Finland - important to Russia, not to USA
By Unto Hämäläinen
President George W. Bush arrives in Tallinn on Monday. An entire hotel, the SAS Radisson, has been reserved for the President of the United States. From the presidential suite on the 21st floor, it is possible to see the glimmer of the lights of Helsinki.
The most powerful man in the world is so close, but then again, so hopelessly far. Bush is not especially popular around the world, but Finland's leadership would have welcomed him with open arms.
Such a visit would have corrected an awkward blemish in relations between Finland and the United States: George W. Bush and Tarja Halonen have met too infrequently.
Halonen and Bush will both soon have been in office at the same time for six years, but they have had only one meeting, at which time less than an hour was reserved for their discussions. Bush received Halonen in the White House on April 16th, 2002. It will soon be five years since that meeting.
Fortunately Halonen and Bush have managed to exchange a few words at meetings. Who can forget the charming photo of Halonen straightening Bush's tie at a meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Council in Istanbul in the summer of 2004.
Bush has never visited Finland. Ten years will soon have passed from the most recent visit of a US president to Finland. Bill Clinton came to Helsinki in March 1997, and after that no US presidents or vice presidents have been here.
Last spring it was felt that a meeting between Halonen and Bush would be arranged this autumn for sure. Then it was known that Bush would come to the Baltic region to take part in the NATO summit that will take place next week in Riga.
Possibilities for such a meeting were increased by the fact that Finland is the holder of the EU Presidency this autumn, and has important issues to discuss with the United States; the Riga agenda includes a plan to intensify crisis management cooperation with five non-allied countries. One of these countries is Finland.
However, no such meeting was arranged. Finnish diplomats say that the reason for this lies with Bush and his staff. Attempts foundered on Bush's lack of time. Eloquent regrets have been expressed - as is required by diplomatic protocol.
According to official explanations, relations between Finland and the United States are in good shape. There is no cause to doubt this, but the gap between presidential meetings has stretched out quite a bit.
The last time that there was such a long gap was in the late 1970s in the final years of the presidency of Urho Kekkonen. When Mauno Koivisto and Martti Ahtisaari were in office, there were regular meetings in Washington and elsewhere. George Bush Sr. visited Helsinki twice, although he was in office for only four years.
During the presidencies of Koivisto and Ahtisaari, the contacts were supplemented by intense exchanges of visits at other levels as well. Vice Presidents and Secretaries of State stopped off in Helsinki en route to Moscow, and it was said that Finland was in a good location, on the great power "hot line".
Currently visits by presidents do not have as much importance as they did in years past. Presidents meet at at international gatherings more frequently than before. In the world of diplomacy visits nevertheless continue to be important signals. They send other countries the message that mutual relations are in shape "at a high level" as well. The President of the United States is the leader of the country's foreign policy, and in the recent Presidential elections in Finland there was an emphasis on the role of the President in dealing with relations specifically with the United States and Russia.
The difference between the two great powers is evident when one compares the gap between meetings of Halonen and Bush with the intense interaction between Halonen and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This week Putin spent two days in Helsinki. It was the fourth meeting of the two presidents so far this year. During six years Putin has been in Finland four times, and Halonen has been to Russia no less than nine times.
The visits have not been mere meetings of protocol. They have involved important practical matters.
When Putin has been in Finland, Halonen has constantly been by his side. In August last year Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen did not even get a chance to meet Putin, who had spent a couple of days as Halonen's guest at Kultaranta, the President's summer residence in Naantali.
When Putin went to the EU summit in Lahti, Halonen received him and took care of the important guest en route from Helsinki to Lahti. The same care was seen this week in Helsinki as well.
Putin, for his part, has arranged things so that Halonen has not had to go to the trouble of travelling all the way to Moscow more than twice: Putin has come to meet her in St. Petersburg. Seven meetings have been arranged in St. Petersburg, the city of Putin's birth. According to Russian tradition, a visit to a person's home city is a considerable sign of recognition.
So what conclusions can we draw from this?
It is clear that Halonen's programme of visits to the Untied States and Russia is not in balance. There is no reason to worry about this. Russia is a more important country for Finland than the United States - even though the United States is the most powerful country in the world.
However, the matter can also be seen from a different angle. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union it appeared for a moment that the Kremlin did not care about Finland. Putin has shown that Finland is again an important country for Russia.
At the end of the Cold War and a few years after it, it also appeared that Finland would have been a valuable partner for the United States. The Bush Presidency has shown that this is no longer the case.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.11.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Estonia calls on President Bush to support new democracies (28.11.2006)
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat