Staunton, October 18 – Since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and relations between the Russian Federation and the outside world have deteriorated, all federal subjects of that country have turned away from Europe, breaking many of the ties and hopes for more that had begun to emerge after the fall of the iron curtain.
But this process was far from uniform. Some regions and republics especially in the interior had not made much progress in expanding links with the outside world or developed hopes that such cooperation would lead to real changes in their lives. Consequently, the new break with the West was not especially traumatic.
Other federal subjects, however, especially those in border areas, had developed more ties and more hopes; and their turn was far more radical, often forced by Kremlin-installed leaders who, taking their orders from Moscow, took positions “more Orthodox than the patriarch.” As a result, many of them saw what had been real hopes shattered.
No federal subject suffered more in this regard than Karelia, the republic with the longest border with the West of any Russian federal subject and a place that both the EU and the Karelians hoped would become a model of trans-border cooperation with the development of a Euroregion linking together that republic and Finland.
Not surprisingly, this new turning away from the West has meant not only that the Karelians have not had the benefits that they had been promised and even come to expect but that relations between Moscow and its appointees locally, on the one hand, and the Karelian population or at least its most active citizens, on the other, have deteriorated as well.
In a commentary for the Severreal portal, Gleb Yarovoy, a Karelian historian now living in Finland, traces this break and its “bitter” consequences, including the dashing of hope of only five years ago that Karelia could have a visa-free regime with Finland, that its roads up to the border would improve, and that its standard of living go up (severreal.org/a/30129335.html).
In May 2014, he recounts, Karelia and Finland signed an agreement committing to all those things by 2020 – for the text, see economy.karelia.ru/file.php/id/f5296-file-original.pdf/ -- none of which is now going to happen, a development that has created a yawning gap between hopes and reality greater than perhaps in any other federal subject of the Russian Federation.
Even before that accord, Yarovoy says, there were signs that such hopes were likely misplaced. The republic minister for economic development, for example, in early 2013, described Karelia as a socialist “enclave” and said there would be no place for foreign investments.
But that was the exception that seemed to prove the rule. Republic head Aleksandr Khudilaynen was given to describing himself “a real Finn of ten generations.” That made his shift in June 2014, when he declared that Russian rockets could wipe “half of Europe” off the face of the earth especially disturbing.
By that time, Yarovoy says, roads to the border of Finland had improved in Karelia; but none of the other terms of the Euroregion agreement have been or now are likely to be until Moscow changes course. And that has real world consequences for the population of the republic.
Not only has its people become poorer --- every sixth resident lives in poverty according to official figures – but Karelia has fallen much further behind Finland than it was five years ago. In 2014, the average income in Finland was 3.3 times that in Karelia; now, it is 8.5 times. And foreign investment in the republic and foreign travel by its residents haven’t materialized at all.