Kuusamo, Finland: His gaze is friendly, his voice soft and welcoming. The message, however, is clear: “We know Russia and are not afraid of them.” Meet Jouka Manninen, a mayor on the Finnish border to Russia.
I am in Kuusamo, Finland. One of Finland’s largest municipalities when measured by geographical size. They often are, northern municipalities in Finland. Vast, geographic areas filled with forests and lakes. As for the number of inhabitants, they nevertheless stoop on the list of most populous municipalities.
They do not only share having long distances. These municipalities also share a border to Russia, a border carrying a bloody history. Jouka Manninen knows this part of history well. He and his family have roots until way back when in Kuusamo.
“I was born here and my father’s family has lived here for more than 300 y ears. We are, in other words, used to living close to Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have altered our view on Russia a bit. It was sad, and I was worried. Do people not learn that war is a terrible thing? In Finland, we want to live in peac”, says Manninen who now prepares his municipality for reception of refugees from Ukraine.
“We want to help them now. We feel that the Ukrainian people is fighting a war for all of Europe.”
Jouko Manninen does not fear that the aggressive neighbor to the east shall attack Finland.
“We Finns have trained for 80 years and are prepared to fight if that were to become necessary. We have a strong will to defend our country, not least those of us living in the border areas near Russia”, Manninen says.
“We want to live in peace and independence.”
Manninen is the mayor of a municipality in which unemployment has been above ten percent and the population numbers are dropping.
A large-scale investment plan may have turned the situation around. People move back to Kuusamo and unemployment is down. It is still high when compared to Norwegian standards, some eight percent, however, the municipality needs more hands to contribute to continued growth and initiatives.
Jouko Manninen has background from the military, yet he has also studied social sciences and got an education in wood processing. A perfect combination, it may appear, for a mayor in the middle of the Finnish forest bordering on Russia.
The interview with Manninen is part a series called the High North Tour 2022, subtitled “In the Shadow of War”.
You can see the entire interview and meet Manninen in the video on top of this page.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.