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Russian Arcady's weekly commute to Finland

Russian Arcady's weekly commute to Finland

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, Photo: Cata Portin

Many travel the 400 kilometres between Helsinki and St Petersburg on business. Yet despite improved communications, a common labour market still is some time away.

Arcady Khotin, managing director at Arcadin Software, arrives in Helsinki on the train from St Petersburg around lunchtime on a Monday. He's ready for another working week. His train was fairly empty - a few women, an older couple, men who seem to be travelling on business. Arcady Khotin spends his weekends with his wife and daughter at home. The weeks are spent in Helsinki meeting customers for his computer firm, which employs 200 programmers in St Petersburg.

Mr Khotin is a veteran. He started commuting to Helsinki already in 1994, and it gets easier and easier to cross the border. "It's night and day. It's become so simple."

He still needs a visa, but it is a quick process and it is valid for three years. There has been talk of visa-free travel between Russia and the EU for some time now, and it worries some Finns who fear what free travel could bring in terms of crime. It's harder, however, to get a work permit. As managing director, Arcady Khotin is both employer and employee and in effect applies to himself for a work permit. 

Times are better and many now regularly travel between the two cities. He recognises about half of the other train passengers. Border and customs officials on the Finnish side address the Russian passengers in their own language.

"They no longer look at us as smugglers or 'bad guys'."

Express train

From December Arcady Khotin will be able to travel even faster. The new Allegro express train is due to start running, shortening the journey from 5.5 to 3.5 hours. After a trial period the journey will take only three hours. People on a budget can catch a bus from central Helsinki, where a single ticket costs between 30 and 35 Euro. 

"But you can't sleep on the bus. People are texting, there's an incessant beeping."

More and more people travel between the two countries. Somebody crosses the border every four seconds and this year looks set to see a record eight million crossings. There are some 50,000 people with Russian heritage in Finland, and the network is tight. Many from St Petersburg also travel to Eastern Finland as tourists or for a bit of weekend shopping. During Russian new year Finnish hotels are filled with Russian tourists - around 100,000 of them.

But Russia is not an EU member and that creates problems for people who want to work. Arcady Khotin says he is not allowed to bring programmers across to work for Finnish clients. You are only able to travel for business meetings or education. Around 15 of his St Petersburg staff have Finnish work permits. 

Above all else, Arcady Khotin would like to see free movement of labour.

”I hope this ban will be lifted.”

Red tape

Mirja Tiri, managing director at the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce, wants the same thing. It can take six months to get a Russian work permit. Red tape is a major problem.

Still business travel from Finland is brisk. The Finnish consulate in St Petersburg estimates some 4,000 Finns regularly travel to the city on business while perhaps 600 live there permanently. Tax rules prevent people from becoming weekly commuters like Arcady Khotin. Russian tax is only 13 percent, but you need to have permanent residency to benefit from it.

Many Finnish businesses invest heavily in the St Petersburg region - an enormous market with nearly ten million people. Major Finnish brands like  Stockman, Nokian Renkaat, YIT and K-Rauta operate in St Petersburg. Many smaller businesses were hit hard by the financial crisis, but the big players have decided to stay put in Russia.

The exchange of technology has also increased. Finnish company Technopolis recently opened a new centre which houses both start-ups and established companies. Arcady Khotin, who is on the board of the Russian Software Developers Association (Russoft) regularly takes an 'ICT sauna' at the centre - a chance for Finnish and Russian businessmen to meet for informal discussions. 

Arcady Khotin says Finnish-Russian relations are limited by cultural problems and he uses himself as an example. When he started his company his aim was to survive, while the Finnish owners who came on-board said the business had to make a profit to benefit the shareholders. Many Russian entrepreneurs still mainly focus on survival, because of the uncertain Russian market and the lack of legislation protecting their businesses. 

Some Finnish business people still stereotype Russian contacts without taking into account the reality of the situation. Yet problems can usually be solved with some good-will and the willingness to understand the other side's situation.


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