Presidential dialogue in the Finnish capital

In a natural continuation of Finland’s advocacy of dialogue in international relations, Helsinki hosts a meeting between the presidents of Russia and the US.

Helsinki’s role as host of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin is a natural continuation of Finland’s advocacy of dialogue in international relations.

Previous meetings in Helsinki between the leaders of the two countries happened in 1990, between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, and in 1997, when Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin came to town.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, who described the talks as a welcome opportunity to reduce international tensions, welcomed the leaders to the meeting at the Finnish capital’s Presidential Palace. He also stated his own intention to raise Finnish and EU concerns about tensions in the Baltic Sea region and environmental issues in the Arctic.

Niinistö received the preliminary inquiry from officials of both countries about a meeting in Helsinki just a few weeks before the actual meeting date of July 16, 2018. Even on such short notice, Finland was able to swing quickly into action, harnessing their talkoohenki, a Finnish word that implies both team spirit and everyone chipping in.

“One of the reasons for holding the meeting in Helsinki is the fact that Finland has a reputation as a well-organised country where everything works,” says Meira Pappi, country branding expert at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland [which also produces ThisisFINLAND]. “People know that we are able to put something of this scale together in such a short time.”

Media representatives visiting the press centre found the same sort of efficiency. “We wanted to live up to our ranking as the happiest country in the world and make the working experience fun, as well,” says Pappi. The press centre was set up in Finlandia Hall, a Helsinki landmark. “Journalists could watch the World Cup final at the media centre, visit a sauna installed in the park behind the building, and enjoy Finnish delicacies.”

Demonstrative citizens

A crowd of demonstrators, a couple of them holding rainbow-coloured umbrellas.

Viima Lampinen (black shirt and sunglasses), chair of Seta, Finland’s advocacy organisation for LGBTI rights, says, “We needed to show solidarity with the people who have been harmed by the politics that the two leaders represent.”Photo: Tim Bird

Meanwhile, in the midst of a heatwave, Helsinki’s streets were turned into a shifting platform for 16 demonstrations as citizens took the opportunity to express their feelings towards the high-level visitors. Demonstrations took place on Sunday, July 15 and on the day of the meeting, Monday, July 16. The biggest one belonged to Helsinki Calling, a coalition of concerned citizens representing all shades of the political spectrum.

“We’re a very broad network of academics, journalists, civil society and others that has come together to talk about issues that Trump and Putin choose not to address,” says University of Helsinki lecturer and Helsinki Calling activist Nely Keinänen.

Those issues include human rights, press freedom and the environment. “For me the turning point came with the election of President Trump, whom I have been watching with both fascination and fury,” says Keinänen. “I don’t agree with anything he says or does. When we heard he was coming here I thought, now I have the opportunity to make my voice heard.”

Viima Lampinen, chair of Seta, Finland’s advocacy organisation for LGBTI rights, and a speaker at the Helsinki Calling march, makes it clear that the focus was on both leaders: “We needed to show solidarity with the people who have been harmed by the politics that the two leaders represent. The meeting attracted more than 1,400 media people from around the world and we want our protests to be widely covered.”

Talking dialogue

Serious-looking Trump and Putin standing by podiums saying 'Helsinki 2018', American and Russian flags behind them.

American President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin adjust their simultaneous interpretation earpieces at a press conference in the Finnish capital on July 16, 2018.Photo: Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/#Helsinki2018

Elisa Saikkonen was among a crowd of locals gathered along Mannerheim Road to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcades. “I think there is a good chance they’ll have a successful meeting here,” she said. “I don’t expect them to make any big decisions but it is a good thing for the world for different countries to meet and talk in peace.”

The Russian and American presidents talked with each other, and also with Niinistö. At the end of the day the Finnish president talked to reporters who were still trying to sort out what Trump and Putin had said at their press conference.

“The main message from Helsinki seems to be that those two leaders are prepared to continue their discussion on several different difficult issues,” said Niinistö. “And if that is the case, well, then I consider it as a positive. We all have been pointing out that, in spite of everything, dialogue is needed.

“Now there’s dialogue. I hope that it continues, and hope that they also find some answers to those difficult questions put forward today.”

By Tim Bird, July 2018