Finland's Russia policy
By Erkki Pennanen
A new age began in Finnish-Russian relations in 1995, when Finland became a member of the European Union. For nearly a decade we were the only country of the European Union with a long common border with Russia. This added to Finland’s political weight in the eyes of both the EU and Russia, and offered good opportunities.
Now that this special position of ours has gone after the Baltic States joined the EU, it would be an opportune moment for a critical assessment of our policy line toward Russia, and the coming strategy.
It is true that relations between Finland and Russia have been good on the general level. Nevertheless, there is good reason to at least consider the notion that things could be better. Already before the enlargement of the EU, Finland managed to squander the special position that it had in the first years that it was a member. To top it all off, this was the consequence of deliberate policy decisions.
Finland has tried to be a bridge between the EU and Russia less than it used to, not to mention the promoting of its own political interests. The main goal has been to build a common EU policy toward Russia, and to keep the front unbroken as Russia tries to chip away at it through bilateral relations.
Germany, France, and Italy have been flying solo with their own high-level diplomacy at the expense of the EU. Finland, for its part, has adhered to the policies agreed upon at EU meetings, and has consequently been seen as promoting a tough line.
When Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen paid a quick visit to Moscow on Monday to meet with Russia’s new Prime Minister Mikhail Gradkov, the newspaper Kommersant, one of Moscow’s most serious dailies, mentioned that one of the topics of discussion was Finland’s attempt to slow down the lifting of the visa requirement for travel between Russia and the EU, and Finland’s insistence that Russia give up on its plans to increase oil exports through Russia’s own oil terminals on the Gulf of Finland.
Although these topics were hardly mentioned at the meeting of the prime ministers, Finland is constantly labelled an EU hard-liner by the Russian press. The papers are unlikely to write such articles out of sheer malice; their views reflect those of local civil servants and politicians.
One can naturally say that it is unreasonable to criticise Finland for following a policy that has been reached by common agreement in the EU - after all, that is what Finland does with respect to other aspects of its EU policy, including the observance of directives that affect it. If some other countries renege on these rules, it is unfortunate, and sometimes aggravating, but not a sufficient reason to neglect one’s own obligations.
On the other hand, in both politics and diplomacy, the borders are drawn in water, and a creative approach is needed. Finland has been quite eager to fall in line with policy promoted by the European Commission as a protection against diplomatic pressure from our neighbour.
One may well ask if it has been wise or necessary to establish a hard-line profile, considering that even the large EU countries are taking a more understanding view of Russian aspirations, especially on the level of speeches.
Now that the EU has expanded to territory of the former Soviet Union, Finland is no longer the only member state that borders Russia. This has its benefits, but there are also obvious drawbacks.
One of the benefits is that the issue of travel visas is no longer primarily a Finnish issue; it touches the Baltic States even more intensely. Their attitude toward Russia is certainly much tougher, if need be, than the hard line that the Finns are supposedly taking. This means that Finland could well hide behind their backs.
Finland is losing its upper hand in trade, as economic relations between Russia and the Baltic States are revived through closer ties between Russia and the EU. In other respects as well, Finland is losing its real or imagined position as an expert in relations with Russia.
In Russia Vladimir Putin holds the reins of foreign policy tight in his hands, and is cultivating personal relationships with the key leaders of the EU. At first he seemed to include Finnish President Tarja Halonen among this group; as President, Halonen is traditionally the Russian leader’s closest partner for discussions in Finland.
Contacts between Putin and Halonen appear to have diminished in recent times. Hopefully it is just an optical illusion, and not the result of Russian disenchantment over Finland’s role in the EU.
On the other hand, Russia has not been one of the main topics of political interest of Halonen, even though she undoubtedly understands the importance of relations with Russia on the general level.
In any case, Tarja Halonen is appreciated in Russia for actively keeping Finland out of NATO. A different matter is how wise this is from the point of view of Finnish security policy, and especially from the point of view of policy toward Russia. An article last week by Russia’s former Ambassador to Finland, Yuri Deryabin, in the Russian publication Nezavisimaya Gazeta, resurrected the times when the great power neighbour was able to make threats and put pressure on Finland, which used to belong to its sphere of influence.
As NATO members, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are already beyond the reach of Russian threats. However, Finland must continue to keep in mind that Russia feels that Finnish membership of NATO would seriously alter the balance of power in Northern Europe. Deryabin is demanding that Russia not leave it at the level of oral threats. He wants open discussions on the issue between Russia and Finland.
Although Deryabin, who wrote in Finnish newspapers under the pseudonym Yuri Komissarov during the years of the presidency of Urho Kekkonen, is now a retired diplomat, his ideas continue to represent a powerful school of thought in Russia. As long as Finland’s NATO membership remains an open option, it will also be a potential cause of tension in relations between Finland and Russia. The tension will not go away until Finland has made its final decisions, as the Baltic States have done.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.5.2004
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland considers joint acquisition of icebreakers with Russia (25.5.2004)
ERKKI PENNANEN / Helsingin Sanomat