COMING HOME: Good bureaucrats
By Jussi Konttinen
When I moved back to Finland from Russia, I had to take care of a tax matter.
I was flabbergasted when I discovered that I did not have to go in person to the local tax office. I could do it all perfectly easily over the phone! Amazing!
Finnish bureaucracy works. People are not endlessly bounced from one office or department to the next, and the official does not require more and more papers in triplicate. Getting one matter sorted does not take an entire day as it does in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
Someone who has lived the entire time in Finland might beg to differ, but at least from the viewpoint of a returnee, Finland still enjoys relatively good public services.
For example, simply the post-natal clinic system is an adequate reason for a family with kids to return to Finland from abroad. And you can get to the clinic on the bus with a pram - free!
On the other hand... Finland's bureaucracy is somewhat short on flexibility. If there is a rule, then it will be adhered to.
For instance, I had to time my return to Finland such that at least six months would pass before the calculated date of the birth of my child. Otherwise I would not qualify for any paternity benefits.
Then at some summer event, the security staff brusquely tossed our family out of an area licensed to serve alcohol.
The reason was that we sinners had with us our 7-month-old baby, who was underage.
The security gonzos could also have added to our list of wrongdoings that the infant in question had come into the area equipped with her own beverages - in her mother's breasts.
In Russia, bureaucrats are horrible creatures and exercise their own arbitrary personal power, but there is always room for negotiation with them.
In its most brutal form this means providing a pecuniary reward for the civil servant's time and services.
A Russian would be quite unable to understand for instance the fuss that is raging around the bribery allegations against the state-owned arms supplier Patria.
The company's lads pulled off some excellent deals with Slovenia as far as Finland is concerned, and then the national broadcaster goes and blabs on about some bribery nonsense.
Laws in Russia are strict, but obeying them is a more liberal matter.
The laws exist there only for safety's sake - in order that everyone can if the need arises be shoved into prison.
For this reason, the Russians would prefer that as little as possible is known about them. Name, home address, and telephone number are often jealously guarded secrets.
In Finland, everything is wide open. Nearly everyone's mobile number can be found from directory enquiries or over the Net.
A car's owner - for example if you've bumped him or suspect he's bumped you in the car park - can be got in an instant with an SMS message to the registration people, and you can even access tax information via the Net.
And the mailbox actually has the home-owner's name on it.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.7.2009
In this series of articles, two former Helsingin Sanomat foreign correspondents stationed abroad reflect on Finland as seen through new eyes on their return home. Jussi Konttinen moved back after six years covering news in Russia for the paper, while Sami Sillanpää spent five years in Russia. Both have observations on things they might once have taken for granted.
JUSSI KONTTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat