Finland and Russia: a history of trade should include 21st century innovation

Helsinki would never have a Louis Vuitton shop without so many tourists from Russia, one of the editors of the Talouselämä, the Finnish economic weekly, told me when I visited the newsroom.

It might be an exaggeration to say that the luxury bag retailer arrived in Finland’s capital just because of thousands of Russian tourists, but according to a 2011 report by the Association of Fashion Retailers in Finland (2012 information is available only in Finnish), demand for famous bags has been augmented by the many Russian tourists.

It is a fact that Russian tourists buy a lot in Finland, but it is not only bags and clothing brands not present on the Russian market. Russian buyers are crossing the Finnish border, especially those who are from Saint Petersburg, Vyborg and other border regions, to buy ordinary products like toothpaste, detergents and milk and meat products, etc. And I don’t want to explain why…

It is my very first visit to Finland, but I was surprised when I heard a public announcement in Russian language while strolling through the Stockmann on a weekday evening. On the following weekend I realised that it is a necessity to duplicate public announcements in Russian, because I heard Russian everywhere.

However there is nothing to be surprised about. According to the Official Statistics of Finland (OSF), in 2012, visitors from Russia made up the largest visitor group in Finland with approximately 3.6 million tourists (47% of foreign passengers visiting Finland). That represents a ten percent increase form the previous year. Foreign visitors brought EUR 2.3 billion to Finland, which is more than good in this economy.

The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, which we also visited during FCP’s program, has published the report “Russia in the Finnish Economy” in 2006 where Simon-Erik Ollus and Heli Simola writes that Russians’ travel has increased, especially in the past few years, as our income has grown.

It is not a simple coincidence that a developing and prosperous Russia is a big economic hope for Finland. Although more current research is needed. I personally believe that the Sitra in particular and other Finnish think-tanks should pay more attention to Russia. It is question of strategy, but it might be a question of survival.

I have the impression that the Finnish government has maintained a good and friendly relationship with its Russian partners on a very different levels of mutual cooperation. The only hope that there will be room for democracy building in Russia by Finland’s institutions, because Finns have a lot of best practices to share.

I also think that Finland should encourage dialogue with Russia on ecologically sustainable development. A big hope that at least Moscow’s or Saint Petersburg’s government will meet some representatives of the Cleantech Finland or other waste management companies, who can teach Russian officials to deal with challenges in the 21th century.

Russia and Russians need not only Finnish goods that they can buy at Stockmann, but more importantly, Finnish innovations. I am very happy that the Startup Sauna, a Finnish non-profit organisation for aspiring entrepreneurs, will visit one of Russia’s best university affiliated business incubator this September!

P.S. I’d like to mention that originally I am from Siberian city of Irkutsk, which has a pretty similar climate to Finland. When I was young my favourite winter activity was sledding. I think the last time when I did it was before I moved out to Moscow almost a decade ago. That is why I am very much looking forward to visit Finland and Lapland in winter to get a proper sledding and skiing fun. It is paradox, but it is closer to fly to Finland from Moscow than to to Irkutsk, which take 5.5 hours in flight instead of less than 2 hours to Helsinki.

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