- Oksana Antonenko
- BBC, Helsinki-Lappeenranta
The BBC News Russian Service app is available for IOS and Android . You can also subscribe to our Telegram channel.
After decades of neutrality, Finland is about to join NATO. Despite their economic dependence on Russian tourists, some residents of the border regions are buying groceries for 72 hours, checking bomb shelters and mentally preparing to fight off the Russian offensive.
The BBC has studied how the turning point in public consciousness occurred.
Further the position should be announced by the Parliament. It will probably happen within a few days. However, in the border areas of Finland, people have long decided.
“When Russia started the war in Ukraine, we felt that at some stage, maybe we could be next,” a local resident named Yuso tells the BBC. “I served in the Finnish army. If you need to defend yourself , we will do it, this has happened in our history.”
“I’m already prepared in case I have to go,” he adds.
Yuso is a bar manager in the Finnish border town of Lappeenranta. The Russian border is 25 kilometers away. He says that most of his acquaintances are in favor of Finland joining NATO.
Previously, he hesitated, but after the start of the war in Ukraine, there were more arguments “for” NATO. “We have a neighbor, Russia, and you never know what they’re going to do,” he says.
People like Yusa are the majority in Finland.
Compared to the pre-war period, support for Finland’s membership in NATO has grown two and a half times. According to polls by Helsingin Sanomat and Kantar TNS, if in January 28% of Finnish residents were in favor of joining NATO, in March this support rose to 54%, and by May, almost three-quarters of the population (73%) were in favor of joining NATO.
In the same polls, opponents of NATO admitted that their main argument is the fear of spoiling relations with Russia. And this, in turn, is fraught with millions of losses for both tourism and the service sector.
“We are still neighbors”
According to a study by the Finnish state marketing organization Visit Finland, a third of tourists in 2018 came to Finland from Russia. Half are shopping. In the year leading up to the pandemic, Russians spent 650 million euros in Finland, about 21% of total tourist spending in the country.
In the event of a hypothetical war, the inhabitants of the border regions will not only be the first in the path of the Russian army, they will also lose more than others, because this is where Russian tourists leave the most money.
“The war worries us more than the economy. The economy in Finland is stable. Russian tourists disappeared almost three years ago due to the coronavirus, we managed without Russian money,” says Yuso.
But if Yuso copes, then Mohammed, who lives in the same Lappeenranta, may not be able to cope.
He owns a shopping center three kilometers from the border. 99% of clients are Russians. Now there are almost no buyers here. The store works on sales on the Internet, but this is about 15% of the standard turnover.
Mohammed is waiting for countries to lift restrictions on cross-border travel and hopes the Russians will return.
“If there are no new restrictions due to the war, then I think we will quickly recover. If there are, then this is not very good,” he says.
Mohammed is against Finland’s entry into NATO – he would not like to anger Russia once again. But he hopes that on a human level, nothing will change.
“For an ordinary person – me or a neighbor, or any Russian, it doesn’t matter whether we join NATO or not, it won’t change anything in people’s lives,” he says.
There are dozens of such shopping centers along the Finnish-Russian border. Half of them are closed, others work in a truncated mode. In Lappeenranta itself, merchants also lose money daily.
Sergey owned a fur store in the city center, which closed immediately after the fall of the ruble in 2015. Then Sergey was engaged in the supply of products to Muhammad’s store, but this business also collapsed. Sergei himself went to Italy. “I don’t know what they will do there,” he says.
Shops, including those designed for the local public, are also experiencing difficulties.
Kasri runs a shopping center in Lappeenranta. According to her, about a third of the clients came from Russia.
“Every day we lose sales, and throughout the city,” she admits. “But I believe and hope that they will return. We are still neighbors, no one has moved anywhere.”
Before the pandemic, almost two million Russian tourists came to Lappeenranta annually (this is about half of all Russians who travel to Finland). After the flow stopped due to the pandemic, the city is losing a million euros a year.
The mayor of Lappeenranta, Kimmo Järva, believes that because of Finland’s accession to NATO, the Russians may not return: “We are waiting and hoping that they will return. But I’m not sure about their attitude towards Finland.”
But the attitude of the Finns towards ordinary people on the other side of the border, according to the mayor, has not changed.
“There are relations between Finns and Russians on both sides of the border. My wife is from Russia, she is a Finnish citizen, has lived here half her life. We have a happy marriage,” he continues. “I think the Finns think this is Putin’s war.”
More than three thousand Russians live in Lappeenranta, many of them arrived back in the 90s. Ksenia’s parents have been living here for more than 20 years, she herself went to Russia, but eventually returned to Finland.
He says that the Russians here are afraid of war just like the Finns. “My classmate said – what if they bombard us too? But I hope that they won’t. I think the Finns are afraid too.”
Kimmo Järva says that the Finns are not afraid, but are preparing.
“Many people buy food for 72 hours, at the city level we checked our bomb shelters, we prepared for possible hybrid attacks,” the mayor continues.
He admits that Russians in Finland are now less trusted.
He himself, for example, supports joining NATO: “A small country like Finland needs friends, especially when there is a war going on in Europe.” At the same time, he is always glad to Russian tourists. The mayor of Lappeenranta does not see any contradiction here, he says – pure pragmatism.
“Remember the Winter War”
As for the fears about the war with Russia, for the Finns this is not a panic, but a historical experience.
Kharik lives 200 meters from the Russian border. At the same time, according to him, he has no special relationship with the Russians. He also has no position on joining NATO: “NATO is none of my business.”
“I think Russia won’t cross the border. I think they still remember the Winter War,” he says.
The confidence of the Finns in their ability to defend the country is an almost universal phenomenon, and it can be explained by the same Winter War. It was she who eventually led to a long-term neutrality on the issue of NATO membership, and to a sharp increase in support for the alliance among the local population.
The Winter War began in 1939 when the USSR attacked Finland. As a result, the Scandinavian country lost ten percent of its territory, but was able to resist the onslaught of the Red Army, despite its obvious numerical superiority.
In Finland, this is remembered at all levels: Harik is not afraid of war, despite the proximity of the border, and the mayor of Lappeenrante works in an office overlooking the monument to Finnish soldiers who died during the Winter War and World War II.
The way Finland fought off the USSR is also remembered in Helsinki.
“Finland retained its independence, and in that sense it was a victory,” Finnish political scientist Tuomas Forsberg tells the BBC Russian Service. “Afterwards, people could compare themselves with the Baltic countries (which were occupied by the Soviet Union).”
The Finns put up such stiff resistance that, according to Professor Johan Aunesluom, the USSR considered the complete occupation of the Scandinavian country not worth the potential losses.
“Instead, the USSR decided to concentrate on Berlin and Central Europe, and Finland was simply left alone,” says the historian.
However, following the results of the Second World War, Finland was on the side of the losers and entered the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.
“The position of the USSR was of great importance in Finnish domestic politics,” continues Juhana Aunesluom. “The Soviet Union constantly made sure that Finland knew its place. For example, Finland could not even think about joining the European Union before the collapse of the USSR.”
After the collapse of the USSR, Finland ceased to be anyone’s satellite; in 1995, it joined the EU, which in itself was perceived as a guarantee of security.
The Baltic countries and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, which were less fortunate in Soviet times, already then declared that they wanted to join NATO. Instead, Finland began to develop its own armed forces.
“We are not afraid to defend ourselves”
“Finland did not withdraw from military service for obvious reasons. There were still doubts about Russia,” Tuomas Forsberg continues. “After the end of the Cold War, Finland bought weapons at very good prices from countries that wanted to get rid of them.”
All Finnish policy, according to the expert, was aimed at ensuring that the country retains the ability to cope with the crisis on its own. Yuso, who lives in Lappeenranta, is not the only Finn ready to fight.
More than a million residents of the country have undergone military training, and about three hundred thousand more are officially on the reserve and are periodically sent to training camps. Another 30 thousand people are a professional army along with conscripts; the latter serve from six months to a year.
As a result, even with a population of 5.5 million people, the Finns are confident that they will beat off any attack.
“The advantage of NATO membership is that we can get military help,” says Tuomas Forsberg. “But whatever help Finland gets, we are not afraid to defend ourselves.”
A logical question arises: why then do we need NATO? Finns have been angered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that NATO should end its open-door policy, experts say.
“It is very important who decides,” says Juhana Aunesluom. “It looked like Russia was trying to restore a sphere of influence along its border. And we have a border with them. There was a feeling that Russia is trying to restore what it has lost, and we, Finns, it became uncomfortable.”
Like most Finns, he was against joining NATO. But on February 24, everything changed.
“If Putin was able to go for it, then what else can he go for? And why should he stop in Ukraine in this case,” the historian argues. “We must be prepared for what until now seemed impossible – for a bilateral conflict “.