The most important factors for the high quality of life in Finland are education and equal opportunities for all citizens

E. Ms. Päivi Blinnikka handed her credentials to Bulgaria on September 7, 2016. And for a year and a half, Sofia enjoys her wise diplomacy, measured elegance and northern finesse, which she has and gives to everything in her work. As she does with any Finnish event organized in Bulgaria by the Embassy or with its cooperation. It is particularly evident in the events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the announcement of Finland's independence at the end of last year.

The diplomatic career of H. E. Ms. Päivi Blinnikka developed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Helsinki, where she began work in 1981. She held positions in the structural departments of the Institution; from 1990 to 1993 she was an advisor for OSCE and Helsinki Conference in 1992. From 1997 to 2001 she was a Director of Central Europe and Western Balkans Departments, and from 2009 to 2016 Director of Passport and Visa Department.

She has been working on various diplomatic posts in Finnish missions abroad during the years: Second Secretary in Moscow, Advisor to the Embassy and Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Vienna, Minister Counsellor in Budapest (1993-1997), Minister Counsellor in Paris / 2002 - 2005 / and Consul General in the General Consulate of the country in Hamburg / 2005 - 2009 /

- Your Excellency, Finland recently celebrated 100 years since the establishment of its independence (6 December 1917), although as a nation you have been on the map of Europe for many centuries. What does this date mean for the Finns?

- The Independence Day 6 December is very important for the Finns. After 700 years as "Eastern Sweden" and over 100 years as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, "Grand Duchy of Finland", Finland declared independency in 1917. During the Russian rule our country developed to a nation state with the feeling of "We are not Swedes, we will not become Russians – let us be Finns". In 1917 we already had had our own currency, markka, for over 50 years, and we even had a parliament of our own – which since 1906 included the 19 first female MP s in the world.  This is a fact we are very proud of.

- How did you mark this important anniversary?

- Finland 100 had a short motto: "Together" and it was celebrated all the year round.  There were big official parties and concerts, but many of the events were organized by groups of voluntary citizens. The same pattern applied even in Bulgaria. The Embassy organized some events and the Bulgarian-Finnish Friendship society and even private Bulgarians some. The year ended with many important places being lit with Finnish colors, blue and white. NDK in Sofia was lit blue and white, as well as Colosseum in Rome and the Niagara Falls in America. And like every birthday child, Finland got presents. Bulgaria gave us 100 beautiful roses, which are now growing in the Finnish soil.

- The declaration of Finland as a sovereign state marks the beginning of the process of its recognition by the other countries. Bulgaria is among the first to do so - as early as February 27, 1918. This month /February/ we will celebrate 100 years since the establishment of the diplomatic relations between our two countries. How did they evolve over the years and what is their current state?

- Bulgaria´s recognition of Finland´s independence was much appreciated during the uncertain times 100 years ago. Maybe there was even some extra sympathy towards the Finns, since 40 years earlier a voluntary Finnish battalion of almost 1000 soldiers had helped Bulgaria to regain her independence at the Russo-Turkish war. An interesting and curious detail in the history is also the fact, that directly after the war Bulgaria had for a transit period a Finnish state leader, General Casimir Ehrnrooth. He acted even as the minister of Defence and Foreign Affairs.

Bulgarian professor and former Ambassador in Finland Venelin Tsatchevksi has researched this period and published even books on the subject. Professor Tsatchevski is organisizing  a Remembrance Conference for the Finnish Participation in the Russo-Turkish Liberation War /1877-1878/. That will be very interesting.

- Finland was one of our most active supporters in the process of joining the EU. It was the EU's rotating president both in 1999, when the process of our membership in the Union was launched, and in 2006, when the procedure ended. The Bulgarian Presidency is now running. How do you think our institutions are doing? What advice would you give to our diplomats for their work during this first presidency?

- The first Bulgarian Presidency of the EU has started well. I think that it is a perfect choice of Bulgaria to have Western Balkans as an important priority during the Presidency. Bulgaria knows and understands the Balkan region, and has many good ideas how to promote the integration and the economy here. The start is promising and we can already see positive development.

Many of my countrymen travelling here to the EU- meetings are very happy with the organization of the meetings in the beautifully renovated NDK and Boyana residence.  Having meetings in Sofia is a good way to present the country to numerous decision-makers of EU.

I still have Finland´s first EU presidency vividly in mind. It was in 1999. If I were to give any advice to the Bulgarian colleagues, I would say that it is a busy and heavy 6-months period, but also most rewarding. So it is good if you remember to enjoy it, too!

- What are the trade and economic relations between our countries at the moment? Does the Finnish business have any investment interests in Bulgaria and in which areas?

- There is room for improvement in the economic relations between Bulgaria and Finland, since the trade is still quite small. However, the Finnish companies are more and more interested to invest in Bulgaria. A recent newcomer is a well-known logistics company Cargotec which opened a service center in Sofia in January this year. Hesburger is a Finnish fast food restaurant which is aiming to open quite a few more locations in Bulgaria.  And there exist already since a few years the ski factory of Amer Sports in Chepelare and here is also Lindström, a company renting working outfits and office carpets. There are also a few IT- and accounting companies, so one can really say that the Finnish companies are working on a vast area of business.

- The interest of the Finnish tourists towards the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in the summer is a matter of tradition. Do you think we could win them over in other seasons and different places? What attracts Bulgarians to Finland as a tourist destination?

- One of my first travels abroad was with my parents to Varna at the beginning of 1970´s. We enjoyed enormously the beach and swimming in the Black Sea.  Beautiful beaches and the sun are certainly important reasons why Finnish people travel to Bulgaria. But Bulgaria really has lots of other destinations to offer. Finns love nature, and Bulgarian mountains with their breathtaking views are still too little-known in Finland. Not to speak about the interesting historical sights. Or the delicious food and high-quality wines! More information of all these possibilities is needed.

In Finland nature-loving Bulgarians can find clean nature, thousands of lakes and the largest archipelago in the world.  In winter you might see the northern lights and in summer you can enjoy the white nights. In the summer-time Finns become a bit crazy and organize different music festivals just everywhere. Opera-festival in ancient Olavinlinna-castle, Tango-festival in Seinäjoki, Chambermusic, Rock, Schlager, jazz, every possible genre of music. The autumn always starts with the wonderful Helsinki Festival weeks and the new year with "Helsinki Lux"-festival, when you are shown pieces of light art over the City center.  

- Your achievements in education and technology are close to a miracle. Which of them make you proud and urge a willingness to share as experience?

- Appreciating education and teachers has a long tradition in Finland, and it forms a basis for even the current school system. Finland is in one hand the country of engineers and with rather advanced technology, but on the other hand even culture in different forms is dear to us, and brings a lot of meaning to our lives. I think both technology and culture are needed in life!

- A serious issue in Sofia lately is the air pollution and the Mayor is looking for different ways of dealing with the situation. At the same time, Helsinki is one of the cities with the cleanest air in Europe. Which of the measures you have taken have helped the most to achieve this result?

- I do not think it is quite fair to compare the clean-air situation in our capitals. Helsinki is situated on the Baltic Seaside, and there are no mountains even nearby. The fresh wind often blows from the sea. Sofia is surrounded by mountains, a little bit like at a bottom of a kettle. The air often stands here.

But I think Helsinki benefits also from the district heating system, good public transport – we have a metro like Sofia has – and a network of special ways for cycling. There are also so called city bikes, situated close to metro stations, that you can borrow for a small fee. But note, if you want to ride your bike in wintertime, you need winter tyre, just like for a car! We use even spikes in them. And a really warm outfit!

The air is really quite pure in Finland, but there is one moment when the measuring equipment shows high figures all over the country. Can you guess when? It is of course Saturday evening, when the 5.5 million Finns heat their 3 million Saunas, often with wood, and lots of small particles fill the air...

- From an agricultural country in the recent past, Finland is becoming the country with the highest quality of life among EU countries. How is this achieved?

- I think the most important factors are education and equality of opportunity. As mentioned earlier, Finland used to be a poor country. The way out from the poorness was going to school, learning a profession and getting a job. And this was understood even by the small farm parents in the beginning of the 20th century.  Education was encouraged and supported by the society. It is also very important, that everybody has the same possibilities in a society, the real equality of opportunity. And that there is a good social security net for everybody in case of unemployment of illness.  I think it also helps, that Finns are quite equally-minded. People generally feel that they are as good as anybody.

- You have been in Bulgaria for more than a year. What are your impressions, do you have your favorite places, have you found friends?

- Bulgaria is a great place to live and work in. For me it is perfect mixture of things I know well and wonderful surprises. Sofia is a European capital, everyday life is much like at home. But when you look around, you see the beautiful mountains and the perfect sunshine. And there are wonderful places to visit all around Bulgaria. During the bygone year I have learnt to know very nice people here, but I have also introduced Bulgaria to my old friends. Many of them visited Bulgaria for the first time and all of them want to come again. I always show them my favourite place in Sofia, which is the Boyana Church. When you look at the ancient precious wall paintings, you feel the history of the country to come extremely close.

The photo is provided by the Embassy of the Republic of Finland in the Republic of Bulgaria.