EU state’s residents protest Russia border closure
Several hundred residents of a Finnish town bordering Russia protested outside city hall on Sunday, after the government in Helsinki shuttered the checkpoint that served their community.
Around 200-300 people gathered in Lappeenranta, according to the Finnish outlet Yle, to object to the border closures. The community of around 72,000 people is located near three of the border crossings – Vaalimaa, Nuijamaa and Imatra – that Helsinki ordered closed on Saturday.
“We are united by a common sorrow and a common problem,” one of the organizers, Katja Marova, told the outlet. “We are unable to see our loved ones who live in Russia.”
“We have the right to family ties. It is very cruel to make such a decision before Christmas. Almost everyone had plans to spend Christmas with loved ones," she added. “This feels like an attack."
Finland closed four of the eight checkpoints, citing a “surge” of Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni asylum-seekers from the Russian side. In one incident on Friday, Finnish border guards used gas on a group of about a dozen migrants.
Defense Minister Antti Hakkanen claimed Russia was using refugees to “accelerate the migrant crisis in Europe and destabilize its unity.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has rejected these allegations as “completely baseless.”
Finnish Finance Minister and Deputy PM Riikka Purra said last week that closing the four crossings was just the first step and that Helsinki might close the entire border if the migrant flow continued.
Meanwhile, the Finnish military has been deployed to build fortifications at the Vartius checkpoint, one of the four that still remain operational. Vartius is currently the closest functioning crossing to Lappeenranta, some 488 kilometers (303 miles) north by road.
Among the residents protesting on Sunday was Sofia Andreyeva, who was born in St. Petersburg but has lived in Finland for the past five years. She told Yle that the closure severed her from her entire family in Russia, including a grandmother “who is ill and old.”
The demonstrators asked for the reopening of at least one nearby crossing, arguing that tougher border checks were a better way to deal with migrants without hurting Finns.
“It would probably have been possible to restrict traffic and stop illegal border crossers. Maybe our government just does what it does and doesn’t think too much,” said Kari Karjalainen, who came to the protest with his wife Ljudmila.