Tue, Dec 05, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Century post-split, Finland tied to West

AFP, HELSINKI

A century after gaining independence from its powerful neighbor Russia, Finland continues to consolidate its ties to the West.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and an uptick in military activity in the Baltic region have tested Finnish-Russian relations, painstakingly maintained with scrupulous diplomatic efforts.

Like its neighbors Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the Baltic states, Finland has modernized its military and stepped up initiatives tying itself closer to NATO, but has stopped short of joining the alliance.

Finland’s rhetoric remains cautious when it comes to Russia, its fifth-largest trading partner.

“We are ready to defend ourselves, but we don’t speculate about the direction or the countries” the threat could come from, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Timo Soini said in an interview.

“We are two independent nations, we don’t ask permission from each other” before making strategic decisions, he said.

Finland belonged to Sweden for six centuries until 1809, and was then a Russian Grand Duchy until 1917, only gaining its independence at the end of World War I after the fall of the Tsarist Russian empire.

The Soviet Union recognized Finland’s independence in 1918, but the Nordic nation had to fight off its neighbor during the winter of 1939 to 1940, and again from June 1941 to September 1944 to avoid occupation.

The 1947 Treaty of Paris recognized Finland’s defeat at the end of World War II, and it had to pay substantial war reparations to the USSR and permanently cede 10 percent of its territory, the eastern part of Karelia.

The human and territorial losses from these conflicts remain present in the minds of 5.5 million Finns.

An old saying goes: “Nothing good comes from the East, only the Sun.”

“From the Finnish point of view, [Russia] is not a real threat, but rather a big neighbor they’re still a bit wary of and with whom they have a joint history that has not always been easy,” French Institute of International Relations Nordic specialist Barbara Kunz said.

Careful not to wake the Russian bear, Finnish leaders publicly stayed on good terms with Russia and refrained from expressing any open criticism during the Cold War, a process that coined the term “Finlandization.”

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed everything. Remaining militarily non-aligned, Finland rapidly joined the EU in 1995, swapping its currency, the markka, for the euro in 2002.

The Finnish border is the longest EU border with Russia, stretching 1,340km. Anchoring itself firmly to the West, Finland is keen to make sure it has a diplomatic and security “shield.”

“We are a part of the West and we need the Western power to stabilize the situation in terms of Russia,” said Markku Kivinen, head of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute, a center for Russian and Eastern European studies.

Unlike Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Baltic states which won their independence in the early 1990s and joined NATO a decade later, Finland has no intention of joining the military alliance for fear of angering Moscow.

Last month, a public opinion poll found that only 22 percent of Finns have a good opinion of NATO, a fall of 3 percentage points from a year earlier. The policy of military non-alignment is broadly supported in the nation.

“We need to stay independent. We never know what could happen with Russia,” said Heini Vahtera, a Helsinki resident in her 30s.

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