Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Russia Migrant Shuffle

On January 17, a young man, part of the unprecedented wave of migrants trying to make their way to a better life in Europe, died en route to Finland.

In the past year that has seen nearly 6,000 people die struggling to reach the shores of Greece or Italy – the most heart-rendering of which was the small Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey – the death of this Finland-bound man is sadly just a drop in a tragically large bucket, one that will surely continue to grow.

His death was also in some ways surprising, and very different from those of hapless refugees overcrowding flimsy rubber rafts in the Mediterranean. This man, whose name has not been made public as far as I know, froze to death in unforgiving Arctic conditions – after sitting in his car for five days.

An often overlooked chapter in the recent saga of refugees trekking to the West is the obscure Arctic route through Russia. Not the most obvious approach to reaching the West, I would say, it is a bit like taking a long detour through Europe’s back yard in order to crawl through the kitchen window.

The most popular destination on this pathway seems to be Kirkenes, Norway, where well over 4,000 migrants have passed through the nearby Storskog crossing, the only official border post on Norway’s frontier with Russia. Kirkenes, a town of some 3,000 people, is situated on a windswept inlet of the Arctic Ocean. That tells you something about how far north these desperate migrants had to travel to reach a tiny sliver of “The West” in Norwegian Lapland. It is indeed the extreme edge of Europe, with an extreme environment to match.

This back-door approach to Europe has gotten the attention of the international media mostly because of the unexpected mode of transportation the migrants employ to reach the promised land. Due to a quirk in Russian law, travelers crossing the Russian border are forbidden from doing so on foot. And apparently, Norway sees the bringing of immigrants without proper visas across the border by car as human trafficking and forbids it.

This situation has forced refugees from Syria and other trouble spots to instead complete the last few meters of their long journey on bicycles.

On the Russian side of the border, in the nickel-smelting town of Nikel, asylum seekers are reportedly paying upwards of $185 for the one-time use of the bicycles, mostly children’s bikes because those are cheaper. (It’s unclear whether that price also includes the 225-kilometer (140-mile) taxi ride from Murmansk to the border.)

After the migrants pedal across the frontier, they promptly abandon the bikes at the Norwegian customs station, where piles of discarded bicycles have to be cleared away every few days and destroyed.

Compared to dangerous sea crossings in the Mediterranean, the land route through Russia is no doubt much safer, even if you have to go so far north that you almost run out of land.

But, you might ask, why is it necessary to go that far north in the first place?

Why was it that, when migrants began taking the Russian detour in earnest in late summer, they completely bypassed Finland and its eight border crossings with Russia? Why did they instead home in on Norway’s one little crossing?

Why indeed? There was some speculation in the Norwegian media that the funneling of refugees to Storskog, and conspicuously not to Finland, was a provocation by Russia against NATO member Norway. Who knows?

You might think it was a matter of logistics, since the migrants are probably going north by train to Murmansk, and when viewed from Murmansk Norway does seem closer.

But the northernmost crossing on the Finnish border, Raja-Jooseppi, is only some 30 kilometers (12 miles) further from Murmansk by car (and 140 kilometers (90 miles) closer to the heart of Europe). So what is the attraction of ending up in Kirkenes and not Ivalo (the nearest town to Raja-Jooseppi)? Wouldn’t it be more convenient to enter Europe closer to civilization?

The people smugglers who have facilitated this Arctic exodus are, of course, surely not looking at it this way. They most likely have economic interests in Murmansk and Nikel that are best served by moving people along the Storskog route. That could be the reason, or maybe it's just that the road to Storskog is better.

Or maybe, as the Russian embassy in Oslo suggested in November, it is Norway’s reputation for its “liberal asylum policy, attractive living conditions and social benefits” that draws refugees fleeing Russia to choose Norway. Desire for such a happy environment would, of course, explain why asylum seekers would choose not to stay in Russia itself. But it doesn’t quite explain why they (or rather, their smugglers) see Norway as their only option, rather than Finland. Why aren’t they crossing into Finland?

Only except, now they are. This year some 650 asylum seekers have already entered Finland at Raja-Jooseppi and at another, equally remote, Lapland border crossing near Salla.

However, these migrants are making their way into Finland on four wheels, rather than two. The Finnish Border Guard, citing safety concerns, has decided that migrants on bicycles will not be allowed to enter Finland. This is probably a boom for enterprising folks on the other side of the border with shoddy cars to sell. Migrants, making the last leg of their journey to what they hope is a better future, are now arriving in second-hand Ladas.

Cars, more practical and dignified than children’s bicycles, also offer more protection from the elements. But only up to a point. Not in -30-degree (-22 F) temperatures, as the death ten days ago amply shows.

According to media reports, the man stayed in his car for five days despite the extreme cold (not hours, but days), as he waited in a queue of some fifty cars at the Priozersky checkpoint near the Russian village of Alakurtti. I can’t imagine sitting in a parked car at those temperatures for more than a couple of hours, let alone five days. Witnesses said he refused to leave the car for fear of losing his place in line, apparently so desperate was his desire to reach Finland.

Other details about the case are murky, at least to me. It’s not clear why the man, along with his fellow travelers, was forced to wait so long. Was there really a five-day backlog at the Salla crossing? The Priozersky checkpoint sits some 60 kilometers from the border itself, so it’s not clear if it’s a border checkpoint, or a Russian military one. The Russian side of the border is often occupied by a wide military zone, so access beyond Priozersky might be heavily restricted.

Also, the man was Indian, presumably not someone escaping the Syrian civil war or some other hot conflict. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been seeking asylum in the West; it just makes it harder to think he had legitimate reasons for doing so. Whatever his reasons were, he sadly paid the ultimate price for his bid for a better life.

An even more obvious question is, why go to Lapland at all? The Syrians, Afghans, etc., making their way north to Storskog, and now to Raja-Jooseppi and Salla, have surely transited through St. Petersburg on their way. That’s a scant 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the southern Finnish border post at Vaalimaa, on the highway to Helsinki.

To me, traveling all the way to Lapland in order to reach Europe is bizarre. If it’s possible to cross the border and ask for asylum at Salla, why not just as well at the much more convenient Vaalimaa crossing. I have seen no explanation for this in the media. Again, maybe it depends on which is the more lucrative route for the smugglers. One Syrian family reportedly paid $22,000 to take the Arctic route to Storskog. (A one-way train ticket from St. Petersburg to Murmansk, by comparison, goes for something like $45.) 

A different question is why not stay in Russia, just as far from the turmoil of the Middle East as Finland or Norway, and theoretically, just as safe. In fact, some of the asylum seekers reaching Norway are said to have lived for months or even years in Russia, which begs the question: what is wrong with Russia that so many refugees can’t, or choose not to, seek refuge there? 

Once making it to Russia, which after all is part of Europe, why the pressure to continue onward? 

Or maybe the answer to that is obvious. In any case, the issue of refugees from Russia is causing increased friction between Russia and its neighbors. Norway has attempted to deport migrants with valid Russian visas back across the border, and Russia has refused to accept them and has now closed its border at Storskog. 

Some local Norwegians, protesting the deportations on the grounds the refugees would not be safe in Russia, have helped three asylum seekers take sanctuary in a nearby church and have themselves been arrested. It is becoming messy, to say the least.  

One slightly whimsical footnote to this undeniably serious, even tragic, turn of events is the question of what to do with all the Ladas. Just as discarded bicycles have piled up at Storskog, the Salla border post is now overflowing with discarded automobiles, thanks to Finland’s no-bicycle policy. There is now some debate about what to do with these cars, many of which are decrepit.

Many of them are vintage Russian Ladas, which has piqued the interest of Finnish collectors of the legendary Soviet creations – yes, it’s an uncommon breed of hobbyist, to be sure, but they do exist. They are understandably excited by the prospects of so many old Ladas, a treasure trove of original spare parts, now being deposited on this side of the border.

Call it a truly unexpected, and minor, consequence of harsh geopolitics in lands that once seemed impossibly far away from the quiet and secluded wilds of Lapland.

Road sign in Ivalo pointing the way to Murmansk, 
via the Raja-Jooseppi crossing.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Oil Gluttony

As I’m not a commodities trader (shocker!), I have not been in the habit of following the daily ups and downs of the price of oil.

Except that, lately, you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that the price of Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate have collapsed, breaching the $30-level and hitting a 12-year-low.

Of course, the weakness in the oil market has already been big news for months now, as prices nosedived from around 60-70 dollars just seven months ago.

In this new year, however, cheap oil has become THE economic story. The price seems to be heading ever lower ($28 today), and nerves are getting frayed over the ramifications for the global economy at large. Things will only get worse for oil now that sanctions against Iran have been lifted, allowing that nation to openly add its considerable oil production to the glut.

Naturally – unless you are in the oil business, and many people are – you might see crude at $30, or even lower, as a net positive. Gasoline prices in the US have dipped below two dollars a gallon, almost half of the price 18 months ago, creating a windfall for American drivers. Gas in Finland is also relatively cheap now, around $6 a gallon, compared to the more normal $9. (I remember that when I worked at my father’s service station back in high school, and before the 1973 oil shock, gas was a mere 0.29¢ a gallon.)

Strangely, Obama’s critics, so eager to blame him when gas was almost $4, seem to be withholding their praise for him for making gas so cheap now perhaps suddenly realizing that presidents don’t have much to do with the price of gas.  Funny how that works.

For American families trying to live on a tight budget, cheap gas brings welcome relief, of course. On the downside, however, I worry that cheaper gas just gives road-happy Americans even less incentive to alter their wasteful lifestyles. The privilege of pumping carbon into the air just got a lot cheaper, so why hold back? Drive, baby drive!

Still, where cheaper oil is a having a not-so-positive effect is with the producers, especially those countries that depend too much for their own good on drilling deep into the ground and pumping petroleum to the surface.

Oil-producing nations, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, have been in the media spotlight as the current glut exposes how their over-dependence on exploiting fossil fuels threatens to unbalance their economies. Finland’s neighbor Russia is also certainly one of those nations that has gotten a lot of media attention as a country facing tougher times if the oil glut continues. The reports are often bleak.

A friend on Facebook recently wondered why you don’t hear similarly dire news about some less-known oil producers, especially another Finnish neighbor, Norway.

That got me wondering, as well:  what exactly is Norway’s situation, and how does it compare to Russia’s own much more publicized dire straits.

In some ways, Norway and Russia are in the same boat. Petroleum makes up between 66-70% of Russia’s exports, a significant enough share. Norway relies less on hydrocarbons, but only by a little, something like 64% of its exports. Both are largely one-trick ponies and both are seriously affected by the downturn in oil.

There is a nifty measurement, the Economic Complexity Index, that expresses how complex a nation’s economy is, based in large part on the diversity of the country’s exports. Both Norway (in 33rd place) and Russia (50th) are ranked well below more economically balanced nations, such as the US (14th) and Germany (2nd). I was a bit surprised to see that Finland ranks a very respectable 8th. Good for Suomi.

So, both Russia and Norway are similarly disadvantaged by having too many of their eggs, so to speak, in the same basket. There seem to be big differences, however, in how well each country might be able to cope if that basket of eggs is upended.

Reuters has reported that the budget for the Russian government is projecting a 3% deficit for this year – based on oil at $50. If oil stays at $30, the deficit will grow to 5%. That’s not necessarily a huge deficit, mind you. Still, oil at $20 or less, as some analysts have predicted, will put even more strain on government finances.

Making up for the shortfall might force Russia to inflict additional economic pain on its citizens, who are already dealing with a recession. This would involve cutting spending and raising taxes, measures that have already sparked some strikes by protesting truck drivers.

Another tack would be to dip into the country’s “rainy day” funds, two sovereign wealth funds that contain some $130 billion. Those accounts have already been depleted by $50 billion since 2014. According to an analyst quoted by Reuters, resorting to using those funds to plug the budget gap would drain them dry in a little over a year, if oil stays low that long.

By contrast, Norway is in a much better situation. It is not in a recession and has no deficit. Yet. In 2014, it still enjoyed a budget surplus of 9% even after a downward trend over the last few years.

Still, the oil glut has certainly hit the Norwegian economy, and there are reports the country may be forced, for the first time ever, to withdraw from its own “rainy day” fund. I find it somewhat amazing, that this fund contains a whopping $856 billion, more than five-times that of Russia’s.

Little Norway, it seems, has done a comparatively much better job managing its oil wealth. Norway is also not under the kind sanctions that are hampering Russia’s economy, though losing the Russian market for its third biggest export, salmon and other seafood, due to a retaliatory ban imposed by Russia in reaction to those sanctions has no doubt been problematic for Norway.

In short, it seems that the depressed oil market isn’t a likely to trigger in Norway the same kind of economic turmoil – and potential political instability – that Russia might be facing.

There’s been much talk about how Vladimir Putin’s reelection in 2018 depends on maintaining an economy healthy enough to keep the Russian people happy. Presumably, keeping the electorate happy in Norway, often rated as one of the happiest countries on Earth, is a much easier task.

In all seriousness, though, I don’t think anyone would think the geopolitical effects of the oil glut on Norway, a small, stable, prosperous country, are anywhere as worrisome as what the bottom falling out of the oil market could mean for a large, somewhat hard-pressed nation like Russia.

Interestingly enough, Finnish TV has recently started broadcasting a miniseries from Norway called Okkupert (“Occupied”).

The premise of this political thriller is that Norway, having developed the technology to harness an unlimited amount of power from a fictional element called Torium (named after Thor!), intends to unilaterally shut down its North Sea oil rigs and share the new technology with the world, all in the name of a future free of fossil fuels. This doesn’t sit well, however, with the powers that be within the EU, which shockingly enlists Russia to do the dirty work of invading and occupying Norway in order to keep the crude flowing.

It's farfetched, as thrillers often are. Only the second episode has aired so far, so we don’t yet know whether the forces of green energy or black energy will prevail in the end. 

Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the oil glut crisis in the real world, though harsh enough on some economies, will not likely lead to high drama worthy of a thriller. Well, not in Norway anyway.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Net Stupidity – The Isis Coke Edition

The internet is a double-edged sword. With just a few keystrokes or mouse clicks, you have a world of information and experiences available to you. And photos of cats. So many cats.

At the same time, the net can be a portal to a world of stupidity that you would otherwise never know existed. Okay, of course, we all know stupidity exists, often in the form of someone running for political office. But without the internet you might never realize the truly breathtaking extent of all the stupidity.

I ran across one prime example of this a while back. Someone had posted an image of a bottle of Coca-Cola with the word “Isis” printed on it, setting off a small viral firestorm. I saw where some people on Facebook in the States had even immediately started pledging to boycott Coke, for what I guess they saw as the soft drink company's insidious endorsement of a terrorist group of unspeakable cruelty.

Jesus, is that really what these people thought was going on here?

There were a few different building blocks leading to this nitwit internet outrage.

»       A couple of years ago Coke instituted a marketing campaign, “Share a Coke”, whereby the name “Coke” on bottles of the soft drink was replaced with some 250 personal names common in a given market, such as “John” or “Alice”. By all accounts, this kind of mass personalization of a consumer product was a big hit and was implemented in various countries.

»       The name “Isis” is an actual girl’s name in some nations – and presumably not only in Egypt, where it originated as the name of the ancient goddess of health, marriage and wisdom (all good things). For this reason, the name Isis has appeared on some bottles of Coke in those countries. Hence the photo that shot around the internet.

»       Meanwhile, the ultra-violent militant Islamist group that has arisen to now occupying swaths of Iraq and Syria has named itself something in Arabic (“ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fīl-ʿIrāq wash-Shām”, according to Wikipedia), which translates in English to “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. I'm guessing they don’t call themselves ISIS. Only the English-speaking world does that.

»       And it’s not even all of the English-speaking world. The US government resolutely refers to the group by the acronym “ISIL”, which is a little harder to pronounce, but is more a correct rendering of “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. 

»       On the other hand, the western media, which is where most American Coke drinkers get their news, prefers “ISIS”, derived from the alternative name for the group “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. (There is an argument for, rather than using any English acronym, referring instead to the group as "Da'eesh", the apparent Arabic abbreviation for its name. It seems that, for some reason, they hate that, which is all the more reason for doing it.)

»       Many Americans, perhaps not being so familiar with "foreign" names, would not normally recognize “Isis” as possibly being a person's name, leading some of them to jump to the conclusion that Coke was somehow promoting the brand of a terrorist group. Being hyper-jittery about Da’eesh also no doubt helped them make this leap of logic.

So in summary: Because the Arabic name of the world’s scariest terrorist group at the moment happens to translate into an English name that happens to often be referred to by a four-letter acronym that also happens to be such an ordinary name in some parts of the world that it happens to be printed on a soft-drink bottle as part of an international marketing campaign – because of all that, a series of "happens to" coincidences – some people reading the internet were outraged and, as a form of protest, ready at the drop of a hat to forswear ever again drinking their favorite soda. Ever. 

That is truly stupid. Internet stupid. 

(Post script: I’m also aware that the producers of the otherwise very intelligent and highly acclaimed British TV series “Downton Abbey” might have killed off the show’s canine character “Isis” because the lovable yellow Labrador’s name was unfortunately too closely associated with Da’eesh. If true, that was also stupid, in my mind.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Depraved Nation?

I was happy to see President Obama take some action this week to tighten US gun control laws, if only moderately.

Somehow in America, with 10 times more gun homicides than most other industrialized countries, taking even these small steps is considered a bold move. (Obama’s opponents consider it tyranny, but such thinking belongs to a wholly different realm of reality.)

For folks in Finland (with only one-sixteenth America’s level of gun violence) it’s probably almost impossible to comprehend what a big deal the gun issue is in the US, and how passionate – sometime hysterical, in my mind – supporters of gun rights can be. Just check the comment section of any on-line article on gun control. They are rife with excessive anger and alarm and well-worn arguments against gun control.

One pro-gun argument that you will always run across is that it’s not, heaven forbid, the easy access to guns that accounts for the high number of gun deaths in America, since guns by themselves cannot do anything.

This line of reasoning is summed up by the pithy phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

Well, duh.

Of course, in most cases, a person does have to pull the trigger, though that has been known on occasion to be done instead by, for example, a hunting dog. Dropping a loaded gun on the kitchen floor might also do the trick. Such things happen often enough.

Fleshing out the “people are the problem” argument a bit more, gun lobby groups like the all-mighty NRA would say that the real issue lies somewhere else. In a culture of violence inspired by Hollywood or the makers of video games. Or in the general erosion of society. Or – a new favorite nowadays – they would say the problem lies in the abysmal level of mental-health care that America has found itself saddled with.

To me, most of these alternative arguments are weak deflections, especially since I tend to see the problem from a more international perspective.

Countries with much lower rates of gun violence, such as most European nations, are also awash with violent Hollywood films and video games. They’re not so different from America in that sense. What they are not awash with, however, are easily available firearms, and that to me seems more likely to be the differentiating factor.

Let’s take for example a recent story in the Washington Post highlighting how on this past Christmas Day in America 27 people were intentionally killed by guns, a number that equals the number of gun deaths in eight other countries. Eight other countries combined. For one entire year.

To spell it out more clearly: a year’s worth of gun deaths in Austria, New Zealand, Slovenia, Estonia, Bermuda, Hong Kong, and Iceland (let’s call them “the Peaceful Eight”) tallied all together match America’s gun death toll from a single day, Christmas Day.

And this doesn’t include accidental shootings or suicides. Also, Christmas, being a holiday celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, was a slow day for killing. Normally, on an average day, it’s more like 36 homicides from guns.

When I saw that dismal statistic, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation (well, actually, I used excel, but you get the idea) in order to get a better comparison.

Naturally, you’ve got to account for the fact that the US is a much bigger country than all those eight nations (Bermuda? Are you kidding?) put together. The per capita gun death toll for the Peaceful Eight, comes to about 91 per 100 million inhabitants, compared to the US figure of 8 deaths (based on last Christmas’ death count).

But, of course, that’s 91 deaths spread over 365 days. When you annualize the US figure, you’re looking at a yearly toll of 3055 killings per 100 million Americans. That’s 33 times the number of people killed by guns in the Peaceful Eight. If you use the more typical daily average of 36 Americans killed by guns (a yearly sum of 4073 per 100 million population), it’s more like a 45-fold difference.

That's 45 times more gun deaths in America than in these eight otherwise similarly civilized and advanced nations. I’ve visited four of them, and they seem normal to me. Happy, even.

I should point out that the Washington Post didn’t just randomly pick those eight disparate nations to compare to the US. The Post article links to a chart produced by, a gun-control advocacy group. The chart compares annual gun deaths in 22 developed nations*.  (Of course, anti-gun control folks will immediately howl that you can’t trust data from any such site. I’m willing to believe the data are accurate enough.)

As it happens, the less-violent right-hand end of GunPolicy’s chart is occupied by the Peaceful Eight, whose total yearly output of gun murder victims conveniently (for the Post article) exactly equals 27, the US Christmas death toll. On the other end of the scale, France is noticeably bloodier, with 140, based on data from 2012, which naturally doesn't include the horrific November terrorist attack in Paris.  

Some might accuse the Washington Post of cherry-picking the data, though the fact remains that France’s "typical" 140 deaths from gunshot (210 per 100 million) is still better than America’s 4073.

The chart also indicates that Finland suffers 17 gun deaths a year*. That comes to 309 per 100 million, and 13 times fewer than in America.

So, let’s assume, as the NRA and their ilk would have us do, that the overwhelming presence of guns in America doesn’t explain the 45-fold difference in deaths compared to the Peaceful Eight. What if we take the "guns don't kill people" argument at face value? 

If we assume people are solely to blame, not the guns, then my only conclusion is that Americans are 45 times more violent than the citizens of Austria, New Zealand, Slovenia, Estonia, Bermuda, Hong Kong, and Iceland. Forty-five times more bloodthirsty than those other folks. Forty-five times more depraved. Americans apparently value human life 45 times less than people in the Peaceful Eight or, if you will, 13 times less than Finns do.

Given the history of the US, I have to concede this might be the case. America is violent place. As one of my favorite writers, Edward Abbey, once said, “There is nothing more American than violence”. Maybe that explains it all. Still, that is not a happy thought.

Or, maybe Americans aren’t really so exceptionally violent after all, at least not 45-times more violent. 

Maybe the average Austrian or New Zealander, or Finn for that matter, is actually just as bloodthirsty or unhinged as the average American. It’s just that they, unlike most Americans, can’t so easily reach for a gun whenever they get the urge to kill. 

I'd like to think that was true, and that Americans aren't actually that depraved. But that's not what the NRA would like you to think. 

© 2016

*The data in the chart for different countries are derived from different years, so no one single year is used for all of the comparisons.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Wide Open Shopping

The first year I attended the University of Georgia, in Athens, I lived in an apartment complex called Callaway Gardens near a busy four-lane highway lined with fast food joints and other roadside businesses. To me, this was city living. With some 50,000 inhabitants at the time, Athens was the biggest town I had ever lived it – and with the exception of Helsinki, it still is.

On the other side of the highway from my apartment, at the bottom of a hill, was a Kroger supermarket. It was the closest big grocery store and was open 24 hours a day. I recall once going there with my roommates at 3 o’clock in the morning to do our food shopping because...well, I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just because we could. Maybe we were pulling an all-nighter. Who knows? As you might expect, the place was practically deserted. No waiting at the checkout lanes.

Anyway, I was thus introduced to the convenience of 3 a.m. shopping, something that Athenians had perhaps been enjoying for years. That was in 1976.

It was very different when I moved to Helsinki a few years later. Like many European nations, Finland had always imposed strict limits on when stores could open their doors, the result of the combined influence of the national churches and the labor unions. I’m not quite sure why the clergy and unions should object so strongly to Sunday shopping, since almost no one goes to church anyway and retail workers get paid extra if they work outside regular weekday hours.

In any case, when I came here in the 80s, Sunday opening was still strictly verboten, except for service stations and kiosks. Other days of the week, stores were allowed do business only beginning at eight in the morning and had to close by eight in the evening (or six on Saturdays).

Opening hours were gradually expanded in the 1990s by two hours to between seven and nine (but still only to six on Saturdays). Even then, no shopping on the Sabbath for the Finns.

It feels like only yesterday (okay, it was in fact in 2000) that larger stores were finally allowed to open on most Sundays (between noon and six), much to the relief of hordes of working parents. Suddenly, we didn’t have to squeeze our major weekly shopping into Saturdays. Oh, the luxury of being able to push an overflowing cart of groceries around a big box store until 6 o’clock on a Sunday!

That’s the way it has stayed for most of this century, with some additional gradual loosening of opening hours in recent years for smaller stores (under 400 square meters in size) and even for bigger ones on certain religious holidays, mainly Epiphany (loppiainen, in Finnish), when stores have the chance to harvest extra business from Russian tourists making Christmas holiday visits from across the border.

(January 6th, which in Finland is Epiphany, the day the Magi brought presents to Baby Jesus, is celebrated as Christmas Eve in Russia, due to the Russian Orthodox Church clinging to the old calendar created under Julius Caesar. No fancy 16th-century tinkering around with the calendar by Pope Gregory for them!)

Even with expanded opening times, some other public holidays have remained sacred. An American tourist making a port call from a cruise ship this summer was interviewed on a Helsinki street by a TV reporter. He complained bitterly how on his one and only day in the Finnish capital absolutely no shops were open. It was Juhannus, Midsummer’s Day, a day of relaxing and partying in the countryside. Who would want to shop then anyway?

As of six days ago, however, the gates of the Finnish shopping world have been thrown wide open. A new law removes absolutely any restrictions on opening hours, leaving it entirely up to any retail businesses to decide how to arrange its business hours, even allowing them to open on any public holidays. It’s up to the store to decide if staying open late or on holidays justifies the higher salaries that employees get for those hours.

It’s a huge change for Finland, and probably quite unusual in Europe. For example, the EU capital Brussels still closes shut at six, eight at the latest.

Our local suburban grocery is open today, though not for the first time on Epiphany. Thanks to the new law, it will soon introduce new hours, staying open until ten, even on Saturdays and Sundays.

Will I ever be able to walk over there at 3 a.m. to load up on fish sticks, cheese and potatoes? For that store, as for most others in Helsinki, I doubt operating around the clock would ever make economic sense. And anyway I doubt I’d want to shop again in the dead of night. 

But you never know. 

Finns bustling at the Sello shopping mall near Helsinki. Photo by Skorpion87.