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Svenskfinland in English is on a bit of a summer pause right now. Not much is going on anyway to write about – at least in current affairs.
Some good news today. It has been announced that our cathedral in the city of Borgå (Porvoo) will reopen to the public again already next week. So reports Radio Östnyland.
The cathedral, which is the seat to the Swedish-speaking diocese of the Finnish Church, was set on fire on a Sunday night in late May 2006 by young vandals from Askola. One of these (an 18 year old) was later sentenced by Borgå court to 3 years and 2 months in prison for sabotage. Two others who were accussed of assiting him escaped penalty. The fire destroyed the roof of the historic mediaeval church building but luckily the interior escaped largely undamaged. The sight of the church without its roof shocked many Borgå residents used to it dominating the skyline of their hometown. For those of us who live in this district, it was quite a horrific crime.
The renovation work has now, however, been completed – long ahead of schedule. The new fire prevention and sprinkler system has been tested too. Despite the reopening, there will however not be any church services in the cathedral until the officially scheduled reinaugration ceremony on the 1st day of advent.
2009 will be a significant year for the building and for the city of Borgå. 29 May 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the Borgå lantdag, Diet of Borgå. It was at this meeting that Russian tsar Alexander I proclaimed to the assembled Finnish dignitaries that he would maintain the laws, relgion and language from Swedish rule and that Finland would have autonomy as a grand duchy within the Russian empire.
Borgå cathedral, and the skyline of the old town of Borgå, can be seen as the title photograph of this blog.
Picture in this blog entry, Borgå cathedral in the aftermath of May 2006′s fire. Photo source: Svenska Yle. Logo for the anniversary 200th year since the Borgå lantdag. Image source: Borgå stad.
Almost certainly the biggest celebration of the year in Finland is midsummer. Or rather midsummer eve, which is when the partying is done – although it naturally stretches into midsummer day’s earlier hours in the light night at the height of the summer time. Midsummer’s day is always the Saturday nearest to the longest day. That makes tomorrow’s midsummer eve.
It’s traditional on midsummer to do as on most other Finnish holidays – drink! Happily, midsummer is more than just this. Midsummer is celebrated slightly differently in Swedish-speaking areas than by the Finnish-speaking Finns. The main, most noticeable, difference will be the probable presence of the midsummer pole. This is a tradition that is shared with Sweden. The Finnish speakers light bonfires to celebrate. In some Swedish speaking areas (at least here in the south), there is sometimes a bonfire lit too. Swedish speaking Finns like to dance traditional midsummer dances around the midsummer pole, whilst Finnish speaking tradition is to do so around the fire. It’s probably fair to say that music and especially singing play a greater role in the Swedish-speaking celebrations – and of course, it’s a day where the snaps songs come out in force! The midsummer pole is essentially, just that, a pole of wood. It’s generally said to represent fertility. The design can differ according to where in the country you are. Sometimes it is a representation of a sailing ship’s mast (Swedish-speaking communities often have a close relationship with the water, given their locations). Various things are hang from them depending on the local tradition and they are generally topped by a flag (usually here in Nyland/Uusimaa the blue, white and yellow pendant of Swedish-speaking Nyland). Åland is famous for having the most elaborate poles – often so elaborate that the use of a winch is required to raise them! Fish, especially the pickled herring, is a strong point of the traditional food. Fresh new potatoes (absolutely preferably Finnish if they have arrived) are also a must.
Midsummer’s Day is also the official day of the Finnish flag. One should raise the flag on midsummer eve and not lower it until the following night. It’s the only time when the flag is allowed to fly overnight.
Unfortunately the weather forecast is a bit questionable just now. Let’s hope for a shower free evening tomorrow.
Picture: Midsummer celebrations by Raseborg castle. Raseborg castle (near Ekenäs) is a good place to visit in the summer months. You can find information on visiting the castle and events taking place there at www.raseborg.org (although I’m sorry there is not much information in English).
Finland has a way to go yet until we can truly make a claim to being a multi-cultural society. Compared to the vast majority of western European countries, we have had fair less immigration. A contrast that is notable should you travel to our western neighbour Sweden, where more than one in ten persons where born outside of Sweden.
However, the government is now trying to encourage immigration. Just as in other European countries, this is made all the more necessary to fill jobs that Finnish people do not wish to perform. Finnish migration law and services are gradually being improved and reformed largely due to the efforts and leadership of Astrid Thors (sfp), Finland’s minister of migration.
One of the areas of our country that has shown the greatest success and most welcoming attitude towards immigrants is, interestingly, coastal Österbotten. Particularly the rural monolingual Swedish speaking municipality of Närpes has been recognised as the model to follow for integration. Immigrants have been welcomed into the community in a much more genuine and unanimous way than in many other areas of the country. Some have theorised that Swedish-speaking areas have been more accepting of immigrants because Swedish-speakers understand how it is to be in the position of a minority and are thus more accepting. The Swedish Peoples Party SFP is also very favourable in its views on immigration. There was even a line “Too few immigrants” in the last parliamentary election campaign song.
Now the main Swedish language newspapers in Österbotten (Vasabladet, Österbottens Tidning and Syd-Österbotten) have started publishing a regular update of translated news articles of interest to immigrants under the name GIIÖB. The languages are English, Serbian-Croat, Vietnamese and Russian.
Picture of Astrid Thors: Statsrådet, The Finnish government – Lehtikuva Oy/Ab. Second picture: Map of municipalities of Swedish-speaking Österbotten. The area on the western coast from Kristinestad in the south to Karleby (Kokkola) in the north.
Finland is famous for having being named as the world’s least corrupt country. This has been the result a number of times in recent years of the organisation Transparancy International’s survey. The Finnish media has always liked to trumpet this fact in the way that small countries do (understandably) like to enjoy moments when they are top of the league.
However, the ongoing party election financing scandal demands some serious reconsideration of our position as a land untroubled by corruption.
An interesting article in this morning’s Hufvudstadsbladet (HBL) reveals an interesting perspective on just why Finland is so clean in the eye’s of the transparency index.
According to Superintendent Jenni Klemola of the Central Criminal Police, who has for the last year been involved in a group actively following corruption cases in Finland, the explanation is simple. We simply don’t use the word corruption very much. She explained to HBL, “The difference between Finland and countries in southern Europe is that we talk about failures of duty, bribery and fraud without using the word ‘corruption’. In corresponding cases on the continent, the media would quickly scream out the news as a new corruption case being revealed.”
Klemola clarifies that there is no internationally agreed definition of corruption. Every country can create its own definition. “The word corruption doesn’t even appear in Finnish legislation. It’s also completely missing from party programmes”, she says.
“Transparency Index, which year after year announces Finland as one of the world’s least corrupt nations, does no scientific comparison to reach its conclusion. The measurement of the corruption index is built on expert statements. And because neither the Finnish media or legal system uses the word corruption, the experts draw the conclusion that the phenomenon doesn’t occur here.”
“Court cases that concern fraud, bribery and failures of duty are not considered. But now I’m waiting, with excitement, this autumn’s survey result”.
Kormela believes that that all forms of abuse of power for one’s own gain should be considered as corruption. Kormela goes on to say that “In Finland, the risk of corruption is greater when so many people have multiple positions of power – in politics, business and sport – that they can easily mix up.”
Kormela is suspicious of the entire Transparency Index. She points out that the index shows that Switzerland is side by side with Finland as one of the least corrupt countries in the world whilst many African nations are amongst the most corrupt – yet, many of the corrupt African heads of state almost certainly have their bank accounts in Swiss banks.
In other news, Centre party and Kokoomus (national coalition party) have their party conferences in Joensuu and Tampere/Tammerfors respectively over this weekend. The Centre party has perhaps received the most criticism during the election financing scandal.
Centre’s party secretary Jarmo Korhonen, who has been accused of being very much involved with the KMS scandal, defended robustly his position on the opening day yesterday (Friday). He told party delegates that he had been working very hard to get funds for the party – saying he’d been eating sometimes 3 lunches a day and suffering an upset stomach due to drinking so much coffee, all for the good of meeting people interested in donating money to the party funds. This went down well with the Centre party delegates. He claimed that the Social Democrats were the real capitalists, receiving the most financial backing. According to him, Centre also received less money than Kokoomus and were way down in 4th place – “even SFP get more money than us from some fund or other of theirs”.
Many of the delegates assembled in Joensuu blame the “capital city’s media” for blowing up the scandal, according to HBL. The Centre party enjoys the majority of its support from communities in rural, agrarian based Finnish-speaking Finland.
The Swedish Peoples’ Party (SFP) wrapped up its annual conference today in Åbo (Turku).
One of the main issues debated during the weekend was the issue of nuclear power. SFP has previously had an officially negative attitude on the use of nuclear energy. However, with climate change in mind and the need to find solutions to providing electricity without the use of expensive and dirty fossil fuels, the party has adopted a marginally more positive attitude towards the technology. Delegates voted to describe SFP as “not an active instigator of nuclear power expansion”. Not exactly a glowing endorsement, but the motion supporting this policy line was clearly supported, defeating the alternative proposal that would have described the party as “opposed to an expansion of nuclear energy”. The motion continues to allow SFP’s parliament members to vote according to their own conviction in matters of nuclear energy – clearly allowing critiques of nuclear energy (Ulla-Maj Wideroos being probably the most obvious here) to vote against any future parliamentary measures supporting nuclear energy.
The party conference elected 28-year old Anna Bertils as a new vice party chairman. She replaces Monica Sirén-Aura who stood down. Bertils is from Vörå in Österbotten and was chairman of Svensk Ungdom (Swedish Youth – the party’s youth organisation) between 2005 and 2007. The two other vice chairmen, Sibbo municipal government chair Christel Liljeström and left-winger Nils Torvalds from Helsinki were reelected. German immigrant Gerd-Peter Löcke (who is known for campaigning for more support for immigrants who have integrated as Swedish-speakers) also stood for a vice chairmanship position, but was not successful. Stefan Wallin, who is the minister of culture and sport in the government, was reelected unopposed as party chair/leader.
Image source: Svenska folkpartiet. You can find more photos from this year’s party conference on their website.
I have neglected this blog during the past week. Mainly because I’ve been busy at the office and that the weather has been so good; my free time has been occupied by putting it to good use. A lot is also on the go in Finnish current affairs. Here’s a quick summary of some of the ‘high’lights of the recent days.
Party funding scandal, Vanhanen’s Centre party in the spotlight
Parliamentarians, but most especially the government and more especially the Centre Party, are in turmoil due to campaign financing scandals. There’s so much to say on this that I can’t possibly manage it in this brief entry. And a new revelation seems to come out every day. Most of the worst news is, as said, surrounding the Centre party and financial grants given by a mysterious organisation called Kehittyvien Maakuntien Suomi (KMS, very liberally translated to “Finnish association for districts under development”) backed by various financiers – mainly businessmen (It should be said that KMS also gave grants to a much more limited number of members of other parties than Centre). There are various stories going about – was KMS founded in the office of the Centre party secretary Jarmo Korhonen? How much did prime minister Matti Vanhanen (centre) know about it? Did KMS money influence decisions made by the politicians who received it? Why is so much secrecy involved? Was it Centre party officials managing KMS’ bank account?
Frankly, it’s exhausting keeping up with it all! But in any case, Prime Minister Vanhanen is looking weakened and this morning’s Borgåbladet even reports that one betting company (Unibet) now thinks there’s a higher chance he will have resigned before the end of June than still be in the job on 1 July. As for now, he’s flown off to do a tour of Asia (where he amongst other things gave a strange speech in Seoul where he drawed upon the similarities of the Finnish and Korean languages). One amusing reader comment on the website of Vasabladet suggested that it might be best if he didn’t fly back. The bad news is that all Finnish politicians are looking less trustworthy amongst the electorate because of this scandal. It’s not good for encouraging the people’s participation in the democratic process when that process looks corrupt and broken. Expect new election financing laws already before the autumn as politicians try to regain the people’s trust.
Jutta Urpilainen is new Social Democrat leader
The Social Democrats elected a new party chairman yesterday at their conference in Hämeenlinna/Tavestehus. Jutta Urpilainen from Karleby in Österbotten becomes the SDP’s first female leader. In the second round of the party’s election, SDP delegates gave Urpilainen 218 votes, defeating former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja who got 132 (both pictured). The choice of a youthful female leader (Urpilainen was born in 1975) will make it easier for SDP to change its image and present itself as a fresh alternative. Municipal elections are coming up this autumn and with Centre and Kokoomus faring worse (or at least getting worse publicity) in the above mentioned financial scandals, SDP should be looking to a good result. If the economic situation becomes more unstable – even more so.
Sfp party day in Åbo
The Swedish Peoples Party (SFP) holds its annual conference – the ‘party day’ – today in Åbo (Turku), in the shadow of the financing scandal (and indeed SDP’s leadership election). Sfp politicians and delegates will be hoping that they can avoid being tarred with the scandal brush in so much as is possible. KMS only gave money to one Sfp member during the last election campaign. That was party leader Stefan Wallin, who received 10 000 euro. However, he has said this he passed this on to Sfp’s general campaign fund for his Åboland constituency. Sfp has had its own mini-KMS type scandal. It was revealed recently that an almost equally mysterious organisation, Stiftelsen för ett tvåspråkigt Finland (‘The Foundation for a Bilingual Finland’) provides a large amount of Sfp’s monetary resources. This foundation sourced its money from business leaders and Svenska kulturfonden (The Swedish Cultural Fund). This has been met with far, far less negative publicity than the KMS/Centre affair, largely because it was no great surprise to anyone that Svenska kulturfonden was providing money to Sfp. It was, if you like, a “well known secret.” When this came to light, Sfp party secretary Ulla Achrén immediately took responsibility for how these funds were shared out within Sfp and to members seeking election. This rather took the heat out of any possible scandal – particularly as her ‘trust’ is harder to call into question, as she is (unlike most other party secretaries in other Finnish political parties) is simply an employee of Sfp – rather than the holder of an elected office.
One of the main issues for this year’s conference will be energy – and in particular nuclear power. The party has indicated, in the context of climate change, that it wants to relook at its negative stance towards the building of further nuclear power stations in Finland. Members are however divided, so a lively debate can be expected.
Sfp will look to recent opinion surveys for a source of optimism; Hufvudstadsbladet reports that they have shown that support for Sfp has significantly strengthened amongst Swedish-speaking young people. It also shows that support from the wider Swedish-speaking population has improved slightly (to over 67%), at the expense of the SDP and Greens.
Swedish-speaking Finns are becoming all the more bilingual. That’s according to the latest trend from the Finland-Swedish Barometer survey.
According to researcher Kjell Herberts at the Institute for Finland-Swedish Future Research, one can read this trend by comparing the latest barometer results with surveys done in the past. In 1950, 46% of Swedish-speaking Finns asked said that they had a strong command of both national languages. According to the most recent research, 82% of Swedish-speaking Finns are of the opinion that they have a strong command of Finnish as well as Swedish. (Although it is apparently hard to make a totally accurate comparison, as the questions were asked differently in 1950 as to more recent surveys, and the question does not necessarily imply that one should be fluent in Finnish to give a positive response).
According to Herberts, the situation for Swedish in Finland is made more difficult by those Swedish-speaking Finns who so easily and willingly switch to using Finnish when accessing services. According to Herberts, it is also the case that the more bilingual one becomes, the easier it is to abandon one’s own language. Herberts, however, does not believe that the existence of Swedish in Finland is threatened in at least the short term.
The latest barometer survey also shows that Swedish-speaking young people are significantly less interested in politics than their Finnish-speaking counterparts. 77% of Swedish-speaking youths said that they were either not at all interested or not especially interested in politics.
The Assembly of Swedish-speaking Finns, Folktinget, is to create a new job position. Folktinget will employ a full time member of staff as (liberally translated) Language Protection Secretary.
This person will create a central point of contact at Folktinget for the collection of complaints from the public on language services. This person will then have the job of following up with authorities that have been accused of not provided services in Swedish that are provided for according to Finland’s law.
According to Folktinget’s press release, the ongoing municipal structural reforms have created an increased need to monitor the language law is being followed in new administrative units.
The salary of this new position is being funded by Finland’s Swedish Culture Fund, Svenska kulturfonden.