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Finnish Samuli Laulumaa guides Serbian prison system towards EU standards - Embassy of Finland, Belgrade : Current Affairs


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Finnish Samuli Laulumaa guides Serbian prison system towards EU standards

The prison system in Serbia will be developed under Finnish guidance until the end of March 2019. In October, prison director Samuli Laulumaa took on the role of the Resident Twinning Adviser (RTA) in a project implemented in Serbia by Germany and Austria. In his work, he trusts in two key qualities characteristic to Finns – being straightforward and keeping things transparent.

From Ostrobothnia to the Balkans

Already for 20 years, Finland has been sharing its public sector expertise with the EU’s neighboring regions under the auspices of the Twinning instrument – an EU-funded tool for supporting good governance. The Twinning project that brought Samuli Laulumaa to Serbia aims at developing Serbian prison system to match the EU standards. This is one of the several stages Serbia will have to complete on its way towards EU membership.

In his twenties, Laulumaa probably could not have believed he would later in his career end up working abroad in EU-funded projects. Hailing from Nivala – a small town in the Northern Ostrobothnia region of Finland – Laulumaa describes himself as a farm kid, to whom Finland joining the European Union in the 1990s seemed more like a threat than an opportunity. Having studied educational sciences and law, Laulumaa’s career took him to hold various positions in the field of security before becoming a prison director.

“When the advisory referendum on Finland’s EU membership was held in 1994 I voted against. I did not believe that joining the EU would benefit Finland in any way. However, at some point, the importance of global issues became clear to me and I understood how these kinds of projects could make a difference both here and at home. Ultimately, our work here affects also Finland and our security.”

“My first posting abroad was to Petrozavodsk, Russia. For me, it was first and foremost an adventure and an opportunity to see the world a little bit. Later, I have participated as an expert in many projects ranging from alternative dispute resolution to training of civil servants. Before coming here, I have worked in projects in Albania, Kosovo, Croatia, Georgia and Greece. As time has gone by, my motivation for the job has shifted from the love of adventure to the will to help people. Our prison system in Finland has already been developed to such a high level that sometimes I feel my work here is much more meaningful and substantial compared to what I could achieve back home.”

The famous Finnish communication style

As an RTA, Laulumaa is in charge of the day-to-day implementation of the project and overseeing that it is carried out in a way best serving the needs of the beneficiary. This includes ensuring the productivity of the work of specialists involved in the project as well as making sure the project goals are met. Although his work is largely regulated by the EU and Twinning manuals, Laulumaa incorporates into his work some typically Finnish characteristics such as straightforwardness and openness.

“Of course, being a Finn means that I hold certain Finnish values as the guiding principles in my work. In Finland we value reliability and always trust the agreements we make. For us it is also very important that processes are transparent, and that people are treated equally. Hierarchy is often very low in the workplace and that is something I have really wanted to cherish here as well. I believe the best way to share best practices is leading by example. At times, my colleagues here have been amused by the Finnish way of preferring straightforward communication and they have jokingly compared me to Kimi Räikkönen, who is well known for skipping the small talk.”

“I have also noticed some differences in the daily work of prison directors here compared to Finland. Back home the directors have many administrative duties, whereas here their schedules are quite full of various social meetings. The golden mean could probably be found between the two extremes. What has also stood out for me here is that a prison director is here thought of being someone who would definitely not ride a bike to work. In Finland it is perfectly normal.”

”I have had a very warm welcome, which I believe, is partly due to the good experiences people here have had with Finns before. One of the prison directors I met had a very positive and sturdy image of Finns based on the Finnish peacekeepers he had met many years ago.”

”I believe being a rather small country is an advantage to Finland when it comes to implementing these kind of peer-to-peer activities. Working on these projects, we always need to respect the beneficiary. We are offering the locals a certain model and is ultimately up to them if they find it good and useful.”

The Serbian experience

To his current posting in Belgrade, Laulumaa got called somewhat surprisingly as the project experienced changes in the personnel. The decision to head to Serbia as the project RTA was not an easy one.

“Last summer I was asked if I was interested in coming here as the RTA of this project. I pondered it for a long time by myself and with my family. I think I even refused once. I was here a year ago as an expert for the first phase of this project and I really enjoyed the cooperation with the local people here. So after all, I decided to seize the opportunity and agree to come here.”

”In Finland, many from my generation can only recall the footage we have seen from the 1990s wars here and they do not have such a positive view of Serbia. I feel that coming here has really broadened my perspective and I have been positively surprised. Twinning cooperation between Finland and Serbia has been quite modest so far, especially in the field that we are working on now. I am hopeful that my posting here could open some doors for future cooperation between the two countries.”

The ongoing project covers all of Serbia’s prisons, even though the operations are centered in those located in the Belgrade and Niš areas. For the moment, it looks like the project will be meeting all the goals set for it.

”This project focuses on the day-to-day life inside the prison walls. We have, for example, implemented a training needs survey for the prison employees, offered them training in motivational interviewing and held a course on women's empowerment for the female inmates. Our main goal is to create content which could develop the prison system to be more stable, uniform and equal in practice.  We have stressed, for example, management training and the importance of taking into account the needs of special groups of inmates.”

”I have been positively surprised about how much the locals have demanded from themselves during this project. They want to see results. It tells something about their motivation for this project, that all the agreed measures were taken here even though the project was running without an RTA for a couple of months before my arrival. Of course, the more we have achieved here the more I come up with new things we could do. This job is a never-ending process in that sense.”

Prisons are not the only place Laulumaa has had a warm welcome to in Serbia.

“I have been taking part in FC Partizan’s junior team’s ice hockey practice here in Belgrade. We may not have a common language, but we have managed to communicate on the ice quite well and I have been able to show them the drills we do in Finland. People here have been really helpful and friendly. At the end of the day, it depends greatly on yourself how well you integrate and sports is a good place to start.”

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Updated 12/21/2018

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