Finnish Vs. Estonian foreign policy

Should the Finnish Experience Serve as a Model for Estonia?

Published in the Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia November 2009 in Estonian and English (here, I’ve made some changes to the English translation that is not my own)

Like other democratic countries in ‘New Europe,’ Estonia has been reproached for obstinacy or excessive straightforwardness in its relationship with its eastern neighbour. Jarmo Virmavirta, a columnist for Postimees and Uusi Suomi, has even spoken about East Europeans’ “aggressive attitude towards Russia,” advising them to follow the Finnish example, i.e. to be reasonable and to “acknowledge facts”. Similar suggestions have been made elsewhere in Finland and Europe and even among Estonian scholars. A common theme in these critical remarks is the tendency to accuse the smaller party of inflaming tensions – be it over the Bronze Soldier, Georgia, Nord Stream or some other issue – while Russia’s activities and reactions are treated as a force of nature, as if they do not need to make sense and should not even be considered from a moral point of view.

The practice of setting Finland as an example for Estonia and describing the Finns as more sensible neighbours to Russia is older than quarrels over Georgia or Nord Stream. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recalled his talks with Finnish fellow diplomats in an essay on Estonian-Finnish relations, published in Helsingin Sanomat when Estonia joined the European Union in May 2004. When a Finnish colleague suggested to him that Estonia should learn from Finland how to deal with Russia because “the Finns have so much experience with the Russians,” the current president replied: “Yes, we Estonians have no experience with the Russians”. Back then, issues like the Bronze Soldier or Georgia had not come up yet; it was about general attitudes. Why are the experiences of the two neighbouring countries so different and what can we learn from each other, if anything?

Estonia and Finland are similar in quite a few aspects: we share a similar language, culture, religion and partly history. Yet the results of the Second World War and the following decades have left deep marks on both of us. Indeed, the roots of our diverging attitudes go back even further. The Finns consider the beginning of Finland’s autonomy, granted by the Tsar 200 years ago, to be the starting point of their strife for national independence and democratic state building. There is no analogy to this in Estonian history. But it is mostly the last few decades that should help us understand the background to Finland’s current choices and rhetoric. Little attention has been paid to their significance even in Finland, let alone in Estonia.

The diverging fates that befell Estonia and Finland after the Second World War have left the two countries with different experiences and this has affected Russia’s attitude towards them as well. Russia has accepted Finland’s independence, but it is harder for her to accept the independence of the former Soviet vassal states. The fact that Russia is friendlier toward the Finns need not be solely a result of the Finns’pragmatic wisdom; Russia’s aggressive rhetoric about Finland’s possible accession to NATO proves that it is still premature to speak about sincere, unconditional friendship. Unless Russia changes its attitude, nothing can guarantee that by following the Finnish example, Estonia would improve its relationship with Russia.

In order to at least consider the kind advice Estonians have been offered – to transform their rhetoric or to re-assess their values – it is important to understand what price Finland has paid for its good relationship with Russia. The oft-repeated argument and the official motto of Finnish foreign policy is that the pragmatic and compromise-seeking ‘Paasikivi-Kekkonen line’ is right because it has worked in practice – despite its aggressive neighbour, Finland managed to retain its independence, to stay democratic and to achieve economic prosperity. That is all true, but what were the alternatives? What was the price of peace and stability? Were there any other choices available? The Finns have only recently started to ponder these questions. Before returning to them, let me highlight some current differences in the debate over eastward relations on the two sides of the Gulf of Finland.

Estonia’s and Finland’s different perspectives

One obvious distinction between the two countries is their relationship with NATO. Finland still has no intention to apply for membership, although its cooperation with NATO has become stronger and there is some public support for membership.  The Finnish debate over NATO is hard to understand without knowing the background: while Estonia, under Soviet occupation, expected to be saved by the USA, radical left-wing ideas were popular in Finnish cultural circles, breeding resentment against ‘American imperialism’. This resentment has not disappeared and many consider NATO supporters to be ‘right-wing extremists’. An oxymoronic term has been coined for pro-NATO social democrats, who include such noteworthy persons as former President Martti Ahtisaari and MEP Liisa Jaakonsaari –  ‘right-wing social democrats.’ The Finns cooperate with NATO while public debate on accession is still almost nonexistent.

In addition, there is a divergence between Estonian and Finnish rhetoric and value choices. While Estonian foreign policy is value-based, i.e. it follows the principles of liberal democracy and international law, the Finnish official ‘pragmatic’ approach includes such components as Realpolitik, a willingness to compromise and cautiousness in order to pre-empt ‘insults’. This difference could be viewed as rhetorical hair-splitting, compared to everything that unites us, but it is precisely in crisis situations that minor differences become vital. Finland’s cautiousness is also evident in its attitude towards the eastern neighbour’s political agenda. In 2007, when Minister of Defence Jyri Häkämies declared at a conference organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that Finland’s “three foreign policy challenges” were Russia, Russia and Russia, he got a strong reaction from his colleagues and the media at home: official Finland took distance from the minister’s words. Finland’s recent rhetoric regarding Russia gives the impression that Russia is a quite normal democracy or is going to be such any minute. In addition, the official line is that Russia does not pose any risk for Finland.

In an interview with RFE last spring, President Ilves emphasised that the Westerners must pay attention to developments in Russia concerning freedom of speech and human rights and that they must ask themselves on what conditions and for what price they are doing business with Russia. Finnish leaders, however, have not asked these kinds of questions – at least in public – despite the fact that at the beginning of her presidential career, Finnish President Tarja Halonen characterised herself as an ardent defender of human rights.

Reactions to the war in Georgia made the differences in attitude even more compelling. Estonian president, together with his Baltic, Ukrainian and Polish colleagues, denounced the aggression unequivocally, while the Finns talked of the equal blame of both parties, provocations by Georgia and the impossibility of making a clear assessment of the situation. At that time, remarks were made by Finland’s president about Estonian’s ‘traumas’. Estonian commentators claimed that the war marked a fundamental shift in the entire post-Cold War security paradigm, while the Finns made tentative suggestions about the need to re-assess their own security position. President Halonen underlined the importance of the policy of reconciliation and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen stated that Finland should strengthen its friendly relations with Russia.

Discussions about the Nord Stream gas pipeline gave the impression that we are not living around the same sea. From the beginning, Finland had a more positive attitude towards the project than Estonia. For the Finns, only the project’s environmental impact could raise some cause for concern and even these issues were viewed more optimistically on the northern side of the gulf. In August 2008, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen became a consultant for Nord Stream. Interestingly, the Finns did not think that this circumstance compromised his candidacy for the post of EU president.

For the Estonians, a major shortcoming of the Nord Stream project was the fact that it was prepared without the involvement of the Baltic states and Poland, whereas the Finns kept insisting that there was nothing politically problematic about this project. But Finland did not stand united in this respect. Kari Liuhto, professor at the Turku School of Economics, drew attention to the project’s divisive effect on Europe. Columnist Olli Kivinen wrote in Helsingin Sanomat (August 25) that Nord Stream was a totally political project. He criticised the lack of a public debate on the issue and referred to the Finlandisation experience of the Finns, stating that calling things by their right names seemed to be “as hard as it used to be before”. Erkki Toivanen asked in Uusi Suomi (September 6) whether the Finns had thought about how the Nord Sream project would affect the future of the Baltic Sea as a “sea of peace”. Recently, Commander Juha-Antero Puistola expressed regret about the absence of debate on the pipeline’s effect on Finland’s security policy, although he thought that the effect would be rather positive. All their arguments were left unnoticed. The official line remained that there was no need to talk of these issues.

Was Finlandisation unavoidable?

The above examples suggest that not all Finns necessarily share Finland’s official positions. Pragmatism in Finnish foreign policy is a choice to which the Finns have stuck with a consistency unusual in the Western world, yet the price of such unanimity is the smothering of domestic debates on the issue. Does Estonia want to go down the same road? When President Ahtisaari talks of Finland as Russia’s only neighbour  that has managed to stay democratic while maintaining a good relationship with Russia, what kind of democracy does he refer to? Finland’s historical context helps to understand its policy choices. It also helps Estonians to consider whether Finland’s example should be followed, as former presidents Ahtisaari and Koivisto, columnist Virmavirta and others have suggested.

During the Cold War, Finland’s extraordinary balancing act between two blocs, which has become known in the world as ‘Finlandisation,’ was like walking a tight rope – one paid for freedom with silence and for prosperity with concessions. For Finland that period was paradoxical in many ways: Finland considered itself to be a Western nation which it was in terms of its parliamentary regime, material wealth and open borders. Yet its relationship with the West was restricted, as was the Western freedom of expression and thought. Finland called itself a friend of the Soviet Union, while the fear of the reactions of its ‘friend’ affected its domestic and foreign policy decisions.

The myth of Finland’s diplomatic success is based on the belief that Finland’s policies have been flawless: as a result of its right choices, it maintained its independence, achieved prosperity and integrated with the West, while nurturing a good relationship with the East. Today, the same myth is used to defend Finland’s pragmatic relationship with the East, although the country now belongs to the EU and is more clearly a part of the Western world than before. However, we do not know what would have happened if things had been done differently. Would Finland have lost its independence if truthful history had been taught in schools? If the 1973 presidential elections had not been cancelled under special legislation? Or if the nation’s integration with the West had started earlier and had been stronger? We can only know of the results of those choices that were actually made.

In a pamphlet published last spring under the title Placebo Democracy, journalists Katja Boxberg and Taneli Heikka question the view that Finland’s choices were the only ones possible – and the only right ones. The book reveals the depth of domestic policy compromises Finland made and reminds the reader that even more pro-Soviet plans than the ones actually implemented have been on the table. Finnish democracy reached its low in 1973, when Urho Kaleva Kekkonen was re-appointed president under emergency law without elections because the Soviet Union wanted it so. Defenders of constitutional elections were labelled ‘right-wing extremists’ and ‘Fascists,’ and some of today’s prominent politicians were among those name-callers. Boxberg and Heikka believe that this episode significantly undermined the Finns’ faith in democracy. In his recently published memoirs, Lipponen defends the decision taken in 1973, claiming that it was in the interests of Finland under the pressure from the Soviet Union: “There is no reason for us to grovel to the West and ask for its forgiveness”.

In fact, nobody knows whether ‘Finnish interests’ would have been damaged if the 1973 presidential elections had been held democratically. Lipponen’s opinion shows that some members of Finnish elite have not grown accustomed to democratic values since the 1970s. Now, as a consultant for Nord Stream, he scoffs at Finnish scientists and editors who have raised the question of the relationship between the Stasi and the Finnish leadership of those days. The Finns have not yet started to examine their relations with the KGB and the CPSU, although these organisations have had a major influence on Finnish politics.

Finlandisation has been justified as necessary to maintain the country’s independence. On the other hand, it also curbed its independence. Who knows which compromises were inevitable, which ones were purely ideological and which ones were made to promote personal careers? In their pamphlet, Boxberg and Heikka describe two Finlandisation projects that were not implemented: in 1972, a group of parliamentarians demanded the passing of a ‘peace enforcement law’ which would have prohibited any criticism of the Soviet Union; and in 1975, a social education project was developed which would have made school curricula and the programmes of YLE (the Finnish Broadcasting Company) even more pro-Soviet than before. Those projects, too, were justified as necessary for the sake of ‘pragmatism’ and Finland’s ‘foreign policy stance.’ It is likely that if these projects had been pushed through, they would have been called ‘unavoidable’ in hindsight. This demonstrates that probably all the choices that were made were not actually unavoidable either.

Instead of directly limiting freedom of speech, the Finns adhered to unwritten rules in order to avoid insulting anybody and going against the country’s foreign policy interests. The keywords were ‘responsibility’ and ‘balance’. The voices labelled excessively pro-Western or anti-Soviet were silenced or marginalised. Current foreign policy debates – or rather, the lack of them – indicate how hard it is to root out this habitual politics of consensus. Public discussion is only starting on such issues as the disgraceful past of the Soviet Union and the hard choices that Finland faced. It is, however, possible that the next generations will bring along a change.

Solidarity is the key

If the alleged inevitability of Finland’s approach turns out to be merely a justification of certain choices, as some Finnish critics maintain, it is reasonable to doubt that a similar pragmatic approach – maybe in a slightly less restricted form – is inevitable today. The world has changed since the Cold War, although some people are now talking of the return of ‘geopolitics’. For Estonia, it is important that this does not include the return of ‘spheres of influence,’ i.e. the practice of bigger nations controlling smaller ones. If values and solidarity were compromised, could this mean anything but a sign of movement in that direction?

Russia’s role in Finland’s domestic politics is much smaller now than during the Cold War. Nonetheless, it is hard to revive the diversity of opinion in a society which has a long history of suppressing it; the more so as the country currently tends to insist on sticking to its old ways. Russia’s growing unpredictability and Finland’s hope to boost trade with the East increase the pressure on the nation to adhere to the ‘pragmatic’ approach.  The words and deeds of current Finnish leaders indicate that they do not want to give it up. Still, it is not clear whether this predilection is permanent: the country’s population has become more aware of what went on in the Soviet Union and not all Finns think that the nation’s choices were the best possible ones.

There is no need to argue over who is more competent to teach whom – every nation makes its own choices. Finnish-Estonian relations will continue to normalise and will develop into a partnership of equals even if the two countries retain their different views on certain issues. Domestic debates over Finnish foreign policy reflect the nation’s attempt to define its identity: where do the Finns want to belong? Whom do they want to be friends with? The myth of a neutral Scandinavia has crumbled. Thus Toivanen has asked whether Finland really wants to be the only Baltic Sea country that remains in Russia’s sphere of influence, once Nord Stream accelerates Sweden’s NATO accession.

Instead of arguing over whose approach is better, smarter or more efficient, we should focus on solidarity – between neighbours, in the North and the EU. Finland and Estonia have maintained close ties since the wars, but these days Finland has shown some alarming signs as well. For example, Markku Kivinen, Director of the Alexander Institute, said after the 2007 April riots in Estonia that they offered an argument against Finland’s NATO accession: if more widespread riots were to erupt in Estonia, Finland as a NATO member would be obliged to intervene. Obviously, this is not the view of all Finns. In his Helsingin Sanomat column, namesake Olli Kivinen worried about the possibility that for Russia, Nord Stream would divide Europe into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ countries. “Finland, of course, will be among the good guys,” he concluded ironically.

No-one wants to have dysfunctional relations with one’s neighbours, although one’s adherence to principles can sometimes be interpreted as cantankerousness. However, as long as we are facing an unpredictable authoritarian regime that has exposed contempt for democracy both at home and abroad, nations on the two sides of the Gulf of Finland, as well as in the rest of Europe, should think twice about the terms on which they are willing to be classified among the ‘good’ guys.

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