The contrast couldn't be more stark. The hotels, spas and restaurants of Finland's far north are jammed almost all year, with vacationers and fishermen in summer and fall, and more vacationers and skiers during the long winter. Just across the Russian border, nothing is the same except the ruggedly scenic Arctic terrain. A desolate road traverses a wilderness that was off-limits during the Soviet era and remains uninhabited. The first Russian village, 160 kilometers from the Finnish border, is Upper Tuloma. Many inhabitants survive by selling wild berries; some earn a few rubles by scavenging electrical wires and fixtures from power pylons. "This is the biggest income gap across any border in Europe," says Lassi Heininen, a Finnish political scientist at the University of Lapland's Arctic Center.
Finland hopes to span that chasm. On Nov. 12 the Finns, who hold the European Union's rotating presidency, will convene a foreign ministers' meeting in Helsinki on the "Northern Dimension" agenda--a broad range of ecological and economic initiatives to allay the poverty of northwestern Russia. "Now is the time to make the Northern Dimension work," says Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen. His laconic tone masks Finland's deepening sense of urgency about its giant neighbor. Old grudges only compound the problem. The Russians and Finns fought furious battles in their Winter War of 1939-40. In the cold-war era, "Finlandization"--a term the Finns loathe--became synonymous with a mildly coerced neutrality. If the aid effort is to succeed, both nations will need to get past their lingering resentments.
Instead, grievances are multiplying. Finland and Norway, which also shares an Arctic border with Russia, rankle at Moscow's disregard for their environmental fears. Russian cities like Monchegorsk and Nikel, whose copper and nickel plants once fed the insatiable appetite of the Soviet defense industry, are surrounded by blighted land. Men's life expectancy is under 55; women's is about 10 years more. Monchegorsk's mayor, Gennady Ilyin, insists local pollution levels have fallen sharply. "We're solving the problem ourselves," he says. How? Simple: the defense industry's crash caused a sharp drop in production. Presto--less pollution.
The Russians often ignore their neighbors' offers of help. "The Russian attitude is to try to squeeze as much as they can from the Westerners without putting in anything themselves," says Jaakko Hentonnen of Finland's Ministry of Environment. A few years ago, for example, Oslo pledged $40 million to help modernize Nikel's huge smelters--if the Russians would share the cost. No deal. Another sore topic is the task of dismantling 70 or more rusting nuclear subs decommissioned from Russia's northern fleet. Oslo, Helsinki and Washington have offered to help. The Russians agree the risk of a catastrophic nuclear leak is rising--but they refuse to pick up any of the tab.
While Russia balks, Norway, Finland and the EU focus on smaller goals. They fix roads, build drinking-water and sewage systems and dispose of liquid nuclear waste from some of the aging subs. Finnish and Russian wildlife experts are conducting an EU-financed study in Upper Tuloma, aiming to revive salmon fisheries in rivers now cut off by a hydroelectric dam. The payback could be big. Already, avid outdoorsmen from the West pay tour operators up to $7,000 (plus air fare) for a week of catch-and-release fishing in the region's untouched rivers, where salmon still spawn.
Foreign investors are harder to lure. Vladimir Yevseyev, chairman of the Murmansk district's committee for economic relations, says Finns and other Westerners want only raw materials, not "value-added products" developed in joint ventures. Nonsense, reply the Finns. They say Russia's byzantine tax rules, high customs duties and chronic bureaucratic obstacles make joint ventures all but impossible. "The Russians need to pull their act together," says Lipponen. The problems seem frozen in place. The Finns don't dare ignore their Russian neighbors' plight. Yet the Northern Dimension can hardly do much good until Russia starts helping itself.