Monday, September 15, 2008

Neighbourhood watch

By taking a swipe at Estonia on Finnish television on September 4 in the context of Europe's reaction to the Georgia conflict, Finland's president Tarja Halonen may have sparked the beginnings of what could become a long-awaited public debate in Finland about her country's role in the Cold War, and its relations with its next-door neighbours. In her YLE "A-Studio" television interview President Halonen said that Estonians were suffering from "post-Soviet stress", and gave an overview of current Finnish foreign policy, expressing relief that "there are countries in the EU that are not in a post-traumatic situation." That prompted a puzzled reaction from Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who remarked that “Estonia has never criticised, and will not criticise the foreign policy decisions of another EU country. It will also not evaluate the psychological state of mind of other EU countries.”

On Saturday, Finland's main daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published a leading article headed "The long shadow of hypersensitivity in relations between neighbours", which discussed the very different ways in which Finland and Estonia relate to Russia, but argued that there was no sense in either state criticizing the other's approach - each had a right to its own way of dealing with the large and often threatening eastern neighbour. The article began with a reference to Finland's ex-president Mauno Koivisto, who during the early 1980s tried to introduce a new policy for dealing with the Soviet Union, one that would replace and build on the policy of the Kekkonen era. Unfortunately, the policy was so compliant with the wishes of the Kremlin that, as a commenter on the HS site has pointed out, had Koivisto's line been followed by the rest of Europe, Estonia and the other Baltic states would now be part of Russia.  

I began to visit Finland - exclusively on business connected with literary translation - during the early part of Koivisto's presidency, and I can still remember the atmosphere that prevailed in the country at the time. While a relative freedom in social, economic and cultural life was noticeable everywhere, so that if one wanted to, one could imagine oneself to be much further West in Europe, in matters that had anything to do with the Soviet Union, a grim, sarcastic silence and unwillingness to discuss Soviet-related issues were the order of the day. While there was certainly more freedom than there was across the water, in Soviet-occupied Estonia, it was impossible to ignore the constraints that existed in Finnish society where Moscow was concerned. Perhaps because most of my activity in Finland was related to literature and translation, I avoided some of the more intense disagreements that could have arisen between my points of view and those of my hosts. My background in Russian studies, and the time I'd spent in Moscow as a post-graduate research student, tended to interfere now and then, however. I can still remember one or two incidents. For example,at that time, Koivisto's Soviet Union policy included the long-established practice of returning Soviet defectors to the USSR. On a day when an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration was being held in Helsinki, I happened to have conversation with a Finland-Swedish poet who much later on became a minister in the government of Paavo Lipponen. Incautiously, I mentioned the subject of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and asked if Finland would also return them to Russia if they appeared in Finland. This provoked an outburst of violent anger from my interlocutor, and I decided not to raise any more such questions with him or with anyone else I met, as I was in Finland on an official invitation.

Many years later, I read about some of what had really transpired among Finland's media and opinion-forming circles during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s in Esko Salminen's Vaikeneva valtiomahti (The Silent  Estate?)  and felt that most of my suspicions were confirmed. Finlandization and "self-censorship" really were a important part of Finland's cultural and political identity in those decades after the Second World War. Now the Finnish politician Erkki Aho has reviewed a recent book by the historian and political analyst Juha Seppinen, entitled Neuvostotiedostelu Suomessa 1917-1991 (Soviet Intelligence in Finland 1917-1991) which deals with the subject of Finland's relations with Russia and the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century (I reached the link through Marko Mihkelson's blog).  The book also lists details of the meetings and contacts many Finnish politicians and public figures had with members of the Soviet security and intelligence services. 

Perhaps at least part of the root of the problem in Finland can be traced back to the Finnish Civil War of 1918, when the forces of the Social Democrats (referred to as the "Reds"), who were supported by the Bolsheviks in Russia, fought with the troops of the Conservatives (known as the "Whites"), supported by Imperial Germany. The degree to which this conflict permeated virtually all areas of Finnish life cannot be exaggerated. It even affected the most recondite literary circles: the Dadaist poet Gunnar Björling became involved on the White side, and hid a White telegraphist in his basement room in Red-occupied Helsinki throughout the entire four months of the war.

At all events, it seems ill-befitting for a Finnish president to criticize neighbouring Estonia in the terms that were used by Tarja Halonen. After all, Estonia was occupied because of its outspoken resistance to Soviet power, while Finland managed to escape such a fate (though it had around a tenth of its territory annexed) only by sacrificing moral and intellectual integrity.Perhaps the wisest course for politicians in both Finland and Estonia is to recognize that the present situation in both countries is in many respects the result of the past - a past which though it can't be undone, can none the less be recognized and discussed between them. And for the discussion to proceed calmly and productively the slinging of abuse, however "psychological" and mediated, won't contribute to the process. There also needs to be a wider recognition in the rest of Europe that the problems of the Baltic States and of north-eastern Europe as a whole are not local, regional matters, but rather the consequence of the deep and tragic divisions which shook the whole continent of Europe during the twentieth century, and for which Europe as a whole bears a degree of responsibility. Here, in the ongoing crisis caused by Russia's recent violation of the territorial borders of a sovereign state, NATO and the European Union have a major role to play in making such a debate possible. And perhaps by joining NATO and assuming the rights and duties that go with that, Finland can demonstrate conclusively, once and for all, that it really is a part of the alliance of Western nations.

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