History Haunting Politics

The experience of Estonia and Finland

Panel introduction at the conference History, Memory and Politics in Eastern and Central Europe, Toronto 2010/08/23

As a young student living in Finland in the early 1990s, I was a Fukuyaman optimist. History, including “the Soviet story”, seemed irreversibly behind us, no one seemed to deny the horror of totalitarianism(s) or dispute that some form of liberal democracy was the political regime preferable to any other. It was not until years later that history came haunting back. And, as it now seems, it is still influencing not only our relationships with our common Eastern neighbor, but also  our mutual relationship and the way we deal with current political issues.

History made its surprise comeback to Finland’s public debates in 2008, when a propaganda attack was issued from Finland, by a group of pro-Soviet and pro-Kremlin extremists, against Estonia. It began after the transfer of the “Bronze Soldier” statue in Tallinn in spring 2007, with the publication of two pamphlets declaring any talk about Estonia’s occupation by the Soviets first “a myth”, then “a Nazi myth”. The same group orchestrated an ongoing attack in blogs, and to a limited extent, street corners, calling Estonians “Fascists” and Estonia a “Fascist dictatorship” and the like, in tune with earlier Soviet propaganda. The campaign culminated in an attack against a history book edited by Imbi Paju and Sofi Oksanen, and involved also the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.

One could only speculate why history, and specifically denying the historical fact of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, as well as attempts to marginalize, demonize and silence those who talked about Stalin’s crimes such as deportations, was suddenly so important for Kremlin’s friends. It was probably related to Kremlin’s attempts to criminalize “wrong” interpretations of the outcomes of WW II; as well as its rhetoric of “near abroad” and the rights of Russian diaspora “compatriots” as means of regaining influence in the areas over which it has lost control after the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the SU.

While the slanderers remained relatively marginal in Finland, official Finland stayed quiet, even though otherwise the country reacts strongly against hate speech. At the same time we saw Estonia and Finland making different choices or taking different stands in relation to a number of political issues connected in some way with Russia. Estonia was critical about the building of the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, while Finland saw it in neutral or positive terms (and there was no public debate about the issue). After Russia’s attack in Georgia 080808, Estonia’s president sided with the other Baltic, Ukrainian and Polish leaders in condemning the aggression, while Finnish leaders talked about both parties being equally guilty and about the need to deepen their friendship with Russia; they even explained Estonia’s reaction by referring to their alleged psychological trauma. Finland sill remains careful in its critique of any Kremlin policies while the discussion in Estonia is more robust and straightforward.

Surprisingly, Finland’s pragmatic approach does not seem to get rewarded like its proponents expect. We have recently seen another wave of hateful propaganda coming from sources close to the Kremlin – but this time, its object is Finland itself. Disproportional attention has been paid to custody disputes in Finnish-Russian families, between parents or between parents and social service officials. The same people who slandered Estonia have been involved in painting Finland as a racist and unpleasant country, hateful toward its Russian-speaking inhabitants and terrorizing its children. This time the slander has not remained marginal – it has been widely publicized in mainstream Russian media; Finland was visited by Russia’s ombudsman for children Pavel Astakhov, followed by some 40 journalists eager to attack the country’s image as hostile to foreigners as well as children; the issue was widely discussed at the official meeting of presidents Halonen and Medvedev in Helsinki in July, Russia has demanded a special agreement between the two countries regarding family issues.

Furthermore, recently Russia stopped the imports of Finnish dairy and meat products, declaring Finland’s and EU’s hygienic standards insufficient for Russian consumers. Disputes about custom tariffs on wood exported from Russia to Finland remain unsolved. While Finns have been proud of their pragmatic approach as politically prudent and economically beneficial – and advised Estonia to follow suit, Kremlin’s attitudes toward its neighbors remain unpredictable and do not appear to reward Finland’s “good” behaviour.

The background of different choices: from Finlandization to pragmatism, from occupation to value-based foreign policy

When Estonia is advised to follow Finland’s foreign policy style,  the advice is based on “historical experience” – the Finns, who managed to save their independence in WW II and to balance it throughout the Cold War, are said to hold extraordinary wisdom as to how to deal with the neighbor in the East. In contrast, Estonia has been reproached for obstinacy and even alleged hostility.

The topic of “Finland’s prudence” Vs “Estonian values” has been discussed before any of the recent divisive issues – Nordstream, Georgia, interpretations of history – was on the agenda. The roots of our diverging attitudes go long back in history. The Finns consider Finland’s autonomy, granted by the Tsar 200 years ago, to be the beginning of their national independence. There is no analogy to this in Estonian history. The different outcomes of WW II also left a strong mark on us, as did the following decades while Estonia lived under Soviet rule and Finland under its finely balanced freedom, also called Finlandization.

It is often forgotten that those historical differences affect not only how we look at Russia, but also how Russia looks at us. The higher respect that Russia has shown toward Finland in comparison is often explained by Finland’s polite and prudent attitude. But it can also be explained by the fact that the Finns fought back and won the war, or that Russia generally treats its former vassals with lesser respect. If so, then attempts to please Russia – e g by keeping quiet about its dire human rights situation – do not necessarily improve our relationship with her. Indeed, recent developments have confirmed this view.

Arguments between Russia and Finland about economic and humanitarian issues, and not least Russia’s aggressive rhetoric about Finland’s eventual accession to NATO indicates that it is premature to speak about sincere, unconditional friendship between the two neighbors. Nothing proves that Estonia could improve its relations with Russia by copying Finland’s approach.

We often tend to forget that Finland paid a high price for its stability. The oft-repeated argument is that the compromise-seeking ‘Paasikivi-Kekkonen line’ was right because it worked. 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.

But the Finns have hardly asked the question whether the price paid for the balance was really necessary for retaining the country’s independence. We do not know what would have happened if things had been done differently. Would Finland indeed have lost its independence if truthful history had been taught in schools, if the 1973 presidential elections had not been cancelled under emergency legislation (Kekkonen was re-appointed president without elections because the Soviet Union wanted it so), or if the translated and printed manuscript of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag book had not been trashed in 1974 at Kekkonen’s order because it “was not interesting to the Finnish reader”?

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. Pro-Western or anti-Soviet voices were marginalised. Current foreign policy debates – or the lack of them – indicate how hard it is to let go of this politics of consensus even as the SU is gone. Public discussion is only starting on the disgraceful past of the SU and the hard choices that Finland faced.

Even though Estonia’s more straighforward approach has been called imprudent, given Estonia’s different experience, emphasizing democracy’s values uncompromisingly is not necessarily imprudent at all. Estonia’s alleged obstinacy already paved the country’s way to the EU and Nato; and as the concept of “geopolitics” makes its return to the new world order,  upholding democratic values and international law is probably the best security policy for small countries who are necessarily dependent on the solidarity and goodwill of others.

Current debates

Russia has declared, as its recent foreign policy preference, its interest in increasing its economic influence in neighboring countries, as in the West at large. At the same time she holds on to a politics of awkward  and hostile rhetorics when it comes to history, values, foreign relations and the country’s own problems – admitting its past crimes seems to be still as hard for Russia as admitting its current problems. On this background it is interesting to follow the shift in rhetoric as for Estonian Vs Finnish position in relation to Russia. The propaganda attack against Estonia that began 2-3 years ago and went on for a year or more has withdrawn, and instead, verbal attacks against Finland – the family issues, the customs’ tariffs, the sudden alleged deficiencies in the quality of its food exports – have grown strong, in spite of the incessant affirmations on Finland’s side that the neighborly relations are best and friendliest possible.

Some experts explain the shift in attitudes in economic terms. The riots in Tallinn in 2007 did not affect economic relations between Estonia and Russia despite Kremlin’s calls for boycott. Trade and tourism are stable and growing, with just a slight decline during the worst moments of the recession. Finland, on the other hand, has drastically reduced its exports to Russia within a year; thus Russia may want to mask the trend as a choice she makes as a reaction to Finland’s inherent faults, not a choice the Finns make because of problems inside Russia.

Just days ago (August 18-19) Russia reminded her Finnish friends of the limits of friendly discussions. As some ministers of Finland’s centre-right Coalition party spoke that problems with Russia need not be swept under the carpet and that Russia indeed is not such a great power today as one might conclude from its pretentious declarations, Russia reacted immediately, to reaffirm its superpower status. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee denied that there were any problems, but warned that relations should not be spoilt by Finland’s “wrong” foreign policy solutions, such as Finland’s decision to join Nato. Appealing to Finland’s “historical tradition of neutrality” Russia declared that it would not react indifferently to such choices. During the public discussion that followed, many saw the problem in the “disrespect” the ministers treated their neighbor with, not in the latter’s attempt to interfere with an independent state’s foreign policy choices.

The current events indicate that contrary to many good-willed advisers, Estonia’s position has not suffered from the country’s “obstinancy” when it comes to either honest evaluation of its history or its principled positions about controversial issues such as the war in Georgia or the Nordstream pipeline. Finland, on the other hand, seems to get no rewards for its careful dealing with the Soviet crimes as well as the history of Finlandization, nor for its refusal to criticize Kremlin’s domestic or foreign policies. As it shows, those measures do not affect Russia’s readiness to use economic blackmail or propaganda attacks when it sees fit, or try to dictate an independent country’s foreign policy choices in the “near abroad”.

In times of widespread cynicism and “Schröderization” in Europe and the West at large, when calculated friendships strongly compete with our commitment to democratic values, the significance of this lesson probably exceeds the local experience of Eastern Europe’s North – if we think everything is for sale, we may not be sure that the goods we’re after will be delivered afterall.

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