town is part of the southeastern region of South Karelia and used to be a popular tourist spot for Russian visitors, not to mention an important economic trade hub facilitating exports from the manufacturing industry.
Mika Peltonen, CEO of the regional chamber of commerce, told Courthouse News that local companies started pulling out of the Russian market after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“We have a long history of trading with Russia. Traditionally, our companies have imported over 5 million cubic meters of wood and other raw materials from them annually. But now we shifted to suppliers from the Baltic countries,” he said.
Today, South Karelia's main export destinations outside of the 30-nation European Economic Area are China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while Russia has fallen further down the list over the last decade. It is currently No. 10 – just after Ukraine.
“I believe that because we are so close to the border, we saw the warning signs early on. We have noticed an increasing instability in the Russian trade environment – from the ruble crisis to restrictions on the exchange of certain goods such as engineering products," Peltonen said. "So we knew for many years that we had to find another plan A."
However, it is indisputable that the region has lost a vast profit from Russian tourists. Before Covid-19, several thousand would visit daily and spend 1 million euros ($988,700) in South Karelia, according to Peltonen.
The city of Lappeenranta bears clear traces of its geographical proximity to Russia. About 3,000 residents out of a total population of 72,000 belong to the Russian-speaking community, and the local technology university has 160 Russian students enrolled.
At the mayor's office, locals say daily life hasn't changed a lot since the war began and the main focus is on all residents living peacefully together.
Lappeenranta Mayor Kimmo Jarva is unconcerned that the influx of Russians stopped after the invasion of Ukraine. When Courthouse News met him, he emphasized how the mutual relationship has changed for good.
“Trust has been completely broken. And once that happens, it takes a long time to win it back. So the damage is done,” Jarva said.
That the war has left permanent scars – not only in Lappeenranta, but in all of Finland – was also something that Aunesluoma underscored.
”It cannot be overstated how much the invasion has ruined," the professor said. "People in Finland are in complete shock, and many have now realized that Putin has broader backing from Russian citizens than expected. Finns have always seen Russia as a part friend and part foe, but now they are just viewed as an alien enemy."
"There is no easy way back," he added.
In addition to its border fence pilot project, Finland is in the process of joining NATO to boost its defense and contribute to a stronger collective military in the Baltic Sea. Finland and Sweden applied in May in the early stages of the war.
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