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Mikkeli has already won the Russian megastars Maya Plisetskaya and Valeri Gergiyev. Now the plan is to develop the town into a key staging point for trade with Russia.

The service centre for Russian operations inaugurated in late 1997 is an ambitious project launched by the Mikkeli Chamber of Commerce, companies in the region and local institutions of higher learning. The goal is to make it easier for companies to do business with Russia, and especially the St. Petersburg region. St. Petersburg is not very far from Mikkeli; one can get there in five hours by car and by taking the early morning train can arrive just in time for lunch.

"Our well-established cultural and educational cooperation with the Russians gives us a solid basis on which to build commercial relations as well. Mikkeli would like to preserve its lead in this sector," says Managing Director Markku Kakriainen of the Mikkeli Chamber of Commerce.

Exporters face many obstacles

"Very many small and medium enterprises in our region - working in everything from the energy sector and environmental technology to the grocery business - trade with Russia. Our service centre is trying to help increase the volume of trade by giving assistance to both companies that have already begun exporting and those planning to begin," says Kakriainen.

"Trade with Russia involves all kinds of problems, which require expertise and skill to deal with. Cultural differences, unfamiliar laws, changing conditions, dealing with the authorities, complex payment systems and many other matters are difficult to solve, especially for those who are only starting to export to Russia. There are not enough people with the linguistic skills and experience, and many companies could not afford to engage them right at the beginning anyway. Those are some of the problems that our centre can help companies with," explains Kakriainen.

The Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration has a Small Enterprise Centre in Mikkeli. It and the local vocational college are partners in the project. Both have been collaborating with commercial and technical university-level institutions in the St. Petersburg region for many years and have their own offices in the city. The vocational college collaborates with companies in carrying out training programmes and also helps them with research and other services. An important field of work is the development of products specially suiting the Russian market.

"The services that we give companies in relation to trade with Russia spring from their own needs and circumstances. The centre offers them advice and consultation and can also carry out commissions on their behalf. However, that can not substitute for their own marketing organisations," Kakriainen emphasises.

"Money is often a problem in trade with Russia," he adds. "Payment is frequently made in non-cash forms and another important kind of work that our centre does is finding buyers for the goods received. The centre is also at the service of Russian companies seeking business contacts in the EU area."