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North Karelia Is Stuck In A Freeze...But Wartime Frost Is Thawing (Int'l Edition)

International -- Spotlight on Finland

North Karelia Is Stuck in a Freeze...But Wartime Frost Is Thawing (int'l edition)

As he hawks his handmade jewelry to tourists at Helsinki's waterfront market square, Esa Inkinen thinks of his boyhood home of Joensuu, the main city in the province of North Karelia, 450 kilometers away. He'd love to make his living there but sadly remarks there's no chance of that. And he's not alone. Since 1990, many of North Karelia's best and brightest have decamped, shrinking the province's population from 176,000 to 172,000. "It's really miserable," says the 38-year-old Inkinen. "People don't know what to do."

While most of Finland enjoys the warm glow of Nokia prosperity, North Karelia seems frozen in endless winter. The region's unemployment is stuck at 20%, compared with 9.9% for Finland as a whole. Efforts to develop a science and technology park, begun in 1990, have sputtered, while a bid to build up ecotourism has been only marginally successful. And the forest industry, once the region's mainstay, has gone high-tech, putting mill workers and lumberjacks out of work. In the town of Eno, unemployment stands at 26% because forest products company Stora Enso has automated its factory.

In Joensuu, population 51,500, social welfare payments account for 5% of the annual $143 million budget, and the city spends $1.45 million a year on job retraining. Frustrated by lack of work, some locals blame their problems on immigrants from Albania, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Russia, and various African nations. In 1999 alone, there were 30 attacks on immigrants or property they own, though attacks in 2000 were "way down," says a police spokesman."WE'RE TRYING." North Karelia's long slump does not spring from lack of local effort. The science park was completed, unfortunately, just in time for a deep recession in Finland, and while 30 companies now do business there, they employ only 1,000. And while the region's forests and lakes may lure lots of ecotourists someday, it's a slow process. In June, the $17 million Koli Nature Center opened in a national park, with a refurbished hotel offering spectacular views of Lake Pielinen. The center has had 30,000 visitors since it opened, but most of them stay only a couple of days and spend little. Pirjo-Riitta Vatanen, who runs a travel agency in Joensuu and who came back to North Karelia after 40 years away, concedes that "tourism hasn't caught on here yet."

North Karelia's woes make it eligible for European Union funds--more than $27 million since 1995--which is only fair, since it lost agricultural subsidies when Finland joined the EU in 1995. And with the Russian border only 70 kilometers away, officials are working to build a Russo-Finnish trade zone. "We're trying," insists Tarja Cronberg, regional governor. The question for North Karelia, as for rural areas in other booming EU nations, is whether trying will be enough.

As a boy, Kaarlo Nygren never heard his father talk about what he did in World War II, during the heavy fighting in the North Karelian town of Ilomantsi. And although forest workers still uncover the bones of soldiers, the war remains a taboo subject. Many would like to forget that Finland fought on the German side in hopes of winning back territory from Russia. Instead, Finland had to make reparations to the Russians at the end of the war, giving up about a third of its Karelian territory. "Nobody has talked about this for 50 years," says Nygren.

Now, he and a group of other North Karelians are trying to break the silence in order to improve relations with the Russians--and perhaps lure some war-history buffs. Supported by private donations, they've set up a small museum displaying war exhibits, including the land mines that are still routinely dug up along the frontier. They've also made a film with Finnish veterans talking about the war for the first time.

Nygren says the group wants to show the Russian side as well. "This museum should be a place where both sides can talk about the war," he says. "We are not interested in heroes or bad guys." But not everyone is convinced. Dimitri Ankudinov, a Russian journalist in Finland, wonders why the film doesn't mention the Finnish occupation of Petrozavodsk, 230 kilometers on the Russian side of the border. The occupation came after the Winter War of 1939-40, in which 45,000 Russians lost their lives. With feelings still running high, it could be a long time before North Karelians and Russians make peace with the past.By Ariane Sains in Joensuu; Edited by Harry MaurerReturn to top

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