Finland Says Goodbye to the Markka

Originally published by Edinburgh Napier News on 24th November 2011


Before leaving Scotland a friend handed over some old Finnish markka,
challenging me to see if I could “still use them.”

In truth the Finnish markka ceased to be legal tender in 2002. Finland adopted the euro when entering the Eurozone in 1999, and is still the only Scandinavian country to have embraced the single currency.

My only option, then, is to get them changed.  On a day when the euro crisis has deepened, and Nokia Siemens Networks has been forced to announce cutting a quarter of its workforce,  I show the 240 Finnish markaas, including two big green notes depicting the composer Sibelius to Jenni, the teller at Forex Bank.  She looks surprised to see them. “You want to get rid of them,” she advises, adding that from next year nowhere will take them, even the Finnish National Bank.  “Are the Finns sad about that?” I ask.  “No” she says instantly.

“With everything that’s been going on in the Eurozone, do Finnish people want their old currency back?” I ask, adding, “are you fed up of the euro?” Jenni’s smile falters.  She looks at me as if I am stupid.  “No, why?” she asks.

Her reaction will be a disappointment to Timo Soini, the outspoken leader of the far-right party True Finns, who made surprising gains in last year’s election.  Soini is an outspoken critic of the EU, and has since voiced his desire to run for the presidency.  He takes credit as attempts to derail the bailouts of Portugal and Greece.

Every Finn I speak to seems embarrassed by the True Finns.  “Finland is a Social Democratic country, like the rest of Scandinavia,” Taisto Oksanen, 47, a well-known Finnish actor tells me. “But in the last ten years we’ve seen that erode.  We didn’t have too much of a class divide before, but since the Euro some people have got very rich, and a few hundred thousand people have just dropped into poverty. Our education and social welfare has been damaged.   The old parties were seen as corrupt and in with business, so I think people voted for the True Finns for change.  But it’s happening all over Europe – people are voting for those that blame the immigrants.  Look at Spain.  It is history repeating.”

“True Finns are very conservative, want the Finnish markka back and to kind of isolate Finland from the rest of Europe.  I don’t know how the support packages will actually help the citizens and I think that the banks should also take some responsibility for all of this.” says International Business student Milka Tanskanen, 21. “ I was ten years old when we started to use Euro in Finland, so I don’t actually have any real experience of the Finnish mark.”

“The old notes were nice,” Oksanen tells me.  “The euro, the note, doesn’t mean anything to me.  It has less ‘value’.”


Helsinki wears The Overcoat

Edinburgh Fringe hit ‘The Overcoat’ opened this week in Helsinki ‘s Ryhmäteatteri to sell-out crowds.  It is the first time a play has been performed in English by the company.

A six strong cast of Scottish actors performed the modern adaptation of Gogol’s story in English, as it had appeared at the Pleasance dome in August.  The play by Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vähälä was a huge hit in Finland originally, and was brought to Edinburgh this summer as part of the project ‘From Start To Finnish’ – a cultural export project made in association with the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

For the Scottish production, Catherine Grosvenor adapted the original, setting it in Edinburgh.  The show retained the madcap comedy and satire of the original.   Tearing into the banking crisis, the show received rave reviews at the Fringe and Billy Mack won the Stage award for best actor for his role as the protagonist Akaky McKaky, an unassuming bank clerk.

The Overcoat opened at Ryhmäteatteri on Tuesday and was warmly received, much to the relief of Mack:  “I wasn’t sure how it would carry with the Finnish audience.” He said. “A lot of the Scottish gags got lost, but they laughed a lot, especially at the financial stuff, and the surprising thing was when a group of people said ‘We didn’t expect Akaky to be so humble’ – I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”

Director Aleksis Meaney wasn’t surprised that the production travelled well because of the themes of the play:  “I think ordinary people increasingly feel that their lives are fragile, that their sense of control is being taken away from them.  What the Overcoat does is combine social message with an emotional story.  There is a tradition of social justice in Finland, people care about the wee guy, and I believe that there is a similar tradition in Scotland” he said.

Meaney also feels the play has been prophetic: “The bank manager says ‘I have to get out of Europe before it disappears in a black hole of its own debt.’- and that is coming true!” he said.

A majority of twenty prominent economists polled by Reuters yesterday predicted that the euro zone was unlikely to survive the crisis in its current form.

Greece revolts against more austerity

Half a million Greek public sector workers will stop work today for two hours in protest against more austerity measures currently being voted in by the Greek parliament.

Earlier today Riot police clashed with workers at Greece’s biggest power producer PPC.  A march is underway to the Portuguese embassy in Athens in solidarity with Portuguese workers who are also striking today.  This happens as the EU treaty is under threat on a fundamental level, as France and Germany come to loggerheads about strategy and Greece teeters on the edge of European survival.

Greece has “one last chance” to stay in the Euro zone, the Bank of Greece warned on Wednesday. Greek unemployment will near 17 per cent this year, and could top 18 per cent next year, it said.  The Greek government has admitted that 10 billion euros are turned over by illegal loan sharks, and half of those who take on such loans have suffered property losses or a breakdown in their marriage.

Greek journalist, DJ and blogger Chryssa Skodra, 27, says the Greeks have been misrepresented in the world’s media.  “Certain people are directing public opinion.  What the media doesn’t show is that the Greek people are hardworking people.  According to Eurostat they work the longest weekly hours in Europe.  They are being portrayed as lazy.” She said.

On a recent business trip to Germany Skodra encountered this first hand.  “In the airport at security, I gave my bottle of water to the guard, and he took my passport and said ‘you’re the reason our economy is down’- I was in shock.  Then a taxi driver made some comments too.” She said “of course I don’t blame them, I blame the politicians and the media.” said Skodra

“The Politicians are saying ‘we’re doing this to save Greece’ but they’re not saving the Greeks, they’re saving their bankers and their companies.  Germany owns Greece now.  They own telecommunication, transportation.” She said

Skodra, who worked as part of the Olympic Games in 2004, has seen a polarisation of wealth and a rapid decrease in living standards in her country.  Higher taxes were seen as ‘patriotic’ by Greeks who were keen to host the world’s biggest sporting event, at the same time as the transition to the euro put up the cost of basic essentials.  “My parents are blue collar workers, and now they are being asked to pay immense taxes.  My father was a mine worker for 26 years, and retired last year.  It took him a year to receive his first pension payment because all the pensions were frozen.  He’s also received less, even though he paid tax on the full amount.” she said.

“My mother called me in tears on Saturday because at the market in Kozani, there were Greek people collecting the leftovers and cabbages from the street.  The Greeks are a proud people, if something falls on the floor in their own house, they throw it away, and now they are eating from the street.  People are going up in front of judges for their debts and saying ‘send me away’.  There are people setting themselves on fire.  Do you see that in your media?” said Skodra.

Conservative leader Antonis Samaras offered a written pledge to the EU and IMF yesterday backing Greece’s bailout deal.

Germany itself has been rocked by news that the German debt agency couldn’t find buyers for almost half a Bond sale.  That has pushed the cost of borrowing up and puts into question the belief that Germany can guarantee the debts of other countries.