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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 2, 2009
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More Similar Than You Might Think
December 2, 2009   
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Vesa Himanen, Finland's ambassador to Poland, talks to Hilary Heuler.

How would you summarize Polish/Finnish relations?
Relations are good, which is normal. We are both members of the EU, so we are partners. Now that our representatives are meeting every day in Brussels, our relationship has grown into something special compared to our relationships with non-EU member states. But although Poland and Finland are close Baltic Sea neighbors, relations between the two could be more intensive in some areas. Our economic and trade relations, for instance, could be closer, but we are working on that. Right now there are about 200 Finnish companies here. Some of them are in the traditional pulp and paper industry, or cargo handling-a big unit is under construction now in Szczecin. And there's also research. Nokia has a big research center in Wroc³aw, with something like 1,200 researchers. But there's still much to do. That's why our Minister of Foreign Trade and Development will be visiting Poland, and he'll have about 30 company representatives with him. Also, we could intensify relations in regard to agriculture, regional policy, and everything related to energy, since we in Finland have some experience in that field. Poland is exploring energy options that are less environmentally demanding than coal, planning to diversify, and we have already done that. So although there is definitely room to expand relations between our two countries, I can't think of anything that is particularly problematic.

Most Poles don't know much about Finland. What do you think they should know?
First of all, they should know that Finland is really not that far away. If you take a flight from Warsaw, it only takes an hour and 40 minutes. Compare that with how long it takes to get to London, for instance, or Dublin. Millions of Poles go there, but very few go to Finland. Poles should also know that there is practically a road to Finland-it's only a two-hour boat trip from Tallinn to Helsinki, so you don't even need to fly.

Then of course Finland and Poland are very similar in some ways, for instance in our history. Poland's recent history is more dramatic, but we have had similar difficulties-wars and immigrations, for instance. We had much the same situation after World War II when 400,000 Finns were displaced from the part of our territory that was annexed to the Soviet Union, just as Poles were displaced from the east. In Finland it was roughly 10 percent of the population, a big number, and they had to leave their homes in a hurry. This is just one commonality in our histories.

I think Poles know that Finland is a big country, bigger than Poland, although we have just over 5 million inhabitants. But we have a lot of beautiful nature, almost 200,000 lakes and the biggest archipelago in Europe. So those who like nature and sparsely populated landscapes, with all the modern amenities, should go to Finland. The regions of the country are very different. The country is almost 1,200 kilometers long, so Helsinki and the far north are completely different places and there's really a lot to see. You could say that the other Nordic countries-Sweden, Norway and Denmark-are all quite similar. But I think Finland is different from those three, even a little bit exotic in comparison. I know there are a lot of Poles in these other countries, but there are only a few thousand in Finland. Poles are an open-minded people who travel a lot, so why don't they go to Finland as well? I don't know. But then again, not many Finns know enough about Poland either. They are getting to know it better, but it's still not enough.

What kind of cultural traffic takes place between Poland and Finland?
I think that the cultural ties between Poles and Finns have been very strong for a long time. Even during communist times, musicians and orchestras would come from Poland to Finland and vice-versa. We have a stable and long-standing relationship. Many Polish musicians, artists and painters have spent time in Finland, and since both countries gained their independence there have been a lot of cultural contacts. This is at least partly because Finns know Poland to be a country with a rich culture, especially in terms of music.

What are your impressions of Poland so far?
I've only been here a little over one year, so I'm still collecting my first impressions. But of course I knew something about Poland before I arrived-in my profession, I've had lots of contacts with Polish colleagues. Still, coming to Poland and living and working here reminded me that Poland is a unique country. Poland has had such a dramatic and rich history. You can sense by being here that people are interested in their history and in developing their culture. Plus, Polish people are very kind, and it's easy to get along with them. Then of course, the nature here is beautiful, especially in the north and south. Politically, Poland is certainly not boring, and it's always interesting to observe what's going on. And lots of things are happening here, because Poland is basically a big construction site and so much infrastructure is being built. It's dynamic. The economic situation is also better than most of Europe, including Finland. This is an interesting place to live and work, and the fact that Poland is an important EU partner makes my work all the more interesting.

I've done a bit of traveling around Poland-whenever something is happening that has some relation to Finland, I try to be present. Fortunately, that gives me a lot of opportunities to travel. It's very important not to just sit in Warsaw, but to get a feel for the rest of the country. As for the language, I don't think we Finns can complain about any other language since Finnish isn't easy. But it's true that the Polish language is very difficult, especially for someone like me who doesn't speak any other Slavic language. I can sense that it's a real disadvantage not to be able to read Polish, to speak Polish-it's something I really regret.

What do you want to accomplish during your time in Poland?
I want to emphasize that this job is not a one-man show. We are trying to make sure that Finnish/Polish relations in all the areas we've discussed are getting better, and closer. So I would be happy if, by the time I leave, I can really feel satisfied that I've been part of it. I'm continuing what my predecessor did, and my successor will do the same thing, so I'm not thinking in terms of counting my personal contributions. But I do hope that I can do as much as possible.

I have very close contacts with Finland, I go there at least once a year. It's hard to sum up in two sentences my relations with that country, which go back over 40 years. Of course, my relations with the Finns are particularly strong in terms of music. It is a very music-loving country with an extremely well-developed system of education in music. Suffice to say that probably every other Finnish child plays a musical instrument. There is a huge number of music festivals in this country of around 5 million inhabitants and even tiny towns have had their own festivals for years. New intriguing conductors, composers and instrumentalists are emerging in Finland all the time.

I would say Finland is one of those countries you like returning to. The Finns have what you don't see that often in the world any more-they have certain ethics. They are truthful, honest and friendly in a reserved way-because they get never get as effusive as we Slavs do. But it is particularly important to me that when I make plans with a Finn, I know people will stick to them.

Finland, of course, is also a wonderful land of thousands of lakes and glorious forests. The Finns have superb architects-Finnish architecture is very simple yet very appealing.

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