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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

Trump-Putin summit to be at Finnish presidential palace

Finland has a long legacy of hosting US-Russian summits due to location and neutrality 

Russian Matryoshka dolls depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are seen on sale at Izmailovo flea market in Moscow. AFP 
Russian Matryoshka dolls depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are seen on sale at Izmailovo flea market in Moscow. AFP 

The summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be held at one of the Finnish president's official residences in Helsinki, a palace that overlooks the Baltic Sea where the presidents' predecessors have met, officials in Finland said.

The meeting will take place despite a grand jury announcement on Friday that twelve Russian military intelligence officers hacked into the Clinton presidential campaign and Democratic party. US intelligence agencies have said the meddling was aimed at helping the Trump campaign and harming the election bid of Hillary Clinton.

The office of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Mr Trump and his Russian counterpart would meet on Monday at the 19th century Presidential Palace, located a stone's throw away from the capital's iconic waterfront Market Square.

Mr Putin and Mr Trump have met twice before on the sidelines of international meetings. The Helsinki summit will be their first official stand-alone meeting.

US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev held talks at the same venue in 1990.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to start the day joining Mr Niinisto and his spouse, Jenni Haukio, for breakfast at Mantyniemi, another presidential residence in Helsinki where the couple lives most of the time. President Niinisto will also hold a bilateral meeting with Mr Putin.

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Finland, a Nordic nation of 5.5 million, has a long legacy of hosting US-Soviet and US-Russian summits due to its geographic location and perceived neutrality.

The last time a summit brought presidential entourages from Moscow and Washington to Helsinki was in March 1997. Presidents Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin held talks on arms control and Nato expansion.

US Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian military's General Staff, in a manor house owned by the Finnish state in June to exchange views on US-Russia military relations, Syria and international security.

Along with the presidents, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are set to meet at the Presidential Palace on Monday.

Researcher Sari Autio-Sarasmo at the University of Helsinki's Aleksanteri Institute said the Finnish capital and Vienna, the capital of Austria, were important conduits between the East and the West during the Cold War.

While both European cities were centers of espionage, Helsinki specialised in relaying information and acting as a go-between for the world's two superpowers.

"As a member of the European Union, Finland doesn't anymore emphasise its neutrality, but strong expertise, particularly on Russia, and good location make Finland a very useful meeting place," said Autio-Sarasmo, who specialises in studying Cold War history.

US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev met in Helsinki in 1975 to sign the landmark Helsinki Accords, a watershed commitment to peace, security and human rights.

Finland joined the European Union in 1995, but has remained outside of Nato as a militarily non-aligned nation in a similar way as close Nordic neighbour Sweden.

The 3,000-square-meter Presidential Palace, which underwent a major renovation completed in 2015, has hosted prominent guests who aren't politicians during its eventful past, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the late (now a saint) Pope John Paul II.

It was built for a wealthy Finnish merchant in the early 19th century on grounds that formerly held a salt store house.

After Finland was integrated into Russia's Czarist Empire as an independent Grand Duchy in 1809 after being part of the Kingdom of Sweden for nearly 700 years, the building was completed in 1845 at the request of Emperor Nicholas I and became the Imperial Palace.

Key rooms were modeled after the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the official residence of Russian monarchs.

Russian Emperor Alexander II visited the palace several times. He was popular with Finns due to his policies sympathetic to Finland.

During World War I, the grand residence temporarily housed a military hospital. Following Finland's independence from Russia in 1917, it was officially renamed the Presidential Palace in 1921.

The palace now is the working residence of Finland's president. It currently houses the Office of the President and is the venue for official events.

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