The Baltic Course

NATO - yes, no or - already?!

By Inna Rogatchi, © Rogatchi Productions & Communications Ltd., 2001, (Helsinki)

The undefendable Baltic region and ever-cautious Finland

The question of a tricky bond between Finland and the Baltic states in relation to NATO already surfaced a decade ago. In the atmosphere of the mid-Nineties, both the Finnish public and political leadership felt and practiced an overwhelming support to the Baltic states. There had been a clear psychological element in the Finnish-Baltic romance: being quite a small and largely isolated country (until its recent EU-membership), living morally and politically in the shadow of its big Soviet brother, Finland was all but happy to adopt the new and tempting role of playing patron and benefactor. Supporting the Baltics on their way to restored independence was quite important for the Finns. It was a substantial part of their own way of self-liberation after 50 years of depressing and humiliating dependability from the moods and needs of Moscow.

It was also a perfect time for the fist ever open discussion on Finnish NATO membership. In an atmosphere encouraging independent and wider political analysis, more and more people in Finland were ready to recognize an obvious reality of modern history, which quite clearly shows that the neutrality of a state is rather more of an euphemism than true. After all we know regarding money and gold deposits, was Switzerland really neutral during World War II? After more facts coming to the surface about long-term big-scale cooperation with the Nazi regime in very practical industrial and economic terms, was Sweden truly neutral even during the same period? After disclosing part of the Soviet archives that showed little beauties of direct Soviet command over Finnish UN representatives including how to vote on key-issues such as the war in Afghanistan and many other vital matters over the decades, who could seriously maintain the myth of Finland's neutrality during the Cold War?

During the years of Finland's previous president Martti Ahtisaari (1994 -2000), it has become obvious for the Finnish political leadership, decision -making circles and analytical elite that in the age of speedy globalization, and already being a member of the EU, it is simply impossible for Finland to not belong to the big global club called West.

Under the current Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, and her soul-mate from the revolutionary Seventies, Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, the situation has become slightly more trickier, and somehow even ironic. Firstly, president Halonen, just before her fist official visit to Latvia, shocked her EU colleagues and a large part of the public at home and abroad by making a blatant shift away from Finnish support to the Baltic states' aspired NATO membership. Inevitably, the Finnish president found herself in need of public explanation over the odd statement. When it's the 21st century, it is a bit hard to pretend your still in the Seventies.

The irony of the current situation in the Finnish stance towards NATO lies on two different grounds. Expectedly, the natural course of events with Finnish EU membership pushed Finland towards NATO so close that it is simply impossible to turn back now.

The unexpected irony has been caused by the current Russian-NATO romance following Septem-ber 11th. For several years president Halonen, previously the Finnish Foreign Minister, always pursued the Russian factor, in its exceedingly pro-Kremlin edition, as a major issue in all and any international agenda. When another neutral EU member, Austria, started to vigorously discuss its possible NATO membership earlier this year, and Russia did express its concern and negative feelings towards such a scenario, the highest Finnish political leadership was quick to calm Moscow by publicly confirming that Finland is still «not even thinking about it».

But what now for those who tried hard not to irritate Moscow? Russia's President Putin made an official visit to NATO head-quarters literally days after September 11th, and repeatedly proclaimed full Russian support to the US and NATO in their global fight against terrorism. How should the Finnish political leadership react to an extraordinary fast bonding between Russia and NATO, even to the extent that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has proposed to include Russia on the highest NATO decision-making Council? How should the Finns in charge of their NATO policy act now, facing non-stop shuttle visits to Moscow by NATO's Secretary General, George Robertson?

The peculiarity of the situation has become so obvious now that they have to decide and make a clear stance rather soon. Otherwise, there will be a decision-making and policy-forming vacuum on the fundamental strategy issues. This kind of vacuum always leads to doubt. And the doubt in this case won't fall on the current Finnish leading political team's loyalty to Moscow, or to their revolutionary youth; nobody would ever doubt that; but their abilities as politicians as such, with an adequate understanding of complex issues, with an international vision, and abilities to act accordingly - these may fall into question.

Leading Finnish political experts have provided us with their visions on three possibilities for the Finland-NATO issue. These possibilities also reflect three different perceptions of the matter held by the Finnish society: negative, positive, and pragmatic.

NATO was and still is a union of war 

Dr. Arto Luukkanen, lector at the Helsinki University on Russian and Eastern European studies, is one of the leading Finnish historians of the post-Finlandized generation. His sees the current situation as «truly unique, in the long-run perspective. The Baltic states are now for the fist time able to define their own choice completely by themselves. As it often happens in history, the freedom of choice has played a magic flute trick on the Baltic states. They do now believe that NATO membership will become their guarantee against any possible Russian threat for a hundred and ten percent. But there is no guarantee of a hundred and ten percent; and not even one hundred percent.

To be able to maintain security, a country, the same as a person must first be able to defend itself mentally, spiritually, and morally. I have the impression that people in the Baltic states largely believe that in case of a potential threat the Americans will press a red button, - and all their problems will be solved. It will not happen like that.»

What would be the alternative?

Dr Luukkanen: «Instead of a too fixed bond with NATO, I would go for a broader concept of security; the global security system which in my view is more corresponding to the modern situation and its future development. And this concept must include Russia as well, on the basis of good relations with the changed Russia, - because of the simplest of reasons: we cannot change geography. And since we are unable to do so, we have to have normal, properly functioning working relations with Russia. Of course, this demands a lot of responsibility from the Russian side too.

The central point is that Europe and Russia are in the same boat - but neither side knows this yet.»

What about Finland and NATO membership?

Dr Luukkanen: «In my view, it [refraining from NATO membership] is a very wise policy. You know, for the Finns NATO was and still is a union of war, and this traditional perception keeps Finnish people reluctant to join NATO. From another side, the question of the day is how efficient is NATO today? On the basis of what we saw in Kosovo, I doubt its efficiency seriously.

Finland is safe by its geographical location, and by specific features of its society. We are a remorse country, - who needs us or our territory? No one is as stupid as to come and attack Finland. What for?

The Finnish people are very closed up, still half-village half-urban people, - like the King of Apes. We like to live our peaceful and remorse life but in order to live it with modern comfort, we need to remember our second, urban, Nokia- marked part of life. And now tell me, who are the fools who would launch a military strike against such a place? So what do we need NATO for?»

You'll be a bad child if you sympathize with NATO

A very well-known politician, historian and political scientist, formerly a member of the Finnish parliament Dr Jukka Tarkka represents a minority of the Finnish public advocating for NATO membership. He shared his views with the BC: «From the perspective of the Baltic states, it is ultimately important for them to join NATO because this is the only way to reject, or restrain to a substantial extent, the Russian idea of the Baltic region as a zone of Russia's national interests. While some observers and politicians make quite optimistic predictions on the current Russian romance with NATO, I am not as optimistic. First of all, I do not think that this romance will last for long. And secondly, you cannot build long-term strategic military policy issues on the ground of «friendship», or any emotional ground».

Dr Tarkka emphasizes that a firm Baltic decision to join NATO has made the issue more acute for Finland, too.To implement Finland's membership in NATO, this responsibility should be realized by both the Finnish political leadership and the Finnish public: «As far as public perception goes, the NATO issue is quite an emotional thing. And to deal with emotional issues enrooted in the public is very hard.

Maybe the generation that fought the Winter War would relate to the NATO problem differently. The origin of the problem related to the perception of NATO by the Finnish public lies in the Cold War period. The indoctrination of the Finnish society over NATO was very strong. The Finnish nation has been taught, year after year, that «NATO is an embodiment of bad, and you would be a bad child if you sympathize with NATO.» The irony of the situation is that NATO has changed, Russia has changed, Europe has changed, the world has changed, - but nobody bothers to notice it here!»

But how can you restore an intentionally distorted picture?

Dr Tarkka: «To make the perception of a complex political and military issue adequate, two things are needed: political leadership and an analytical media. And here again, Finland has big problems with both. To start with politics, to resolve questions like this, the country needs political leadership with a strong political will and real ability to perform it. But the Finnish concept of democracy lies on the ground that politicians do not lead but rather follow public opinion. This is very cautious and surely a safe approach - there is always such a factor as the next elections - but practice shows that it also makes politics substantially less decisive and more passive.

Observing the current Finnish political leadership, it would have to be said that president Halonen is not the person that changes quite easily. She is an old-times pacifist, and quite solid in her sympathies and evaluations. The Finnish Foreign Minister Mr Tuomioja, who also belongs to the same group, is a bit more of a rational politician, I would say. His latest statements indicate a very slight change towards a more realistic approach in international politics. Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen should be recognized as the most rational and realistic Finnish politician on the NATO issue. His position is that Finland should go in, and he is trying to find a way to do it.

What is a little odd is the position of the Finnish military. Surprisingly for any Western military, the majority of it is against joining the alliance, or hesitant to it. I could interpret this as Finnish officers in leading positions fearing for their independence under NATO command, if they join NATO.

Regarding our media, I should say that in my view, they are misusing their mission. The media should be analytical; it should follow, properly recognize and analyze all changes in important spheres. They should put an effort to examine issues and realize what one or another development or tendency really means, and where it is leading to. But, unlike in Europe, Finland simply has no such tradition in the media. All in all, I do not think that the current situation will be changed for quite a time, unfortunately.»

The day will come when Finland becomes a NATO member, officially ...

One of leading Finnish political journalists and co-author of a recent book on the Finnish NATO policy, Pekka Evasti, emphasized that there are two Finnish NATO lines which have been going on in parallel for many years already, «one is official, and the other is the real one.» «As was written in our book, Finland's policy on NATO can be defined as the classical double-standard approach. From the official side, Finnish political leaders have repeated consequently that we are not members, partners, or close cooperators with NATO, God forbid'; but de facto Finland is very much inside NATO. We are so close to it as a party can be without being proclaimed a member officially, with joint training, partnership programs, strategic and political meetings, etc.»

Pekka Ervasti believes that «the starting point of the Finnish march to NATO was the political decision to acquire American Hornet fighter planes for the Finnish army that happened in the late Eighties, still under Mauno Koivisto's presidency. At the time president Koivisto fiercely denied several times that anything was going on at all. Yet, the former Finnish defense minister, also well-known as the UN special envoy in the Balkans, Elisabeth Rehn, states in her memoirs quite clearly that Finland's way towards NATO started with the key-decision on Hornets.

The next step on the Finnish path to NATO was the membership in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC)that also took place fairly quietly, and with similar public denials by political leaders that «anything of that sort was going on». EAPC, with its 19 NATO members and 27 non- member states, EAPC is in fact a 'waiting room' for NATO. And again, we heard nothing but official denial when Finland was joining the council. I remember quite vividly as [former Finnish prime-minister and minister for foreign affairs] Kalevi Sorsa said afterwards that Finland «did enter EAPC, accidentally.» Quite an accident, one might say.

The third step in Finland's way down NATO avenue was our membership in the Partnership for Peace program. And again, the same motto was used. And now we have quite a peculiar status: we are neither neutral, nor a member of the Alliance».

Were all these steps just coincidences?

Pekka Ervasti: «After examining this process for years, I am convinced that the Finnish policy on NATO has been very meticulously calculated and very thoroughly considered. As soon as Finnish political leadership had decided more than a decade ago that we will join the NATO camp, a certain policy of its implementation was adopted: it shall be carried out by small steps, and discreetly as possible. Finnish political figures shall admit nothing, or, in the worst case, admit something but only afterwards. This is exactly the way Finland joined the EU. Not too many people will be happy to remember now that Finland joined the EU through the back door, not through the front door, and with the exact same denials of joining the European Union until almost the very day it happened.

To name things by their names, there is no doubt that NATO is the sole operator in military affairs globally. The recent discussions about EU military forces and the EU military policy, in my view, is merely lip. There is no other body in the world functioning like NATO does, and there is nobody else to join. And if somebody has an illusion about the possibility of keeping neutrality being an EU member, it is very naive and simply beyond reality.

For the current President Tarja Halonen and Minister of Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja, it is obviously a difficult and unpleasant issue for them due to their left-left background, but I think that Halonen realizes that the situation has gone so far already that she simply cannot do much about it.

And what about the Finnish public that obviously rejects the idea of joining NATO?

Pekka Ervasti: «Yes, it is true. In the best times no more than 28-32% of the Finnish public has been in favor of NATO membership, now this figure is substantially less, like 21-24%. And the number of those opposing Finland joining NATO has always been over  60%. This is a pretty clear signal, and I believe there are several major reasons for it: firstly, the syndrome of the Winter War; secondly, an obvious inheritance of president Urho Kekkonen's years with our very strong ties and subordinated position to the USSR; thirdly, there is also influence of the old tradition of the Finnish policy making anything connected with the military sphere «a hush-hush zone», and it gives the public the feeling that something unclear and possibly dangerous is being cooked up in the political kitchen. Then again, the Finnish people, out of their experience in the past century, are rather inclined to believe that if worse came to worse, they would still be left on their own again; they do not believe in the alliances. And finally, Finnish people do not want, generally, to go abroad to fight other people's wars.

How do you see the Finland-NATO link in the context of a new turn in Russian-NATO policies, and the likely NATO membership of the Baltic states?

Pekka Ervasti: A I do share the opinion of those experts who do not believe that the «new page» in Russian-NATO dialogue will last forever. I think that the current thaw will pass, and Russia will not become a NATO member. Besides, I do know that president Putin is facing very serious difficulties at home where a large part of the Russian military establishment is simply furious over his latest «romance» with NATO.

I think that Finland will follow the situation with great attention after the Baltics become NATO members or are invited and proclaimed as accepted. The Finnish political leadership will wait for a Russian reaction to this, as well as for Swedish and Austrian reactions, and maybe even some actions, as well. And than - the day will come when Finland becomes a NATO member, officially. But for me, it's an academic question, really. Finland and NATO are like a couple living together for years without getting officially married.»

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