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Joint news conference following Russian-Finnish talks

July 21, 2010, Naantali

President of Finland TARJA HALONEN (retranslated): We have just held very successful talks here at Kultaranta. It has long been said in Finland that for a guest to really know his hosts, he has to stay the night, and I think that in this case the saying has proved absolutely correct. Between our official talks we managed to steam ourselves in the sauna, go for a swim, ride in the park, discuss various informal issues, and share some jokes. Of course we also held serious talks.

As you all know, the fundamental relations between Russia and Finland are excellent. We, the presidents, want to continue strengthening the cooperation between our countries’ governments, and this is why Prime Minister of Finland Mari Kiviniemi took part in a brief meeting with the two presidents this morning, at which we both wished success to the cooperation between Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

We also discussed in detail my planned visit to Moscow in November. We examined the main cooperation and business issues before us. For our part, we are ready to help in areas in which problems exist or could arise. The most important thing, of course, is for our companies to have good relations and a firm commitment to continuing their fruitful work together. We think that this is the case. 

Perhaps in the future, business delegations will accompany the presidents on their visits. We discussed other topical issues too, administrative matters, and it seems that we will manage to get a number of issues settled.

We spent quite a long time discussing environmental protection yesterday, and we will continue this discussion today when we go by yacht or motorboat to Seili Island, which is home to a centre for studying the state of the Baltic Sea. We also discussed UN environmental protection initiatives and sustainable development, and looked at the contribution Russia, Finland, the European Union and other countries are making to this. We discussed too the development prospects for Russian and Finnish society.

Yesterday evening I received very useful additional information from President Medvedev on modernisation, and proposed a partnership on the Finnish side in various sectors.

We still have discussions on a broad range of international issues ahead of today, and we will perhaps have the opportunity to examine the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

We will be ready to answer more detailed questions on various areas after the opening remarks from my colleague, President Dmitry Medvedev.

President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It always makes me very happy when events go the way they are now, here in Finland, at Kultaranta. I want to begin these opening remarks by thanking my colleague, President Halonen, for choosing to receive the Russian President on a working visit here at this venue, and for the very wide-ranging and at the same time substantive consultations that we have held.

The President of Finland has explained what we have been working on here. We did indeed discuss a diverse range of issues. Yesterday evening, we spoke at length about climate change, the environment, and the Baltic Sea. This morning, I had the chance to see for myself what this part of the Gulf of Finland looks like, see what state the sea is in.

We certainly have plenty of work to do in this area, and so we will continue discussing environmental issues and the state of the Baltic Sea today.

Regarding what Tarja Halonen said just now about our overall approaches and the overall relations between our countries, I agree fully with her assessment. We have a very tight and close partnership between two neighbouring countries, but this does not mean that we are without work to do. Our bilateral trade dropped somewhat last year because of the crisis. This year has seen the emergence of common economic trends that are reflected in our trade relations too. Our trade is on the rise again, and our ties are gaining more substance. There are issues on which we regularly exchange views, and there are some issues on which we differ in our positions. It was very useful to be able to discuss these matters yesterday, and again today with the Finnish prime minister present too. I took the occasion to wish the prime minister success in her work, and expressed the hope that she will have substantial and productive relations with the Russian Government.

At the same time, I think that our top-level meetings – and we have regular contacts with the Finnish president – should serve as an opportunity to discuss not only foreign policy and humanitarian issues, for example, which can be very urgent too, of course, but to resolve practical tasks.

I therefore think it would be the right decision indeed for a group of Finnish businesspeople to accompany the President of Finland on her next visit to Russia. It would boost the overall atmosphere of trust between our business communities, and would help us to address and resolve specific issues. What more do we need?

I am therefore looking forward to receiving President Tarja Halonen in Russia this autumn on a big visit during which we will examine not only global issues but also discuss absolutely practical matters. This is a very positive thing.

I probably spoiled my colleague’s appetite at dinner yesterday by speaking at such length about Russia’s modernisation drive. This is something of greater interest to Russians themselves, of course, but our Finnish colleagues patiently heard me out on the subject. I hope this will give our Finnish friends greater insight into what we are doing now. The President of Finland and I agreed that modernisation should take place in Chekhovian fashion, that is to say, it should involve changing not just the economic foundations and structure of the country, but changing the people too. Overall, this kind of working visit and the chance to taste the summer in such a beautiful place give us the opportunity to share our thoughts on a very wide range of subjects. This is very good.

We will also discuss today foreign policy issues, coordination of Russia’s and Finland’s foreign policy, and of Russian and European Union foreign policy. This is an area where we have all been active of late. There are a number of initiatives within the European Union, and there is also Russia’s initiative on concluding the European Security Treaty. I hope we will get the chance to discuss all of these matters during our excursion and visits to various sites today.

Of course, we did not shy away from more controversial topics too. I don’t want to steal the journalists’ work. It is your job to ask questions, after all, and what would be the point of me telling you now all about meat, milk, balances, and the humanitarian issues that exist in our relations when it is better that you ask these questions yourselves.

But whatever these issues, the most important thing of all is that we really do have very good and warmhearted relations. I want to end these opening remarks by once more thanking Tarja Halonen for the chance to meet here in this lovely place, for the wonderful weather we have been enjoying, and for the friendly atmosphere with its special Finnish touches that has been accompanying this visit. 

Question: Thank you, Mr Medvedev, for providing us with the opportunity to ask questions regarding difficult topics. I have a question for Ms President of Finland.

Ms Tarja Halonen, Russia is increasingly concerned about what is happening in the humanitarian sector of Russian-Finnish relations. I am not only referring to the so-called children’s matters, but also the situations concerning elderly individuals. We understand that Finland has certain procedures in place which you adhere to, nevertheless, what do you think about the fact that these cases are becoming more common? And do you intend to give special attention to resolving these kinds of conflicts? Thank you.

Tarja Halonen: I will answer in the following manner. Yes, I am paying attention to these issues and I will continue to monitor them, as will the Government, the parliament, and the press. Consider the Russian minority – the people of Russian origin who are living in Finland – which is a constantly-growing group, currently of forty thousand individuals, or perhaps even closer to fifty thousand. In proportion to the concerns raised among the general public, as well as the discussions in the press and within the government, this group is not very large.

Both Russian and Finnish people fall in love, get married, and have children. They have disputes, and at times, get divorced; sometimes, this process goes smoothly, but other times, problems arise. And when Russians and Finns enter marriages with one another, these same situations can occur. It is very important for government authorities in Finland and in Russia to treat these mixed families equally, without ever discriminating.

We believe that is what happens. We agree that state authorities in Russia and in Finland want only the best for children and for families. No doubt, there are some problematic cases that require greater patience and attention.

One issue is language, and we are very carefully ensuring that interpreters are made available any time these issues are considered.

Another issue is culture. Definitely, in every nation, it is imperative to act in accordance with the legislation in force, but at the same time, it is imperative to have patience in explaining to these people why the authorities are acting as they are.

I discussed this issue with our foreign minister, our justice minister, and our social protection minister. We addressed the fact that some issues, especially with regard to children, were widely debated and received extensive coverage both in Finland and in Russia.

I can simply tell you what I see. It seems that both in Finland and in Russia, the press is not only free, but also very active, and our state agencies find themselves in very difficult situations, because in accordance with our legislation, they do not have the right to discuss specific cases. These agencies and national authorities are ready to do everything possible in order to further develop and strengthen cooperation between our government agencies and our NGOs, in order to build trust among the people of each nation.

We are not proposing the creation of any new organisations. We are expressing our readiness to provide every support possible to further strengthen this cooperation and reciprocity. Finland is a member of the European Union and these issues are determined, in part, by the EU. Finland and Russia are members of the Council of Europe as well and Finland has already signed and ratified the Hague Conventions regarding children. I know that in Russia, this issue is being viewed positively.

The European Union emphasises the significance of the Hague Conventions, but we also know that certain EU member-states have proposed an initiative to make bilateral agreements.

In Finland, we are following these developments with great interest, but for the moment, we do not feel that we need them. We will reassess the situation after the Hague Conventions are applied. This will be a separate issue.

As for grandmothers and great-grandmothers, we have witnessed a broad, nation-wide movement demanding that grandmothers be able to stay with their families. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister of Finland was able to remain on the sidelines. Right now, we are in the process of amending the law so that elderly people can stay with their relatives.

I think this national movement made it clear how much our people love and advocate for these grandmothers.

Dmitry Medvedev: I would like to add a couple words to Tarja Halonen’s detailed remarks. I agree that people in every nation get married and sometimes these marriages end, and problems arise with regard to children; this is a part of life.

These disputes are usually resolved in accordance with domestic civil family legislation, but when it comes to mixed families, when the families are international – when one of the spouses is a foreigner, or has acquired citizenship through marriage – these matters draw greater interest in other nations as well and are impossible to ignore.

These conflicts require particular tact, attention, and scrupulousness. Indeed, that is precisely what we count on. At the same time, the legislation is in development. We have international conventions and Russia does not rule out the possibility of entering into bilateral agreements with a number of European countries. As for Finland’s position, the President of Finland has just explained the current Finnish authorities’ position on the subject.

Question (retranslated): Many people here believe these issues concerning children as well as the ban on exporting Finnish dairy products to Russia have been caused by disinformation, faulty information, and sometimes even false information. Did you find any resolutions to these matters during your discussion?

I would also like to ask President Medvedev a question regarding the fact that when the Russian ombudsman on children’s rights, Mr Astakhov, was in Finland, he said that when it comes to these mixed Russian-Finnish families, the disputes should be resolved under the Russian laws. If this is the case, do you agree that in similar situations in Russia, Finnish laws should be applied?

Dmitry Medvedev: I understand this question is for me? As for the origin of these problems, they are often due to faulty information and disinformation, but this does not mean these problems are non-existent.

The family problems result from family conflicts; that is their real cause. The problems with meat and dairy products are related to the observance of the Russian legislation, and this is also a real cause. As for the way these problems are interpreted, it is done by reporters, commentators, analysts, and politicians.

With regard to applying family legislation, family relations are generally subjected to the legislation of the country where the family appeared, i.e. where the couple got married. This is a general rule, and the so-called connecting factor applicable in the international private law. But it is just a general rule while there are international conventions which employ differing approaches to children’s citizenship and economic status, custody and guardianship, termination of marriage, and many others. Besides the international conventions there are respective bilateral agreements.

Based on the supremacy of international law over national law, international conventions and bilateral agreements have precedence over national family laws.

Ten or twelve years ago, when I was visiting Finland for holidays, rather than work, I was dealing with family laws and even wrote a textbook on this subject. Thus, I would like to say that in any event, government authorities should pay particular attention to these kinds of family conflicts involving parties of different citizenships or parties originating from different countries, in order not to cause complications. That is precisely what we expect to see in the future.

Tarja Halonen: I would just like to add that, first of all, we should decide which laws will be applied.

Second, we have an agreement or treaties establishing that verdicts made in one country must be enforced in the other country as well. These matters and issues have occurred between our nations before. For example, a verdict was awarded in one country appointing the child’s guardian, but was not communicated to the other country quickly enough, so a different verdict was awarded there. But ultimately, the authorities always know the specifics and are always up to date, while the general public is not always aware of these details. The Hague Conventions specifically address these particular circumstances.

We are ultimately certain that the authorities in both countries do their best and we very much hope that cooperation between our nations’ agencies will further strengthen and expand. We are constantly encouraging them to do so.

Dmitry Medvedev: I would just like to mention that the verdicts in such cases are awarded under civil and not criminal law.

Tarja Halonen: As you can see here, we have a gathering of many attorneys, since my husband is also a lawyer. You can imagine how much fun we have together, but we do enjoy it.

Dmitry Medvedev: We can continue. It is a pleasure to discuss legal issues.

Question: NTV channel. The story of the Russian grandmother has brought to the fore the more general issue of creating visa-free space in relations between Russian and EU nationals. This matter has been under discussion for long time, for seven years already, but it is still not clear when Russian citizens will be able to travel to Western Europe without visas and whether this will happen at all.

Madam President, you have said that you are ready to help resolve various problems. This is one of the biggest problems for people in Russia and we can see that Finland is very assertive and successful at promoting the interests of its companies, and its own interests in general, in Russia. On the other hand, our businesspeople and other Russian citizens are being discriminated against. Have you been able to move forward on this issue and can we say that it is likely to ever be resolved in the future? Is Finland ready to play a more active part in reaching agreement on visa-free travel? We know that the relevant draft agreement has already been prepared by the Russian side and it has been submitted to the European Union. This question is for both presidents.

Tarja Halonen: Particularly in the case of grandmother, who got such extensive media coverage, that grandmother got a lot of sympathy in Finland. But I think in such cases multi-entry visas can at least make it easier to visit family members. Initially this elderly lady came to Finland on the invitation of her daughter, who was living in Finland with her children and wanted for them to have a closer relationship with their grandmother. She also wanted for the elderly lady to get medical treatment in the Finnish healthcare system. Now she is receiving the treatment she needs in Russia and everything is going well. But of course that doesn’t alter the fact that it is very important for elderly people to be able to live close to their family members.

But grandmothers are not the only people who travel. Last year, 7.4 million people crossed our common border. This year to date we have already issued 30% more visas than last year.

It is fair to ask how we can find a way out of this problem when we have so many wishes. One option would be for Finland to issue multi-entry visas, so that people won’t have to apply for a visa every time they want to visit this country. I am confident that we will eventually reach agreement on visa-free travel, but while we are waiting for that to happen I think it is very important to make decisions that would ease the situation as far as possible. We are doing everything in our power today and we will continue doing everything in our power to reach agreement on visa-free travel. But as you know this is not an easy process. Russia has already submitted a draft agreement. In the EU this issue is the responsibility of the European Commission, which will make the decision. The European side has proposed a gradual change of the system. We are focusing on two issues: to make certain that people receive the best possible treatment already now, and second, to ensure future progress.

Dmitry Medvedev: I have repeatedly spoken on this subject. I believe there is no alternative to visa-free communication between Russia and the European Union if we want to continue developing our ties in all dimensions, in all areas. I think if the European Union can expect to encounter problems, they are certainly not going to come from Russia. The problem has to be addressed within the European Union itself, as there are enough criminals in European countries, but it is also important to critically assess the bilateral and multilateral agreements on visa-free travel between the European Union and other countries. Just take a look at the list of those countries and draw your own conclusions. Will there be problems after signing an agreement with the Russian Federation?

We are hoping for the support of our partners on this issue, including Finland. We believe that you will help us convince the countries that are currently hesitating about the pace of Russia’s accession to the visa-free space. I hope they will heed the voices of those who favour the most intimate communication, normal human contacts and the development of business relations in the EU.

Tarja Halonen: I don’t think you are going to have any major problems because the aim is clear and all we have to do now is decide on the steps we need to take to move forward.

Dmitry Medvedev: Go on, decide.

Tarja Halonen: We haven’t answered the question about food products.

Dmitry Medvedev: We haven’t really been asked yet. I think this should be the final question from the Finnish side. Are we right?

Question (retranslated): You’re both right and wrong. I have a question for President Medvedev. I remember clearly that last year in Sochi you discussed among other things the issue of security in the North Caucasus. Many people from that region, for example from Chechnya and Ingushetia, ask for political asylum in Finland, and they are granted political asylum because Finland believes that they have good grounds for that. What is your opinion on this issue?

I would also like to clarify my colleague’s question about Russia’s ban on the import of Finnish meat and dairy products. What is the situation with that?

Dmitry Medvedev: Let me begin by answering your question about providing citizenship and residence permits to certain Russian citizens. It’s quite simple: if they are law-abiding people, they can do what they want. But if these people are wanted by the Russian authorities, then we believe that such actions are unfriendly. Because we think that individuals who are suspected or accused of committing crimes on the territory of any country should not receive such status, especially when it comes to relations between two friendly countries. In accordance with generally accepted rules, such persons should be subject to extradition.

Now, the meat and dairy issue. I don’t see it as a serious problem. I told Ms Halonen earlier that as a child in St Petersburg I used to eat Finnish foods, dairy products and meat, and I’m in perfect health. These are good, habitual products. But our rules changed some time ago, and we told our Finnish friends a year ago that they had to change their approach to trade with Russia. This concerns purely technical issues, involving various forms that need to be filled differently, declaring certain additional parameters. You should have prepared for it. Just yesterday I instructed our food safety service to keep in close contact with the Finnish authorities and to close this issue. I hope it will be resolved within the next two weeks. We shouldn’t politicise it as it is purely a trade issue. I repeat, I hope the matter will be cleared up in the nearest future.

Tarja Halonen: I have complete trust in this. I am sure that both our national food safety agencies believe that they have a very good relationship. And we will quickly resolve the possible breakdown in communication that has occurred.

I also trust President Medvedev when he says that the issue will be resolved within two weeks. I just would like to add that I hope there will be no more major bureaucratic measures in this time that we are waiting for the decision.

And I very much hope that the media will not take advantage of President Medvedev’s words to advertise Finnish dairy products without his permission.

Now regarding the second question on Chechnya and Ingushetia. Our system for granting political asylum is fully judicial. I took part in the development of this system personally, and our decision was to make it fully judicial in order to avoid politicising these issues.

Opinions always vary on such decisions, and some countries think the political asylum should have been granted while others believe that it shouldn’t have been granted, but what’s important is that in this country the decision is made 100% by the judiciary.

We haven’t discussed Chechnya yet, but we still have time. We have talked about it before and I think I understand President Medvedev’s position, but we will revisit this issue when it becomes necessary.

Dmitry Medvedev: Naturally, we can talk about anything. I would just like to say that my personal recommendation, if I may, is that you do not turn into general practice the provision of certain opportunities for persons against whom there is some doubt. First of all, as I see it, this is in Finland’s own interest because some of these people are unlikely to make a positive contribution to Finnish society or to peace in the world.

Tarja Halonen: I would just like to add that both Finland and the European Union treat terrorism with the utmost gravity. The negotiations process currently underway with the participation of Russia and the United States testifies to this. This is truly a very important and serious matter.

We have also discussed issues here on which we can praise each other in a way that does not cause resentment or is redundant. And I think that there is one issue on which I can sincerely commend President Medvedev.

President Medvedev has a keen interest in Finland and in the EU. He is also very actively involved in global processes and participated in the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

So I sincerely wish President Medvedev every success in tackling these important global challenges.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you. It is always satisfying to hear praise, especially from a colleague. But our talks are not over yet. We will continue, with your permission. This has already been a very extensive news conference.

July 21, 2010, Naantali