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Finnish assessment: Russian furore over foster care dispute mainly for domestic consumption
Moscow-led media campaign criticised in Russia, too
The dispute over child foster care, which caused a certain amount of tension between Finland and Russia, developed into a political operation led from Moscow, say a number of Finnish sources now that the furore has eased.
Finnish commentators see that the matter primarily involves domestic politics in Russia. Its possible impact on relations between Russia and Finland varies in the various assessments from insignificant to something worthy of concern.
“It was a rather intense campaign, and there is reason for concern in that it might not necessarily be the last one”, says one expert. Especially experts in the fields of politics and economics agreed to comment on the matter only on condition of anonymity.
The dispute began on February 4th this year, when Turku social welfare officials took the child of a Finnish-Russian family into foster care. The publicity emerging from the case culminated last week when Russia’s child affairs ombudsman Pavel Astahov travelled to Turku, accompanied by dozens of Russian journalists.
During the dispute, local officials in Turku were accused of an anti-Russian bias. The accusations were most intense in Russia's state-owned media outlets.
“They knew in Russia that the foster care was justified. This was a Moscow-led campaign that the Russian Embassy in Finland could do nothing about”, says one source who followed the situation closely.
Most of the Finnish politicians and civil servants who had to respond were caught in the middle, with little background information, because the local social welfare officials were bound by confidentiality rules. The Russian media, meanwhile, was given access to all the details by the family, the Finns say.
Director Markku Kivinen of the Alexander Institute of the University of Helsinki sees the dispute in the context of Russia’s propaganda war with Western Europe. He believes that the political trail leads to people who are close to President Dmitri Medvedev.
Child affairs ombudsman Astahov is a KGB-trained lawyer. President Medvedev named him to his post in January, but he also has close contact with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
“Propaganda fist”, is one description of Astahov’s mandate.
Another Finnish source sees the affair as one of the ways that Russian leaders deal with internal pressures by underscoring threats coming from the outside.
The situation was, at least, uncomfortable for President Tarja Halonen and Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Stubb (Nat. Coalition Party).
Stubb was faced with a barrage of questions on the matter put to him by Russian journalists at a press conference in Moscow on March 9th. It is generally known that the Russian leadership often decides in advance what kinds of questions are to be asked at such events.
President Medvedev’s website said that Halonen agreed with Medvedev in a telephone conversation last week on a joint legal mechanism to “resolve humanitarian questions, and to develop cooperation in the spirit of friendship”. According to Finnish sources, there was no such agreement.
Most of the experts reached by Helsingin Sanomat agree that the dispute shows that Finland has no special position with respect to Russian political moves.
Not all Russian reactions to the events followed the government line.
“One fairly interesting figure is this [Finn] Johan Bäckman, who reported this story for use in the Russian media”, wrote the Russian journal Kommersant Vlast on Monday. According to the periodical, Bäckman “got this scandal to light up, if not with his first try, then at least at the end”.
The paper concluded that this was a “patriotism attack” in Russia.