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Finnish 'loopholes' allow imports of Russian coal and oil to continue

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By David Mac Dougall
Activists daub 'No coal no war' slogan on the side of freight train carriages in Kouvola, Finland
Activists daub 'No coal no war' slogan on the side of freight train carriages in Kouvola, Finland   -   Copyright  Greenpeace Suomi

Activists in Finland are calling for the government to clamp down faster on state-owned companies that continue to import raw materials from Russia, saying it only benefits the Russian government and oligarchs, and helps fund the war in Ukraine.

New sanctions to ban Russian coal imports will have a four-month grace period to terminate contracts. But campaigners and politicians across Europe have highlighted that continued trade goes against the spirit of sanctions and provides the Russian government with a stable revenue stream.

"Kramatorsk, today," wrote Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun on Twitter next to a picture of a blood-soaked child's toy, following a Russian attack that killed more than 50 people on Friday.

"EU paid yet another €1 billion to Russia since this happened," said Sovsun. "Every day. €1 billion sent to those monsters who kill, rape, and torture Ukrainians."

Russian freight imports

Of particular concern to Greenpeace Suomi are transit shipments of coal on three routes through Finland to Finnish ports for onward international export. Two of those routes are operated by Finland's state-owned railway company VR, while the third is operated by Estonia's state-owned railway company AS Operail.

While VR said in March it had stopped passenger and freight service between Finland and Russia, this transit 'loophole' continues to generate income for the company, giving the mine owners in Siberia an easy route to the west for their products, and activists want it to stop immediately.

"People are being killed. And we are funding it," says Matti Liimatainen from Greenpeace Suomi.

VR initially told Euronews that there were "ongoing" discussions about how to "suspend the eastern traffic entirely" but that they were waiting on sanctions to give them "the firmest grounds" to do so.

However, within 24 hours the position had changed and they now say they aim to shut down freight transport from Russia "as quickly as possible" but concede the process will still take "several months."

VR says it will comply with all new sanctions, although it's not clear whether transit shipments for onward export would still be allowed under the specifics of the sanctions, which target member states which purchase any kind of Russian coal or related derivatives.

The company says "if the EU and therefore Finland will specifically sanction for example coal import/export then we will follow those guidelines and timetables."

AP/Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service
FILE - Workers at a mine in the Siberian city of KemerovoAP/Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service

Tracking the coal from Siberian mines to Finnish ports

Greenpeace Suomi has been tracking the origins of the coal shipments that come from Russia to Finland.

In an extensive briefing paper, the NGO follows the coal from mines operated by a company called Sibanthracite in Novosibirsk to the Finnish west coast ports of Hanko and Pori almost 4,000km away -- and it's a tangled web.

Sibanthracite is owned by an oligarch called Albert Avdolyan, an EU national with a Maltese 'golden passport' whose companies have run joint fossil fuel ventures with Russia's state-owned arms company Rostec.

Previously, Sibanthracite was owned by another oligarch called Dimitri Bosov who was a close associate of Vladimir Putin but was found dead from a gunshot wound at his Moscow home in May 2020.

According to data provided by railway operator VR to Euronews, the company usually handles around 12.3 million tonnes of freight between Finland and Russia every year, and this figure has halved since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Activists don't see why the number can't drop to zero, given the scale of Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

"I would say that this transporting of coal through Finland is a completely unnecessary business which doesn't have anything to do with the warming of our households, that's an inaccurate excuse," says Liimatainen.

"Then you take this business of transporting coal through Finland the only guys who benefit from this are the Russian oligarchs and the state-owned railway companies in Finland and Estonia, they don't even make any good money out of it. It's a horribly unnecessary business," he tells Euronews.

Greenpeace Suomi
Greenpeace Suomi protesters try to stop Russian coal being unloaded at a dock in Helsinki, 5 April 2022Greenpeace Suomi

Finnish government response

Within the Finnish government, Tytti Tuppurainen is the minister with overall responsibility for state-owned enterprises like railway company VR, oil refining company Neste, national airline Finnair and even Alko the chain of stores which sell stronger alcohol not available in supermarkets.

She told Euronews that Finland is committed to the sanctions that the EU has imposed against Russia so far, and believes that nothing should be off the table when it comes to further sanctions.

"Halting freight transport, including coal transport, is an operational decision, which is up to the VR management, in line with the principles of good governance. However, I am sure that the company will closely listen to the views of the state owner," Tuppurainen said, before VR announced it would stop Russian coal shipments several months from now.

Railway operator VR isn't the only Finnish company that campaigners find problematic.

In early April activists tried to stop coal from being unloaded at a dock in the Finnish capital which had sailed from a Russian port bound for Helsinki's city-owned power company Helen.

That company announced in March it would stop importing coal from Russia to use at its power station in Helsinki -- but now says that it's honouring contracts already in place, with this unlikely to be the final shipment.

It's a similar situation with oil refining company Neste, also majority-owned by the Finnish state. In early March the company said it had "mostly" replaced Russian crude oil with oil from elsewhere, but by the beginning of April, it admitted it was still bringing in shipments of Russian oil.

"I think that even now most people don't know our state companies are involved in this kind of business," says Greenpeace Suomi's Matti Liimatainen.

"The reaction I've seen on social media is now about how shocked people are that it takes so long and the processes are so slow to stop it, and we hope the Finnish government can speed things up, they could do it basically any day."