On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Helsinki to meet with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. The two heads of state held talks in the Presidential Palace, but the topics they discussed were unknown to the public until after their conversation ended and they both came out to meet the press.
In his opening statement, Niinistö thanked Putin for the visit, while Putin, in turn, praised the quality of bilateral relations between Russia and Finland. “We maintain contacts of all kinds,” he said. “Between parliaments, governments and NGOs. Of course, we always attach great importance to person-to-person contact as well.”
The two presidents backed up their claims of good bilateral relations by citing the number of investments that pass between the countries. Among these, special consideration was given to the Nordstream pipeline; led by Russian giant Gazprom, the pipeline will connect Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, which means a portion of it will pass through Finnish territorial waters.
After these statements, it was time for questions from the media. The Finnish press took Putin to task about the recent nuclear explosion that was detected near an army base only 400 kilometers from the Finnish border, wondering in particular if the explosion posed any danger to Finnish citizens and if military information concerning nuclear matters could be exchanged more freely and openly as it has been in this case.
President Putin assured everyone that the radiation from the incident was low and did not present a danger, but he agreed that “communication could always be improved.”
Prompted by questions from the Russian media, Putin also took issue with the USA, in particular their plans to set up a mid-range missile system in Europe. Should this occur, Putin said Russia is ready to respond. President Niinistö replied, noting that “the US have said that they don’t have such plans.” This elicited a wry smile from Putin.
The long-standing leader of Russia was also challenged about his government’s response to ongoing pro-democracy protests in his country. Protesters, who are dissatisfied with the level of freedom in elections, have been routinely arrested and silenced by authorities, according to international reports.
However, Putin insisted that Russia has reacted to these protests in the same manner as any European country would. As he put it, “any country would take action if there were illegal protests,” and added that Russia is an advocate of human rights.
Yet the streets of Helsinki didn’t seem to share the sentiment. Prior to Putin’s (somewhat late) arrival, several smaller groups of protesters were lined up along Esplanadi Park, holding banners and picket signs that either expressed solidarity with their Russian counterparts or showed Putin’s likeness against a mugshot backdrop.
Further along the park, as one neared the harbor, the Finnish NCP Youth organized a protest of their own, which focused on the current pro-democracy protests in Russia. Deputy chairman of the organization, Ali-Reza Abdali, spoke with us. “First of all, we would like to show solidarity and support with Russians who are protesting in tens of thousands, and they are protesting because they demand freedom of speech, democracy, free elections. And we want to show support to them and send a strong message to our president to bring up these issues with President Putin,” Abdali said.
“Hundreds of people have been detained, many are awaiting harsh judgment, and we want them [i.e. Putin’s government] to follow international human rights agreements and let the country and its people be free,” he continued.
Abdali said that he hoped that President Niinistö would address these topics in his meeting with Putin.
“We have strong faith in our president. He is very good at foreign policy and we have no doubt that if he wanted to, he could do it. He could bring these issues up with President Putin, strongly condemn these actions and show support for a better development. This is our only way to send a message—to protest. And this is a great human right that we want to protect and make widespread, especially in Russia.”
After the presidents concluded their bilateral talks and gave their statements to the press, they took a boat to Suomenlinna with their respective delegations, where bilateral concerns gave way to international affairs.
Whether or not they heard the protesters’ messages is unclear.