The story is actually not complicated, but its numerous aspects with diverse characters make it an interesting study of Russia’s shoot-from-the-hip policy in media and international relations.
The background: On February 4th of this year Turku (Finnish) social welfare officials took 7-year old Anton Salo, the son of a Russian-Finnish couple into foster care. Because of confidentiality legislation officials have been tight-lipped about the details. But in an interview to Russian TV, the boy’s mother said child welfare authorities in Turku acted upon a claim that she had hit the boy. In Finland corporal punishment is illegal. It was also reported that the child had once before been removed from the family, in December, when the father had thrown his wife out of the home.
It became a high profile case and bound to absorb the Russian media, especially after the arrival in Turku of Russia’s child affairs ombudsman, Pavel Astahov, accompanied by dozens of Russian journalists and TV crews. The Finnish media uncovered interesting and relevant material on Astahov’s background. A KGB-trained lawyer, Astahov has wildly claimed that violations of the rights of Russian families in Finland are on the rise and that Russians in Finland who feel Finnish justice is short changing them should turn to the Kremlin for help.
Known to be close to both Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin (all graduated from the same KGB academy), Astahov first came under public scrutiny when Russian pensioners demonstrated in the streets against President Putin’s social policies some years ago. This opposition had to be eliminated and Astahov was chosen for the job. He organized a citizens’ NGO to monitor the problems of Russian pensioners and public protests stopped immediately. He was labelled a human rights activist. Next he was tasked with preparing legislation that would limit the powers of the KGB successor, the FSB. The new law was just as loose and toothless as the rules that governed the old KGB.
Astahov’s trip to Turku, where he had no legal jurisdiction to deal with the boy’s case, was taken as a personal envoy of president Medvedev and caused a row between Finnish security police, Supo and the foreign ministry. Supo would have had a head’s up if they had been notified by the foreign ministry that accompanying Astahov, over 40 Russian journalists had applied for Finnish visas. After his trip to Turku, Astahov managed to personally meet president Tarja Halonen, which added to his self-importance, it already boosted by publicity in the Russian press.
Astahov had a fervid Finnish supporter in the person of Johan Bäckman, an unabashed Kremlin booster, who constantly accuses Finland, and also Estonia and Latvia of the most serious human rights violations, who is known for wholeheartedly backing the Russian version of recent history, who accuses Finland to have been the aggressor in the Russian-Finnish war, who claims the Baltic states were never occupied and annexed by the Soviets, who insists mass arrests and deportations to Siberia were a necessary aspect of the revolution, etc. He stated that Finland wants to destroy Finnish-Russian marriages.
The child custody scandal also heightened the tensions surrounding other controversies. Russian authorities attempted to discredit a series of newspaper articles written on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Finnish Winter War. Ironically Finland’s decision to remove two elderly, bed-ridden Russian women back to Russia, which was blocked by European courts and anticipated new Finnish legislation, had been condemned by Russian media has gross violations of human rights by Finland.
Observers have commented that a new Moscow doctrine is being played out: exerting pressure on a neighbouring country while introducing an element of fear. They note that Russia is not only targeting states formerly occupied by the USSR. The ‘sphere of influence’ principle has a wider scope. These tactics have been loudly announced previously by the Kremlin: ‘the protection of the interests of ex-patriot Russian minorities abroad, if necessary by force of arms.
Finland will not remain an isolated incident. Was a minor case that eventually involved head-of-state level contacts staged mainly for domestic Russian political consumption? Typical Kremlin media bluster? It still didn’t disturb the still waters between Helsinki and Moscow.
The fate of a small boy feeds Russian media frenzy, but causes barely a ripple in Finnish-Russian relations