President Halonen speaks
President Tarja Halonen pointed out in her New Year's speech to the nation that, on New Year's Eve, 80 years had passed since diplomatic relations were established between Finland and Russia. Halonen said that both she and Russian President Vladimir Putin consider current relations between Finland and Russia excellent.
According to Halonen, Russia has a strong desire to develop into a European state, although developments have not been uniform in every part of Russia. Halonen said that, in her opinion, this is natural now that Russia is seeking something new. She continued by saying that, besides Russia itself, others could also help the development and ease Russia's integration with the rest of Europe.
In addition to Russian relations, Halonen said in her speech that there is a desire to consolidate co-operation between the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. Regarding the much-criticised EU summit at Nice, she said that it succeeded in its main task: the EU is now ready to receive new members.
Halonen believes enlargement is progressing in a most significant manner, which is increasing stability in Europe. Both member states and candidates should now demonstrate the will to construct a common Europe. The success of the EU can only be based on its ability to obtain and maintain the support and confidence of its citizens.
On the national level, Halonen is concerned about the growing inequalities. For instance, some work to the point of exhaustion and others do not have enough work even to secure a minimum income. The possibility to work is part of the good life in Finland, since Finns have traditionally valued work.
Halonen also said that she is concerned about the increasing intolerance and ethnic violence that occurred in Finland last year. In Halonen's opinion, the greatest challenge is not intolerant people, which are fortunately few in number; it is the great majority of the people that must resist racism.
The Presidential New Year's speech is not intended to be a great policy speech. It is aimed at the ordinary people. Traditionally, its international sequence with official emphases is, however, also aimed at diplomats observing Finnish affairs.
Finland chairs Nordic Council of Ministers
Finland received the chairmanship of the Nordic Council of Ministers in the beginning of January. During the chairmanship, Finland along with other Nordic countries will host some 80 meetings at ministerial and civil servant levels. There will also be a number of seminars, conferences and other events organised by various sectors of administration.
During the summer, Finland will host a meeting of the Nordic prime ministers, which will focus on regional co-operation, topical Nordic issues and questions related to co-operation in the spheres of Europe. Finland presented its programme for the chairmanship at the plenary meeting of the Nordic Council in Reykjavik in November.
The programme emphasises civic participation in Nordic co-operation. Furthermore, the priorities of the Finnish chairmanship include research and education and improving the quality of and access to services of the information society. After this chairmanship, Finland will assume the chairmanship of the Nordic Council in November.
Depleted uranium concerns
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health plans to screen Finnish troops taking part in the Kosovo peacekeeping operations. The mass testing would look for signs that the members of the Finnish battalion in KFOR might have been exposed to depleted uranium, which was used in NATO armour-piercing shells prior to the campaign's end.
The tests in Finland were ordered after the reported death of a sixth Italian who had served with the peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Hercegovina. All the cases indicated the soldiers had died of leukemia. The Italian Defence Ministry, however, denied that the uranium had caused these deaths.
Finnish researchers do not believe it is likely that depleted uranium would give rise to an increased risk of leukaemia or that the samples will show any higher figures for exposure to uranium. It would be necessary for the depleted uranium to come into physical contact with the person's body to cause a risk of cancer. The Finnish peacekeepers were not around when uranium shells were used in Kosovo.
Stopping the asylum flow
The number of asylum-seekers entering Finland from Eastern Europe decreased greatly at the end of last summer, shortly after the introduction of a legislative amendment to the Aliens Act that allowed the rapid processing and return of asylum-seekers from so-called "safe countries."
At the beginning of last year some 200 Polish Roma tried to enter Finland monthly. According to the Directorate of Immigration, the number had fallen to 16 by August, and since then there have been none whatsoever.
The situation has been similar with Slovaks. The totals for the year show an overall increase in the number of applications. This reflects the boom in asylum-seeking in the early part of the year. The main countries in question were Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
In other news
- Only one in nine Finns attaining 65 years of age continues to work, according to the statistics of the national pension insurance centre, Eläketurvakeskus. The rest of that age class is already retired or collecting early retirement pension.
- A poll by Taloustutkimus shows that 57 per cent of Finns favour the upcoming switch to the common euro currency, while 40 per cent are against it.
- Rental prices in Helsinki have gone through the roof. In downtown, the rent can be over FIM (Finnish markka) 130 (USD 20.78) per square metre. The shortage of small apartments on the free market has led to this price situation.
- Wine and cider sales have increased at the expense of beer and spirits. In particular, the popularity of red wine is soaring at a historic rate, while beer has been the biggest loser.
- Recent figures from Statistics Finland show that the economic growth in Finland over the past few years has been focused mainly within the three areas of Helsinki, Tampere and Oulu.
- A record number of trains carried Russians over the border to spend New Year's eve in Finland, and the centre for the development of tourism estimated that some 40,000 Russians visited Finland this December.
- The Finnish unemployment rate is above the average for the European Union. In the entire EU, the average unemployment rate is 8.1 per cent. In Luxembourg, the rate is only 2.1 per cent, while in Spain it is 13.6 per cent. The second highest figure for unemployment is in Finland, with 9.6 per cent.
Aleksi Vakkuri, 5 January 2001
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