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H.E. Kimmo Lähdevirta, Finnish Ambassador

Every Vaccine Counts

Some 75% of Finns have said that they are ready to take the vaccine, and that percentage has been growing constantly, as people have seen that the vaccines are safe and efficient. It is also encouraging that young people who do not belong to risk groups are also eager to take the vaccine. That shows respect towards those with a higher risk of falling seriously ill

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled the European Union to focus on the most pressing issue, which is the preserving of human lives, but Finland continues to support the idea of EU enlargement and Serbia’s accession. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Kimmo Lähdevirta says that “Serbia has made notable progress in fulfilling the economic criteria on its hitherto European path, but it has not demonstrated the same commitment when it comes to reforms on the rule of law.”

According to Ambassador Lähdevirta, problems are particularly evident in the media scene, which is highly polarised, while tabloidisation violates ethical standards and threatens the safety of the people written about by the tabloids.

Your Excellency, Finland has proven to be the most successful country in Europe when it comes to the struggle against COVID-19, having managed to keep the number of infected people at a low level. What do you think has been the key to this success?

It has been a difficult year for everyone. The virus has also tested Finnish society and its healthcare system. At the time of this interview, the situation in Finland is again deteriorating and a state of emergency has been introduced for a second time during this pandemic.

However, it is true that Finland has so far had a relatively low level of infected people and deaths caused by the virus. During the pandemic, there has been broad popular acceptance of the policies introduced by the government. In general, there is a high level of trust towards the authorities and between citizens, and that has helped in coping with the situation.

Companies are starting to recognise Serbia as a destination for investments that require advanced technologies, environmentally friendly solutions and the involvement of a highly educated workforce

Some more practical things worth mentioning are the readiness of Finnish society to work remotely and easy access to free-of-charge PCR tests even for patients with mild symptoms, both effective ways in slowing the spread of the virus. Of course, our relatively remote geographical position in Europe and a sparse population have also helped in handling the situation.

The struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic has again raised questions over the effectiveness of the EU when it comes to resolving crisis situations and ensuring solidarity among member states. Viewed from a Finnish perspective, are you satisfied with efforts and achievements?

The COVID-19 pandemic shows that, in a globally interdependent world, multilateral cooperation is more essential than ever before and is the only way to defeat the virus, which needs to be done everywhere.

There is always room for improvement, but I feel that, after the first shock, the EU has worked quite well and placed the focus on the right things, not only helping itself, but providing support to its partners too. The list of actions the EU has taken is extensive: donations of protective and medical equipment, cross-border treatment, strengthening healthcare systems and social protection and, of course, financial support. Namely, the size of the EU’s global recovery package to help our partners is 38.5 billion euros. As you know, 3.3 billion has been allocated to tackle the health crisis and socio-economic recovery here in the Western Balkans.

I think the EU’s role will be even more crucial concerning the recovery from the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. ‘Next Generation EU’, an extraordinary €750 billion recovery fund, will boost our economies and help with digital and green transitions that are in its focus.

Finland closed its state borders during the pandemic. What do you think of the idea of introducing a “covid passport”?

In principle, it is a good idea. People need to be able to cross borders and to do so in a safe manner. It is important for economic recovery, but also for social reasons. However, we still have several open questions related to it. In Finland, the system of certification is planned to be carried out by including vaccination information in the nationwide electronic patient records database.

The Finnish people have shown great trust/confidence in the government since the initial outbreak of the pandemic. Will they also respond positively to the vaccines in such large numbers?

In the latest poll, from early February, some 75% of Finns said that they are ready to take the vaccine, and that percentage has been growing constantly, as people have seen that the vaccines are safe and efficient. As you said, this is definitely another good sign of the confidence Finns have in the authorities and the healthcare system. It is also encouraging that young people who do not belong to risk groups are also eager to take the vaccine. It shows respect towards those with a higher risk of falling seriously ill. Every vaccine counts in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

This year we are planning to intensify cooperation with Serbian stakeholders in the field of the circular economy. That’s why the Embassy of Finland, together with other Nordic Embassies, will organise workshops and other events in order to share Nordic best practices and knowhow in this field

You are witnessing the unfolding of the struggle against COVID-19 in Serbia, where vaccines from four different manufacturers have been procured to cater for the vaccination process. Do you think immunisation is purely a health issue, or does it also have a geopolitical dimension?

Serbia has fared particularly well in the immunisation campaign and the government must be credited for that. The global production and delivery of vaccines has been slower than expected and that has been a disappointment to all. The only way out of the crisis is for vaccines to be available to citizens around the world and we need several manufacturers to achieve that goal. Serbia has chosen to procure Western, Russian and Chinese vaccines, and citizens have responded well to the campaign. As any other economic or political activity, the production, distribution and procurement of vaccines can also be viewed through a geopolitical lens, if so wished.

Serbia is hopeful of support from Finland in its EU integration process. On the path to accession, we can note delays in the opening of negotiation chapters. Where do you see problems arising; are they in the EU or in Serbia?

Both Serbia and the EU have had their specific challenges in this process. Moreover, there is the ongoing pandemic that has forced us all to focus on the most pressing issue, which is preserving human lives.

Serbia has made notable progress in fulfilling the economic criteria on its hitherto European path, but it has not demonstrated the same commitment when it comes to reforms on the rule of law. Serbia needs to do more in order to secure an independent and well-functioning judiciary, which will lead to substantial results in the fight against organised crime and corruption. Independent oversight bodies need to strengthen their role in order to be the corrective mechanism that’s necessary in all democratic societies. Journalists need to feel safe and free do their job. Those are some of the concrete targets that Serbia needs to work on.

As regards the EU, while the enlargement policy remains among its key policies, the recent period has been dominated by efforts to adjust the enlargement process to better fit the current context, not only in the Western Balkans, but also in the EU. I hope things are clearer now with the adoption of the new methodology. It is good that Serbia did not hesitate to accept it and has looked for guidelines on how to apply it. As regards Finland, we remain a strong supporter of the enlargement policy and Serbia’s efforts on the European path.

Serbia finds itself at the beginning of a new round of political dialogue on fair elections. How do you see the situation in the media, which is among the key topics of the dialogue?

There are no free and fair elections without a free and professional media, regardless of other aspects of the electoral process. That is why the media situation is of vital importance in this dialogue. The media in Serbia are highly polarised, thus leaving limited space for an open debate between the ruling and opposition parties. Another issue is media tabloidisation, which not only violates ethical standards, but also potentially endangers the safety of people who are the subjects of that kind of reporting, including investigative journalists. These issues make it difficult for citizens to make informed decisions, which is key for democratic processes.

Serbia’s foreign minister recently invited his counterpart from Finland to help intensify bilateral economic cooperation, as well as sending your embassy an invitation to assist in furthering cooperation with the Nordic Business Alliance in Belgrade. How do you view the possibilities of economic cooperation during years when the economy is stagnating as a consequence of the pandemic?

We already have very good cooperation with the Nordic Business Alliance. We very often join forces with the Nordic Business Alliance and other Nordic Embassies in raising topics important for the improvement of the business environment, as well as topics that are closely related to Nordic values. These topics include innovations, digitalisation, smart cities, the environment and circular economy, to name a few.

Trade figures between Finland and Serbia are at a moderate level, but a positive trend is visible. Despite the pandemic, there was a 37.3% increase in the value of traded goods in 2020. That’s why I don’t see any obstacles to the further development of economic cooperation in the future. Furthermore, our Embassy is working actively on the intensifying of economic cooperation between our countries by pointing out market opportunities at the local level and exchanging best practices.

By seeking membership of the UN Human Rights Council in 2022–2024, Finland is demonstrating its continuing commitment to human rights-based foreign and security policies

To what extent have the subsidies that Serbia provides to investors served to motivate the investments of Finnish companies in our country to date, such as that of the PKC Group in Smederevo, and how much are they a result of assessments that investing in Serbia represents a profitable business decision?

One can say that, at the very beginning, subsidies played an important role. That’s why companies from Finland, like other international companies, recognised the potential in outsourcing and manufacturing in labour-intensive industries.

However, this trend is changing and companies are starting to recognise Serbia as a destination for investments that require advanced technologies, environmentally friendly solutions and the involvement of a highly educated workforce. This is also an opportunity for Finnish companies to step in.

We’ve noticed increased interest among Finnish companies lately towards the renewable energy and environmental sector in Serbia. Part of this increased interest among Finnish companies is also due to the stronger confidence in the stability of the Serbian market, which is related to the EU integration process and ongoing reforms. However, Serbia should exert additional efforts to make the business environment even more attractive for investment by making it even more predictable, competitive and transparent, while at the same time less reliant on subsidies.

The issue of environmental protection is becoming ever more present among Serbian citizens. Is there interest in the Finnish model of the circular economy among your interlocutors in Serbia?

Sustainability, climate change and environmental protection have always been priority areas for Finland. In Serbia, Finland is recognised as one of the leaders in smart solutions related to the circular economy, clean energy, air quality, as well as other environmentally-friendly solutions. This year we are planning to intensify cooperation with Serbian stakeholders in the field of the circular economy. That’s why the Embassy of Finland, together with other Nordic Embassies, will organise workshops and other events in order to share Nordic best practices and knowhow in this field. There has been great interest so far among Serbian stakeholders and we are looking forward to future cooperation.

Could you tell us more about Finland’s campaign for membership of the UN Human Rights Council in the 2022-2024 period, under the campaign slogan: “A Diverse World, Universal Human Rights”?

By seeking membership of the UN Human Rights Council in 2022–2024, Finland is demonstrating its continuing commitment to human rights-based foreign and security policies. The candidacy for membership in the HRC is one of our government’s key foreign policy objectives this year.

The campaign slogan underscores the universal nature of human rights. In the Human Rights Council we want to continue working on themes that are close to us, such as the rights of women and girls and equal access to education. We also want to bring attention to climate change and new technologies that may have adverse effects on human rights. We also want to defend multilateralism from increasing attempts to undermine it, and the need to promote the engagement and participation of civil societies in the UN’s activities. In short, Finland wants to ensure that human rights remain at the core of the United Nations.

EU INTEGRATIONS

Independent oversight bodies need to strengthen their role in order to be the corrective mechanism that’s necessary in all democratic societies

ELECTIONS 

There are no free and fair elections without a free and professional media, regardless of other aspects of the electoral process

TRADE

Trade figures between Finland and Serbia are at a moderate level, but a positive trend is visible. Despite the pandemic, there was a 37.3% increase in the value of traded goods in 2020

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