Finland neglecting its Russia policy
By Erkki Pennanen
A turning point in Finland's relations with Russia was reached in January 1995 when Esko Aho made an official visit to Moscow as Prime Minister. Finland had just become a member of the European Union. As Aho recalled later, it could be sensed that the situation was a new one for both sides. Aho was there in his capacity of Prime Minister of both Finland and that of a member state of the European Union.
Although Finland had significantly strengthened its political position with respect to Russia at a single go, there were many positive expectations on the part of Russia toward Finland's new status. It was hoped that Finland would be a country that understands Russia, and that it would serve as a bridge-builder in the development of relations between the EU and Russia. Finland also believed that it would be capable of taking on that role.
Apparently to Russia's surprise, seeking a common EU policy line toward Russia became the most important issue for Finland as a new member. Finland wanted to avoid all solo acts, denounced the solo performances of the large EU member states, and sought to emphasise the importance of EU unity.
In Russia, many felt that instead of understanding Russia, Finland preferred to hide behind the back of a united EU, even though finding a common policy line in the EU occasionally proved to be hopelessly difficult. Instead of being a bridge-builder, Finland appeared to have taken on the role of a guardian of EU unity.
From the point of view of Finland and the EU as a whole, there can be nothing to criticise as such. If relations between the EU and Russia had developed to be as positive as was hoped and believed in the 1990s, everything would be good from Finland's point of view as well. As a neighbour of Russia, and as a country that is interested in active economic cooperation, Finland could have partaken fully in the positive development.
Unfortunately, not everything went the way that had been hoped and believed in Finland. There was increasing friction. Many new members, primarily Poland and the Baltic States, began to put spanners in the works of cooperation. This poisoned bilateral relations that these countries had with Russia, but it was also reflected in relations between Russia and the EU.
In this setup Finland found itself in a difficult position. Although it has not always been easy in Finland to understand the attitudes of Poland or Estonia, for instance, the demand for mutual solidarity among the EU countries, and the requirement of unity tied Finland down even when it only made relations between the EU and Russia more complicated.
And what about Finland's much talked-about "special relationship" with Russia? In her book about the policy toward Russia during Finland's time in the European Union, researcher Helena Rytövuori-Apunen has described the dismantling of the special relationship between Finland and Russia in a thought-provoking manner.
Still in the early years of Finnish membership in the EU, there were some attempts to nurture the special relationship. Cooperation with adjacent areas and the EU's northern dimension were emphasised.
Today's Russia is a different country from what it was in the state of weakness of the Yeltsin period. Cooperation with adjacent areas has dwindled to regional policy aimed at serving East Finland, which has very little relevance to the bigger picture. The politics of the northern dimension, for its part, is so broad, and at the same time such a vague area of cooperation between the EU and Russia, that it is hard to conceive how it might be fruitful.
Finland's policy toward Russia is so subordinated to the EU's common Russia policy that it is actually no longer possible to speak of a "special relationship". As Helena Rytövuori-Apunen says, "there has been a desire to prune away everything that is special from the relationship with Russia".
Many seem to think that this is exactly what should have been done. Getting into the EU gave Finland the opportunity to get rid of the spiral of Finlandisation, and the opportunity could not be wasted.
This is an emotional, and short-sighted view. Finland has been a member of the EU for 13 years already, so it is high time that Finland would get over its Finlandisation issues.
As a neighbour and an old cooperative partner of a Russia that is growing stronger again, Finland could still have a front-row seat on the subject of developing economic cooperation. Finland does not need to, nor would it be wise for it to allow itself to be held a hostage of the overall development of relations between the EU and Russia.
Recent years have shown how the development of cooperation between a union of nearly 30 states and Russia has proven to be much more sticky than had been hoped ten years ago.
Naturally Finland must not do anything that would hurt the common interests of the EU. However, like many other countries, Finland has every right to courageously seek to work for the development of bilateral economic relations with Russia. There is no reason even to shy away from nurturing the "special relationship", if a common sounding board can be found for it. Both the government and the President bear responsibility for the present passivity.
EU membership has increased Finland's weight with respect to Russia. On the other hand, it constantly sets many kinds of additional conditions for Finland's own Russia policy.
It is difficult to assess if the question of wood tariffs would be easier or more difficult to solve in bilateral negotiations between Finland and Russia.
The EU naturally has much more negotiating power than Finland has on its own, but on the other side there are issues of prestige and the linkage of the wood tariffs with many other difficult questions, including WTO membership. The wood tariffs are not a big issue for the EU, but they are for Finland.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.3.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
Poll: Finns wary of prospect of Putin staying in Russian leadership (4.1.2008)
Finnish FM expects no great changes from Medvedev (11.12.2007)
Finnish PM expresses concern at treatment of Russian opposition (28.11.2007)
Commissioner Mandelson: EU cannot pressure Russia into removing wood tariffs (18.2.2008)
Friends and neighbours recall Putin heir-apparent Medvedev from old Leningrad days (19.2.2008)
ERKKI PENNANEN / Helsingin Sanomat