Putin’s Finland visit provides a brief distraction from problems at home

Russian president will pay a one day visit to Finland on Wednesday 21st August, hosted by President Sauli Niinistö

President Niinisto (L) & Russian President Putin (R) on a cruise at the Black Sea on 22 August 2018 / Credit: Matti Porre, TPK

Russian President Vladimir Putin will pay a one-day working visit to Finland next week, at the invitation of President Sauli Niinistö.

It’s the latest in a pattern of bilateral visits the pair have taken to each other’s countries, keeping lines of dialogue open even at moments in recent years when Russia and its leadership have been isolated on the international stage.

The Finland visit on Wednesday 21st August also provides Putin with a brief distraction from problems at home, amid ongoing criticism of his heavy-handed treatment of opposition groups and pro-democracy protesters.

“This is a routine kind of visit that has been established as a tradition between the presidents. Of course they started already in [President Tarja] Halonen’s years, but when Niinistö started there was some kind of fundamental political background change” says Professor Markku Kivinen, Research Director at Helsinki University’s Aleksanteri Institute.

That change, during Niinistö’s first term in office, saw Russia invade Ukraine and illegally annex Crimea. The EU sanctions that followed hit Finnish exports hard, but Niinistö always found a way to maintain communication with his neighbour to the east.

“One of the basic decisions he [Niinistö] made at the time was that he wanted to maintain the dialogue and now the understanding of the need for dialogue is widespread in Europe. That there has to not only be sanctions and not only confrontation, but also dialogue” says Professor Kivinen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö (R) meet in St Petersburg, April 2019 / Credit: Katri Makkonen, TPK

“Nothing is taboo” 

So what will the two leaders talk about next week in Helsinki?

The President’s office only says, vaguely, that they’ll be discussing “regional and international issues” followed by a press conference and dinner on Suomenlinna.

On an official visit to Mariehamn in Åland this week, Niinistö said that no subjects were taboo for the upcoming Putin visit.

In practice when the two have met before they’ve talked about Baltic Sea security, and one of Niinistö’s favourite subjects black carbon emissions in the Arctic.

Professor Kivinen thinks the situation in Ukraine will also be on the agenda.

“Of course the situation is how Putin sees the new Ukrainian president, there could be a new mood on the side of Ukraine but probably there is nothing public” he says.

“One of the problems of course in the Ukrainian situation after the Minsk agreement is that there is a kind of paused conflict, but still with casualties, and serious from the point of European security. The problem is there’s no real path ahead.”

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin from March 2018 / Credit: Instagram

Trouble at home for Putin 

Against the backdrop of President Putin’s visit to Finland are ongoing domestic problems.

Over the last five weeks, Russian authorities have faced escalating protests by pro-democracy advocates and Putin’s political opponents. Up to 50,000 people have taken to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate against decisions to ban dozens of independent candidates from running in local elections.

Police have responded with mass arrests of more than 2000 people, and violent beatings caught on camera, which seem to only strengthen the anti-Putin voices and bring more people out to join the demonstrations.

Could this be the beginning of the end for former KGB agent Putin?

Don’t bet on it.

During 20 years in power, Vladimir Putin has shown a remarkable knack of turning apparent problems into his own victories – after all, he’s still in charge in the Kremlin.

“Of course there is a big debate in the West concerning Putin losing his power base, but my understand is that his power base is changing all the time, because Russia is continually changing” explains Professor Kivinen.

“The traditional thinking is that Moscow and St Petersburg might turn against Putin, but this has not proved to be the case because of economic growth there. Now the problems have been mainly in the peripheries” he says.

Kivinen says that President Putin uses a mix of foreign policy, national interests, his own personal charisma, the media and a “dictatorship of law” to maintain his own power base.

“Russia has changed a lot, even if economic growth is slower. Putin’s support is genuine to some extent, but if you don’t take into account the opposition, you can jeopardise that support by having too much political oppression.”

President Sauli Niinistö (L) meets Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) in St. Petersburgh, 9th April 2019 / Credit: Katri Makkonen, Office of the President

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