Blessed are the peacemakers
Mediators like Ahtisaari are a rare breed
By Unto Hämäläinen
A familiar figure can be recognised in the bustle of the departures terminal at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport.
The man is wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, a subdued tie, a white pocket handkerchief. He carries a leather briefcase, and walks with a slightly wobbly gait.
The people, mostly in holiday clothes, recognise former President Martti Ahtisaari and give him space.
The plane is not leaving for a few minutes, and Ahtisaari sits down to wait. There is no time to waste. He pulls out a thick bundle of papers and starts to read, with pencil in hand. This is what teachers always do.
I don’t have the nerve to go and bother him. I know how important the peace project is that is starting.
There are no aides or security guards around, or anyone else to carry his document case.
The President hears the departure call and walks with the other passengers into the plane.
There is a certain class to the 71-year-old former President.
When Martti Ahtisaari announced in April 1999 that he would not be seeking a second term as President, it left a nasty taste in the mouth.
It wasn’t supposed to go like that. He was the first to be chosen to the position by a direct election in February 1994, and expectations were high.
Ahtisaari had come from outside party politics and was selected as the Presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, and ultimately as President, though only after a tough battle.
At the very beginning Ahtisaari had made it clear that he wanted to be in office for two terms, until 2006.
During Ahtisaari’s term as President, the big things went well. Finland became a member of the EU and its monetary union, and the country’s economy stabilised after the recession of the early 1990s.
The little things, however, seemed to go wrong with unerring regularity.
Ahtisaari was looking for a presidential place throughout his entire term, and he never found it.
Finally he had to give up, and it came as a great relief for Ahtisaari himself, and for his wife Eeva Ahtisaari.
It was barely a month after the announcement that he would not seek a second six-year term that Martti Ahtisaari stepped onto the world stage.
Under his leadership, President Slobodan Milosevic was persuaded into a peace deal, and the fighting stopped in the former Yugoslavia.
In the following autumn, Ahtisaari was for the first time conspicuously in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, and his name came up once again in the autumn of 2000.
“Healthy self-esteem, an inquisitive mind, and belief in the future”, is how Ahtisaari has sometimes evaluated his starting points, when as a young schoolteacher in the mid-1960s he went out into the world and stayed on the same path, first in development cooperation, then in the 1970s as a diplomat, in the 1980s as a UN official, and in the 1990s as a president and peace mediator.
From 2000, Ahtisaari has been technically retired - and involved in at least eight demanding mediation jobs.
Each field has its own star turns. There are only a few peace mediators in the world, and Ahtisaari is a fully paid-up member of that exclusive club.
What is the characteristic that makes him so good at what he does?
Those who know Ahtisaari emphasise two traits: his ability to listen to everyone, and his skill in waiting for precisely the right moment.
It seems that for long periods of time he does nothing much but whistle or hum hymns from an old hymnal.
Ahtisaari does not draw up long memos of views taken by the sides to a conflict, nor does he brilliantly analyse developments so far, but at the right moment he knows how to utilise the analyses of others and to draw up his own proposals at the negotiating table.
And then he starts pushing a settlement over a period of days, or weeks, or months, if that is what it takes.
It is good to remember that Ahtisaari kept a settlement to the Kosovo crisis alive for nearly seven years.
At times others tried, and the process was at a standstill for years, but ultimately Ahtisaari’s proposal was decisive.
It was during the peacemaking process that the (hypothetical) second presidential term was spent - the one that would have ended in March 2006.
That is a good thing. There might have been no Nobel Prize for the presidential term.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.10.2008
More on this subject:
To one Albanian family in Espoo, yes, Martti Ahtisaari IS a peacemaker
Previously in HS International Edition:
Martti Ahtisaari wins 2008 Nobel Peace Prize (10.10.2008)
Martti Ahtisaari receives UNESCO Peace Prize (3.10.2008)
Important peace prize for former president Martti Ahtisaari (19.5.2008)
Ahtisaari hopes UN will make decision on Kosovo soon (18.4.2007)
Ahtisaari proposes independence for Kosovo (27.3.2007)
Ahtisaari calls Aceh treaty surprisingly successful on first anniversary (15.8.2006)
Ahtisaari urges Russia to recognise K osovo (10.3.2008)
Martti Ahtisaari´s career in 30 photos (click at bottom right for second set of 15 images)
The Negotiator (a weekly article from 21.2.2006)
Martti Ahtisaari (Wikipedia)
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat