President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö attended the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg on 9 April 2019. Hosted by President of Russia Vladimir Putin, the Forum and its plenary session were also attended by President of Iceland Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Löfven and Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg.
Before the plenary session, President Niinistö had a bilateral meeting with President Putin. One of the topics discussed was the continuation of Russian membership in the Council of Europe. Finland is currently holding the Presidency of the Council of Europe. “The majority of Europe thinks that it would be good if Russia did not leave the Council. Russian NGOs seem to agree. I would say that President Putin gave a very clear signal that he also thinks Russia should remain in the Council, but he also said that Russia should have full rights, which is currently not the case. At least the stalemate has been broken,” said President Niinistö to Finnish media about the meeting. As regards the relations between the European Union and Russia, President Putin wishes for positive development, said President Niinistö.
The presidents also discussed waste management in Russia where it is a major problem in which Finland has competence.
International topics such as the relations between the United States and Russia, the situations in Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela as well as arms control were intended to be discussed at dinner with the other Nordic presidents and prime ministers.
Dialogue about dialogue instead of discussion
In his opening speech at the plenary session of the Arctic Forum, President Niinistö encouraged genuine dialogue in a time where confrontation and rivalry seem to be on the rise: “Dialogue is correctly seen as a means to reduce tension, to manage risks and to rebuild trust. Yet all too often, that is the end of the story. We just talk about dialogue instead of engaging in it. Dialogue is difficult to have unless you actually meet your counterparts.”
President Niinistö also referred to his plans about the Arctic Summit, saying that he firmly believes that Arctic issues deserve to be discussed at the level of heads of state and government. “When we sounded out reactions to this idea last year, we received promising signals from all parties. But then, tensions originating far away from the Arctic intervened with our plans. It is good that at least the tradition of these kinds of forums continue. Although it of course does not replace the Summit idea.”
The main Arctic concern continues to be climate change, President Niinistö said, pointing out that what happens in the Arctic has direct consequences for the rest of the world. We have to rapidly reduce new CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and remove old CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, he said.
The Arctic Council as a model for reducing tensions?
Finland is currently the Chair of the Arctic Council. Soon the chairmanship will be handed over to Iceland and two years later to Russia. In his speech, President Niinistö said that the Council is an exceptional framework. “Throughout its existence, the Arctic Council has been a forum for constructive dialogue. This spirit is by no means self-evident in the current international situation. That we have been able to maintain it in the Arctic Council during the past few years is a remarkable achievement. It is also a good objective for the future. Tensions outside the Arctic region must not be allowed to spill over into the Arctic Council.”
According to President Niinistö, the Arctic Council could also act as a model for reducing tensions elsewhere: “As Arctic nations we know that small, practical steps in mutually beneficial areas can help in building trust, even when major disagreements in other areas persist.”
Risks of confrontation on the increase
President Niinistö also pointed out, however, that the Arctic region itself is not immune to tensions, either, as there is a growing strategic and economic interest in the area: “As the natural and political climates are changing, many actors see new opportunities in this region. And not all of those actors are Arctic by definition.
It does not automatically mean that all the new actors come to the region with only selfish intentions. But as the field gets more crowded, risks of confrontation increase. Primarily, I mean confrontation with the delicate natural balance of the Arctic environment. Unfortunately, we cannot exclude the possibility of confrontation in the power-policy sense, either.”
Questions of hard security have traditionally been kept outside the agenda of the Arctic Council. This has been part of the secret to its success, said President Niinistö: “However, simply excluding issues from the Council’s agenda will not make them go away. Together, the Arctic states have to find another way to responsibly address these issues, too. Once again, dialogue is key. Reducing tensions, managing risks, rebuilding trust. That can only work if we talk to each other,” President Niinistö concluded his speech.
The aim of the Arctic Forum is to promote cooperation and sustainable development in the Arctic region. President Niinistö also attended the Forum in Arkhangelsk in 2017 and in Salekhard in 2013.
- Speech by the President of the Republic of Finland, Mr. Sauli Niinistö, at the Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg, 9 April 2019
- Video: Plenary Session of the 5th International Arctic Forum
- Arctic: Territory of Dialogue