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Reporting from the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum

Finnish-Russian Civic Forum in Helsinki: Looking at Russia By Grigory Pasko, journalist [editor’s note: last week Grigory Pasko and Robert Amsterdam attended the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum and met with and interviewed prominent members of the opposition. Video footage of the proceedings will be made available soon] …As we walked the streets of Helsinki, we couldn’t help but recall that at one time this city and this country were a part of the Russian Empire. Today, Finland is a free and democratic state that is quietly going about building a good life without complaining about weather and climate conditions or about the need to build its own unique kind of democracy, distinct from the European model, the way Russia does. Finland’s very existence literally demonstrates to Russia that you can be a normal country even without large reserves of oil and gas. And Russia is often irritated by such a demonstration. It is probably precisely for this reason that Russia’s ambassador to Finland, Alexander Rumyantsev (the former head of Rosatom), ignores the many Russia-related conferences and forums that take place in Helsinki. But if we can understand that the ambassador ignores such events for what are most likely political reasons, the non-participation of certain Russian politicians is sometimes very difficult to find an explanation for.

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View of Helsinki harbor from the water. Photo by Grigory Pasko.

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum in Helsinki was planned to be held back in the middle of June. However, for various reasons, the dates needed to be changed. One of the organizers explained to me that “we took account of the wishes of the leader of the United Civic Front, Garry Kasparov”. But Garry Kasparov never did make an appearance at the conference. And not just Kasparov, but many others whose participation the organizers had expected. For example the human rights advocate Sergey Kovalev, one of the leaders of the Republican Party of Russia Vladimir Lysenko, representatives of opposition movements Georgi Satarov and Ivan Starikov, and many others. But one person who did come was the chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Ludmilla Alexeeva. She explained to me: “Finland is very worried by the development of democracy in Russia. And this worry is understandable: Russia is Finland’s nearest and far from calmest neighbor.” In Ludmilla Mikhailovna’s opinion, the Scandinavian countries will play an ever more significant role in determining the common European policy in relation to Russia.

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Ludmilla Alexeeva speaking at a panel with Oksana Chelysheva (Russian-Chechen Friendship Society) and Alexander Nikitin (Bellona Foundation). Photo by Grigory Pasko.

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum gathered together representatives of various opposition forces of Russia. Coming from St. Petersburg and Moscow were Xenia Vakhrusheva and Oleg Kozlovsky from the movement «Oborona» and Andrey Dmitriev from «The Other Russia». Representing «Yabloko» was Olga Galkina, a member of the regional bureau from St. Petersburg, while the United Civic Front was present in the person of the chair of its St. Petersburg branch, Olga Kurnosova. Among the speakers at the Forum were: documentary filmmaker Andrey Nekrasov, author and leader of the new «Narod» opposition movement in Russia Zakhar Prilepin, environmental activist and head of the «St. Petersburg – Bellona» ecological and human rights center Alexander Nikitin, press secretary of the «Vanguard of Red Youth» youth movement Anastasia Udaltsova, and many others (Later on our blog, readers will be able to see and hear these representatives on YouTube). Foreign organizations were likewise broadly represented. In particular, at the forum were coordinator of the Finnish section of Amnesty International Anu Tuukkanen, Human Rights First program director Neil Hicks from New York, Executive Director of the Finnish Peace Association Laura Lodenius, head of the London-based human rights organization RAW in WAR Mariana Katzarova, and others. Serving as moderators of the panel sessions were YLE (Finnish Broadcasting Company) radio journalist Nils Torvalds (who also happens to be the father of Linux developer Linus Torvalds), chairman of the Finnish PEN-club Jukka Mallinen, Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights Aaron Rhodes, and Secretary of the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum Mikael Storsjö. The event was opened by its main organizer, Chairperson of the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum and Member of the Finnish Parliament Heidi Hautala.

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The Forum was held in the historic Suomenlinna/Sveaborg fortress on an island in Helsinki harbor. Photo by Grigory Pasko.

It should be noted that Finland actively participates in all manner of discussions concerning the process of the development of democratic institutions in Russia. Some official representatives of Russia frankly dislike such activeness by the Finns. They assert that little Finland’s place is somewhere on the periphery of the backwoods of Europe, and that it should open its mouth only when former “big brother” Russia wants it to. But the imperialist mentality of these Soviet mastodons doesn’t stop Finland from expressing its position with respect to many of the events taking place in Russia. We need only recall that the largest rally in Europe devoted to the memory of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya took place in Helsinki. Finland was one of very few European countries to show Andrey Nekrasov’s documentary film devoted to investigating the bombings of apartment houses in Russia. This film was banned in Russia itself. The Finns often address Europe’s environmental problems, too, for example the construction of the North European Gas Pipeline…

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The young generation of the opposition speaks during a panel on “The Right to Disagree”. Photo by Grigory Pasko.

The Forum participants discussed various problems: the revival of dissidence in the country, the actions of the opposition, problems of the independence of judges and freedom of speech, the situation in the North Caucasus, and others. The dialogue, in my opinion, was lively and interesting. I also noticed that representatives of the youth sections of the opposition movements and parties find a common language and common positions with one another more quickly than do their leaders. Who knows, perhaps it is they, the young people, who will manage to accomplish what their older colleagues have so far failed to do – unite the opposition forces in the country in order to stand up in a united front against Russia’s return to a totalitarian past?