HELSINKI, Finland—Nobody here was surprised when Finland’s capital was named as the venue for the Putin-Trump summit, which Russian media refer to as “a historical meeting of two presidents.”
On the eve of that fraught get-together, Finnish politicians, government officials, journalists and political analysts alike told The Daily Beast that for many years, dating back to the days when he worked for the municipal government in St. Petersburg, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin has treated Finland as “his dacha,” and “his second home.”
That’s easy to understand. Finland is beautiful—perhaps the greenest country in the world, much of it composed of beautiful islands in the Baltic Sea. And Putin feels safe here, obviously. But Finns do not feel safe with President Putin ruling Russia, their enormous neighbor next door. And many wonder just how much his money and his connections have embedded themselves here.
Finnish politicians are beginning to ask exactly how many Russian officials, Putin friends, and members of their families have property in Finland and even Finnish citizenship.
According to the latest polls only 2 percent of Finns think that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy makes the world a peaceful place. Arja Paananen, a longtime observer of Russia-Finland relations, said that the Russian war with Georgia, then Crimea and the Donbass crisis scared Finland, a peaceful country.
“After two wars, we know that a third war could very well take place,” said Paananen. “We still do not want to join NATO,” she said, ‘but we wish to keep our chance of joining any time we decide to do so.“
“Putin, who has many friends in Finland, should remember to keep his hands away from our freedom and not try to strike any deals about freezing NATO expansion,” she said, “The idea of closing our door to NATO would be a serious mistake. We are not going to like that.”
While Moscow's mainstream information agencies proclaimed that the Putin-Trump summit is Russia's return to global politics, in Helsinki hundreds of protesters blamed Putin for aggression in Ukraine, Georgia and Syria, and for violations of human rights.
On Sunday, crowds marched against the summit. Many carried banners and placards attacking both Putin and Trump. One tall young man who stood out in the crowd hoisted a sign that said "Putin is a terrorist;" on the back of it, it said, "Free Sentsov," referring to the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is on a hunger strike in a Russian prison. Another sign floating over the crowd, outlined in red, said “Lock Up Putin for Life.”
By 1:30 p.m. the central avenue of Helsinki, Aleksanterinkatu, was flooded with protesters chanting in English: "Stop the violence, stop the hate, we don't want your bloody war!"
Signs put in advertising displays around the city displayed headlines from Finland's major newspaper Helsingin Sanomat: "In 2013 Putin closed down Russia's biggest news agency."
Finnish protesters were just as hard on Trump. One big banner with Trump's portrait said: "Please recycle." Another said: "Social justice is great, Trump stands for hate."
The Finns don’t really like to be confrontational, but they don’t like to feel that anyone’s taking advantage of them, or taking them – and their values – for granted. Human rights are very important here, and they are not cynical about democracy.
Putin has even been welcomed in the past to take a sauna with the country’s leadership. On Saturday one of the most-read stories in the Finnish newspaper Ilta Sanomat described such an evening at a luxury resort in 2010 – and it caused a sensation because the resort owner gave a rare glimpse of Putin’s private life.
“See, Putin has used Finland as his backyard, where he can always feel secure, and that [Finnish] security personnel would weld shut every manhole, and no information would leak,” said Polina Kopylova, an expert on Russia-Finland relations.
Putin has been dealing with Finnish businessmen and politicians since 1990, when he was appointed an adviser on international affairs for the St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Putin’s committee at St. Petersburg city hall signed licenses and agreements with foreign companies, allowing Putin-approved businesses to operate in Russia.
“Vladimir Putin has been coming to Finland both on private and official visits, feeling himself at home here for many years; but in fact, none of us like Putin or his policy,” Paavo Arhinmaki, a member of the Finnish parliament, told The Daily Beast. “The majority of our country’s population do not approve of Donald Trump’s policies, either. Both of these leaders drag the world toward the past, while we choose the Nordic model of democracy, which treats civil society and human rights as the main priorities,” said Arhinmaki
Last July, Putin visited Finland to discuss the U.S. sanctions and defense with President Sauli Niinisto. At a joint press conference Putin said that more anti-Russian sanctions would violate international law. If Putin expecting Niinisto to endorse that idea, he must have been disappointed. Russian news reports said that Putin returned from Finland with a gift, a box of rare wines – and that was it. Finland made its choice: Russia’s friendly neighbor supported the sanctions against Russia.
Most of President Putin’s close friends, including life-long ones like billionaires Gennady Timchenko, or Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, are on the U.S. sanctions list. “It is a well-known fact, that Rotenbergs and Timchenko have Finnish citizenship and property here, it is a very good question how much they learn from our democracy, when they stay here,” Arhinmaki said.
Independent observers and politicians here admit there is no detailed public report about Putin’s friends, their family members and Kremlin officials buying property in Finland.
“You can blame me,” says Jarmo Koponen, a veteran journalist and long-time Russia observer. “I guess I was not digging enough, but most of the information is not transparent.” But some bits and pieces do surface. “People were quite shocked recently to find out that a former Moscow deputy mayor bought a giant luxurious apartment in the heart of Helsinki; and our marina is often full of yachts owned by Russian elite.”
Member of Parliament Elina Maria Lepomaki, from the National Coalition Party, welcomes more coverage of Moscow’s elite activity in Moscow. “I would be in favor of more investigative reports,” the young parliamentarian told The Daily Beast.
Up to 70,000 Finnish citizens have Russian backgrounds and many have dual citizenship in this nation of some 5.5 million people, and there’s concern the political and financial influence of the Putin camp will far outweigh their numbers.
Finland is a proud member of the European Union, and MP Pekka Haavisto of the Green League worries, as many other Finns do, about the efforts of Putin and Trump to disrupt or destroy European unity.
“The European Union is experiencing huge challenges,” said Haavisto. “We are thinking about how to deal with Brexit, with bad news from Poland or Austria.” In the face of growing nativism, populism and prejudice, he said, “We welcome Russians suffering from human rights violations who ask for our protection; this year several Russian LGBT victims found their home in Finland.”
Not everyone disapproves of Putin’s and Trump’s policies. Earlier this month a “Helsinki Loves Trump” group of activists, known for their pro-Kremlin propaganda, suggested Lenin park in Helsinki be renamed “Vladimir Putin Park” and that a street be named after Donald Trump. Their initiative did not receive much support.
Unlike some members of the European Union, including Hungary or the Czech Republic, Finland has not embraced anti-immigrant and anti-European Union rhetoric. “When I worked as Finland’s Sport and Culture minister,” MP Paavo Arhinmaki told The Daily Beast,” I reminded my colleagues in the Russian government about our attitude toward human rights violations and violence against minorities. We do not like that, and we watch these issues closely.”
They will be watching Trump and Putin very closely indeed.