In early June, Finns learned that a civilian had put in a bid for a property near a Finnish Defense Force test-shooting range in the town of Taipalsaari, located some 20 kilometers from the Russian border. At first, nothing seemed unusual about this; civilians often live near military shooting ranges. But there was one detail that triggered concern in the Finnish military and government: the prospective buyer was Russian.
Plenty of ordinary Russians do, of course, buy summer homes in Finland. But some of these properties don’t resemble holiday retreats: they’re decaying cottages or empty plots of land coincidentally located near strategic military areas such as ammunitions depots, radar stations, and key electricity supply lines. According to statistics collected by the Finnish market research company TAK, in 2013, Russian buyers with an address in Russia, as opposed to in Finland, made up 89 percent of all purchases in the border region of South Karelia—where Taipalsaari is located—compared to only 46 percent in 2004. In addition to that lower share, fewer people were concerned about these purchases in 2004 when Russia was still considered a largely peaceful country. Ever since its annexation of Crimea, however, Russia’s neighboring countries are paying closer attention to its actions and those of its citizens.
“People’s attention and attitude to this issue have changed dramatically in past year or so,” says Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a defense expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “Before, no official would say on the record that there might be security-related issues involved with some of these purchases. Now that’s no longer the case.” People are aware, he said, “that war isn’t just tanks rolling over the border.”
Finland’s new defense minister, Jussi Niinistö, who took office in May, quickly took action on the Taipalsaari sale, instructing the state forest management agency to bid for the plot on behalf of the Finnish Defense Forces. But its $3.72 million offer fell far short of the reported $8.45 million Russian bid. Niinistö also proposed passing a bill that would give the government the right to approve sales in sensitive areas on a case-by-case basis, and former Defense Minister Carl Haglund advocated for a government right of first refusal.The Finns may, of course, be overreacting. It is quite possible that the properties near military installations are simply vacation homes, but the Finnish suspicion comes from a long and traumatic history of living with latent Russian-Soviet aggression and the occasional invasion. For over a century Finland belonged to Russia, before declaring independence in 1917. Even after independence, it continued to face Russian aggression. In the so-called Winter War of 1939 and 1940, 180,000 Finnish soldiers fought valiantly against the Red Army’s invading force of 340,000, launching a clever insurgent campaign. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had predicted a Soviet victory within 12 days, but the Finns miraculously held out for 105 days before succumbing to defeat. Perhaps this bitter experience is why Finland has maintained a stoic policy of neutrality and non-provocation, like its neighbor Sweden, which opted out of NATO membership.
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