Professor Lassi Heininen from the University of Lapland has been dealing with geopolitics of the north for decades. Last week he came to NArFU to give a lecture on international relations in the Arctic, regionalism and the history of development of the circumpolar region.
- Mr. Heininen, how many times have you been to Russia?
- Oh, I’ve been here too many times, I haven’t counted. But recently when I had to apply for a visa I wrote “120” in the form.
My first visit to Russia was in the middle of 1970s and it was Leningrad. I was young and with other youngsters we made a tourist trip to this city. Leningrad was not so far away from Helsinki, but I remember that everything was different. I can’t say that it was surprising, but I was a bit confused by the big difference between Finland and the Soviet Union. And of course Leningrad was a big city, and my hometown was not so big (Pori, on the west coast of Finland).
I was activist of one youth organization and we cooperated with Komsomol in the Soviet Union and even met some Komsomol leaders. For a young man it was very exciting to see the soviet system. Even a simple trip to the shop could be very interesting: it was a real challenge to buy something without knowing the Russian language.
I first visited Arkhangelsk in 1994. At that time we established relations with the Pomor State University. That’s why I first came to this town and had a few lectures in here. For me the most important reason to travel somewhere is to give a lecture. Countries, cultures and students differ very much. And on the other hand it is very useful for the students to attend a lecture of a foreign teacher.
- Did your impressions of Russia change since the first visit?
- There are big changes, but on the other hand – it’s still the same Russia. And people who live in the country are the same; their behavior is different, but when it comes to mentality – there are no big changes. Though contemporary Russian people are more liberal, they feel free to express themselves. In Soviet times the system didn’t allow people to speak freely and they were isolated. That was not good.
- And how do you find Russian students?
- They are clever, though sometimes too shy. But when they feel themselves brave they are interesting to debate with. Recently I had a summer school for students in Petrozavodsk, there were students from different countries. And it is always a surprise to most of the Finnish students how active the Russian students are. The Russians have very good knowledge of English and they are rather sociable in the working groups.
- Do you prepare different lectures for Russian students and students from other countries?
- No. Someone can say that I’m lazy, but it’s not that. The most important thing is the level of students. And I always use the context of the place where I give a lecture. For example, I ask students from Arkhangelsk about the geopolitical role of their town. They think and talk about it. If I come to Iceland – I will ask about Iceland.
- You have taken part in the special phase of the Olympic torch relay (to the North Pole). What are your impressions?
- Oh, that was a unique experience. Fantastic and charming. I was one of the torchbearers and a Finnish representative there. It was very dark on the North Pole, it was the time of the Polar night. Technically we knew that but we didn’t realize what it means. Five days of the journey were in total darkness. But when we were doing things on the ice there were searchlights. There is a rather absurd feeling when you’re there: “This is the north, ok. Sea ice and darkness”.
- Are you going to watch the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014?
- Yes, I will follow a few disciplines. But I might be in California at the time so it depends what they will show in there. Among sports I follow athletics (running) and football. I can also watch hockey, for example, a match between Finland and Russia – it’s always exciting.
- What is the role of Russia in circumpolar region?
- Well. Russia is a big part of the Arctic and Russians have done a lot of research in the Arctic. So it’s very important to have contribution to the international cooperation when it comes to science and higher education.
- Can Arctic development possibly become “selling the skin of the bear that has not been killed”? The Arctic is severe and resources in this region are expensive.
- When it comes to science there can be no scruples. You should continue to do that, to know more, because science is always important. And when it comes to infrastructure, there is a good question if all parts of the Arctic should be populated. But in the Soviet times Russians built several settlements in the North for the benefit of the whole country. And they did not doubt at all.
Arctic development is like an investment. I was one of the lead authors of “Arctic human development report” in 2004, when for the first time we calculated the production of the Arctic region. And we saw that this region produces more than the capital invested. The benefit was a few times (at least twice) bigger than the investments. We didn’t have the figures before, we didn’t know that simply!
- Is this benefit worth the possible risk for the environment?
- There should be a balance, we should respect the nature. Absolutely. If it would mean that offshore oil drilling is too risky for the environment, then we should not do that. I think that we don’t have proper technologies for that at the moment, risks are too big. It means that we should postpone commercial offshore drilling; we are not yet ready for that.
Nowadays economics often takes over politics. Moreover, some countries don’t have proper mechanisms to control business organizations including the drilling companies. But the Arctic states cooperate under the auspices of the Arctic Council. They can create more strict environmental regulations if needed, and then each country can ratify these regulations, put them in the national legislation. But use of such regulations is the business of each country. But they are hesitating because they are counting on economic profit in the Arctic region. Even Finland, though we don’t have any coast of the Arctic ocean, but we can sell some technologies for oil and gas drilling.
Economy is too much the priority number one. Unfortunately, environment is on the second place.
- What about the countries that do not have northern territories at all – what do they want from the Arctic? China, for example?
- The Arctic has become an important thing in the world politics. So many countries want to know what is happening in it. And they don’t want to read the news in magazines and newspapers, they need to be where the discussions happen.
Maybe in the beginning they don’t say too much, first they would like to learn. During the lecture in NArFU I mentioned an Arctic conference in Singapore. Other conferences took place earlier in China, India and Japan. These countries really want to know more about the issue. For example, China wants to make the distance between China and North America shorter.
Climate change is another thing. They would like to know why climate is changing, because it has a direct impact on China and this is important for agriculture. This country even established its own research station in Svalbard.