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Distracted Finland begins centennial year

December 31, 2016 - FINLAND

Finland begins a year of centennial celebrations ahead of its 100th birthday in Dec 2017 potentially distracted by a tug-of-war: Moscow and Brussels pull the European Union member in opposite directions.

The main event of the Finland 100 grand opening is in Helsinki at the Töölönlahti Bay and Kansalaistori Square. The celebration reaches its climax at midnight with a firework show.

Finnish embassies around the world will be hosting events to mark the country's independence from Russia, which came after almost 20 years of attempts by Tsar Nicholas II at the Russification of the Nordic country. According to the BBC's Finland timeline, he introduced the conscription of Finnish men into the Russian army and the imposition of Russian as the official language. Protests and a campaign of civil disobedience followed.

The Russian Revolution allowed Finland to declare its independence, and President Vladimir Putin visited Finland's president Sauli Niinisto on Jul 1, 2016, with congratulations on the centennial and a reminder that Moscow was the first to support the Nordic neighbor's independence bid.

Almost 100 years later, that support is coming with a price. As reported by the European Observer, the meeting took place the same day that Brussels extended its sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. The publication reported that Putin took time out to complain that Finland was in thrall to the EU in terms of its relations with Russia, expressing his irritation that Finland supports the sanctions. Putin also warned against Finnish overtures to or cooperation with NATO, which, he said, would invite a military response from Russia.

The distraction from the West relates to the refugee crisis. Finland is not extending the warm welcome to refugees that Brussels demands from its members. Some 32,000 asylum seekers came to Finland in 2015 compared to just 3,600 in 2014, according to Reuters, and the government estimates that two-thirds will be rejected for asylum. It has cracked down on who can qualify for resettlement, and says it will speed up the return of migrants who don't qualify. Anti-immigrant sentiment has increased amid the shrinkage of the Finnish economy for a fourth successive year - two more distractions from the celebrations.

Putin promises Finland to reduce Baltic tensions (EU Observer July 2, 2016)

Finland says asylum seekers should work for free (Reuters 8 Dec 2015)

Finland's centenary of independence kicks off on New Year's Eve in Helsinki (Helsinki 100 web)

Date written/update: 2016-11-12