Denis Pertsev is Ukrainian but he has lived in Finland since 2001, first as a student, then as a businessman. Besides chairing the Ukrainian Association in Finland for ten years now, he has also run as a candidate in local elections in Helsinki. He has explained to Finlandpolitics the background and goals of the Association, as well as his take on the situation in Ukraine, his outlook on the Finnish elections and his expectations for Finnish foreign policy under the new government to be formed this spring.
The Ukrainian Association in Finland is one of the very active civil society groups in the country and your role is even more visible now, possibly due to the increased attention on the Ukrainian crisis. Can you tell us about the origins and development of the Association?
It was founded 18 years ago, in 1997, by ten members. Our membership has since then grown exponentially, and now we have approximately 200 members, for about 4-5000 Ukrainians in the country.
Our primary goal is to promote Ukrainian culture and language in Finland, among Finnish people, via organising different community activities, events and programmes. More recently, we have devoted a lot of energy into organising several information sessions on the Ukrainian crisis. Overall, we had 40 events in 2014.
We put a big emphasis on charity work, which includes gathering and sending goods and money for people in need in Ukraine. For example, we have participated at the latest Helsinki Restaurant Day, where we have gathered more than 2700 euros that were sent to help orphans and war victims in East Ukraine.
Besides charity and culture related actions, is the Association active in politics?
The Association is not a political or religious organisation. This being said, nothing prevents us from discussing, in a non-partisan way, current political issues in Ukraine or from informing the Finnish public about what is happening in Ukraine.
And what is happening in Ukraine? Where do you see the situation evolving?
I predict escalation. A bigger war may erupt at any moment, maybe after the Ukrainian Easter, maybe within a month. We are receiving news of Russian heavy equipment being present in East Ukraine, the space is decreasing between the separatist groups and the Ukrainian groups. When it happens, it will be the hardest stage of the war with Russia.
Chairing the Ukrainian Association in Finland, what is your opinion about the Finnish government’s reaction so far?
I must praise the Finnish government for the humanitarian aid they have provided to Ukrainians, so far more than 6 million euros. I am impressed by the positive involvement of Ilkka Kanerva (President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly) and I like the position of Alexander Stubb. I am a bit surprised by the position of Erkki Tuomioja who put the focus on the question of Finlandisation and who weighs Finland’s options very much in light of Russia’s strategy. I don’t think this is the way Finland should think.
Do you think that the topic of Ukraine is an important one in the Finnish election campaign?
I think it’s important but I also think that it should be one of the most important topics of this campaign. What is happening in Ukraine concerns the whole world. Should the situation escalate, it will affect Finland very much. On the one hand, the ensuing crisis will have severe economic consequences for Finland, jobs will be lost. On the other hand, the background of Ukraine and Finland vis-a-vis Russia is similar: a few years ago, Ukrainians didn’t expect Russia to attack – Finland is equally unprepared. We could not imagine this happening and Finland is at this very stage now. We had believed that Russia would turn against Estonia, Poland or Latvia but these countries are all in the EU and in the NATO. Russia attacked Ukraine. Finland is not in the NATO, either. I hear many discussion in Finland about potential NATO membership and the majority of them concentrates on how will Russia react to such a change. I don’t think this is the right approach: Finnish people should first think about what is in Finland’s interest? Finland should assume its place as an independent country, a strong one which has all the right to decide on its economy and politics – the role of the “small country next to a big one” is not the right one.
So are you in favour of Finland joining NATO?
I can’t put it like that. I very much support what Alpo Rusi (Keskusta) advocates: he is saying that the pros and cons of a potential membership need to be evaluated. Look at Ukraine! Part of the problem is that important decisions were made based on emotions. This should not be the case for finland: Finnish people should decide rationally, and for this, they need information and facts. What is NATO? What benefits would it bring? What would be the economic effects of joining? All these questions need to be put on the table – I am not saying that the decision at the end will be yes. That is to be seen, but discussing the facts is necessary first.
Living in Finland, you follow quite closely internal political developments. Would you give us your prediction on the outcome of the Finnish parliamentary elections?
Well, it seems that Keskusta is in a strong leading position. My estimation is that SDP will be the second biggest group, which will mean that they keep the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’d say that Kokoomus will be third and I think it is positive that True Finns will lose their position. I wouldn’t like to speak against True Finns but I need to point out that they are rather populist: there is a whole world of difference between what they are saying and what they are doing. In a way, it reminds me of communist rhetorics when Timo Soini speaks about their plans, without even considering whether they are economically feasible! I would encourage voters to go a bit deeper and instead of simply accepting what some politicians say, try to see whether it is realistic.
Do you think that the elections and the new government will bring a considerable change for Finnish international and European politics? And especially to Finland’s stance on Ukraine?
I think it will more or less continue the way it has been going. The President is staying and his position is quite clear. Keskusta is likely to err on the safe side and I think they will continue to follow the European line when it comes to Ukraine, or rather, the line of Germany who has been leading Europe on this issue, as on many others. This, in a way ties back to what I was saying on countries needing to be a bit more confident, a bit more independent. But by this, I don’t mean to speak against unity, on the contrary! I do believe that Europe should have one decision, one voice on important issues. For instance, look at countries like Greece or Hungary, looking for loopholes when it comes to relations with Russia. They are playing with fire, for small-term political gains and they seem to forget the basic values of the European Union, why they joined. Did they join a Union of values or was it solely for the economic benefits?
Speaking of being united or divided, when it comes to Ukraine, there is a question that seems to be raised every time we speak about the origins of the Ukrainian crisis. Is the country divided or not?
Let me give you my personal example. I was born in West Ukraine but as a child, I lived for a long time in East Ukraine, in the area which is now occupied. In a city of one hundred thousand people, we only had one Ukrainian school, the rest went to Russian school. Looking at any Ukrainian citizen, there is no way to say if they are Ukrainian or Russian! No matter if people come from East or West Ukraine, they are Ukrainians! Even if they are Russian-speaking, they are not Russians, they are Ukrainians. There is no division. Some people speak Ukrainian, others speak Russian… we have never ever had a problem with Russian language in Ukraine. Ukrainian language might have been a bit more challenging, for instance finding books in the Donetsk or Luhansk region, but mutual understanding and communication has never been an issue.
Staying on your personal history for a bit longer, you have run in local elections in Finland. Do you have plans to run again or be active in Finnish politics somehow?
Yes, I did run in 2012 and I am thinking of running again. You see, it means quite a lot of work – but it is rewarding. Even if you don’t win, you help the party you were campaigning for.
Which party did you run for?
I ran for Keskusta but now I am independent. You see, for me the biggest issue right now is the situation in Ukraine and this is a topic which transcends party lines. Naturally, Finnish politics is also very important for me and I must say that being in Finland as a Ukrainian, I am very happy that Finnish people really support Ukraine! To give you another personal example, I was in North Finland a few weeks back and my car broke down. When passersby heard that I was Ukrainian, suddenly there were ten people wanting to help. It was really touching.
I don’t have any more questions but is there anything you wish to add?
Yes, I would like to express my own view on the Ukrainian situation. Let me point out that it is true that corruption has been a serious problem in Ukraine but recently very positive changes have happened. The Second Maidan really changed things. A completely independent anti-corruption committee will be set up within a few weeks: we are in the stage of the final selection of the chair, who will not be under the authority of the President, the government or even the Parliament. The committee will have a sufficient number of well-paid staff members and I am confident that this will be a crucial step in the anti-corruption battle. There are already good signs: the public opinion is more aware, there are scandals and even policemen are sentenced to jail, if they are guilty.
What is the origin of this, how did we get here? After Ukraine became independent, Russia started to exercise more influence in the country after approximately 1997. They supported oligarchs and they did their best to deter Ukraine from the European path. Strategically, Ukraine is crucial for Russia, due to its size and location. Russia has been bribing MPs in Ukraine, then there was the sudden and mysterious death of Viacheslav Chornovil, a great candidate for President… More recently, Russia has exercised pressure for the demilitarisation of Ukraine, which means that in case of further Russian provocation, which will happen, further territories will be occupied and there won’t be much Ukraine will be able to do.