Little foothold for neo-Nazis in Finland
By Matti Rämö
Crime news from July gives a grim picture of Finnish tolerance.
Foreign-owned pizza restaurants in Turku and Jyväskylä were attacked by firebombs. In Kuusamo, a foreign-owned pizzeria also caught fire, apparently as the result of arson.
In July there was a tear gas attack against the Helsinki Pride parade for sexual minorities. The young men suspected of the attack were from different parts of the country. The Security Police say that at least some of them have links with organisations of the far right.
Systematic violence against minorities is very rare in Finland. Could the rash of crimes be a sign of the rise of right-wing extremist groups?
For decades, the far right in Finland was a political taboo in Finland. The peace agreement signed with the Soviet Union in 1944 banned the activities of fascist and nationalist movements.
In the years of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, the flag of the fascists, who were pushed outside the realm of party politics, was waved almost exclusively by Pekka Siitoin. The Naantali man, who would dress in a Nazi uniform, incited and assisted in carrying out an arson attack against the Finnish communist printing house Kursiivi in November 1977.
The action, which landed Siitoin in prison, ended up being an exception.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the far right made a return to the political field.
Groups who took advantage of the situation were united mainly by an extreme resistance to change.
The revived Patriotic People’s League (IKL) warned against excessive tolerance, which threatened traditional Finnish values.
The Aryan Germanic Brotherhood of Väinö Kuisma was a tribute to National Socialism. It was followed by the Patriotic Right, which replaced Nazi symbolism with the mythical imagery of the Finns' national epic, Kalevala, but like the National Socialists, the Patriotic Right promoted the idea of a “pure” culture. The National Radical Party and the Tampere-based Greater Finland Association ranted against immigrants and Russia.
In spite of the heavy rhetoric, the new small groups adapted to the traditional political culture without complaints. The organisations concentrated on agitation, and many of them tried to organise themselves into political parties. However, they got next to no votes in elections.
Only the violence of skinheads based in Joensuu turned the extreme right into a cause of national concern.
In the early 1990s, about 100 Somali refugees moved to the city, which is the urban centre of North Karelia. Within a few years, the immigrants suffered dozens of attacks by the skinheads there. A firebomb was thrown into a reception centre that housed Somalis. “Kill a Somali” posters appeared on the notice boards of schools.
It was the most blatant racist violence that Finland had ever seen.
Researchers estimated that the total number of skinheads in Finland was between 300 and 400 individuals, but Joensuu had to shoulder the reputation of being the racist capital of Finland. A seal was put on this in 1995 when a black professional basketball player left the city because of the violence.
The most intense wave of crime committed by skinheads was seen in Joensuu in 1995-1998 when a group of about 20 of them committed more than 350 different crimes. In the new century the violence waned. Now there are signs in North Karelia of a resurgence on the far right.
Last year police in North Karelia investigated 59 crimes in which a racist motive was suspected.
The figure was at the same level as in Helsinki, and many times that of previous years. This year the pace has remained the same. By late June, the North Karelian police had investigated 32 crimes with racist undertones.
From 2004 the police have had a special code for reports of crimes in which a racist motive is suspected. Since then the number of such suspected hate-crimes has grown by a third. Last year the racism code was marked down in 325 criminal complaints.
Most of the recent racist crimes in Joensuu have involved vandalism. “For instance, the breaking of windows by cars owned by foreigners, or those of food stores run by them”, says Leevi Makkonen of the Joensuu Police Department. However, they also include assaults.
A spike in racist crimes has been seen in Lieksa, where asylum seekers have been placed in the past couple of years. “Youth gangs there have sought out opportunities to fight with immigrants settled there.”
A new generation is behind the most recent racist crimes. “The solved racist crimes have involved a few young people about 20 years old. Many smaller crimes have been committed by a few perpetrators”, Makkonen says.
The younger perpetrators of racist crimes have contacts with older skinheads. In May, police in Joensuu found a club room in an industrial area, with a Nazi flag on the wall. Makkonen says that it was used as a meeting place for different generations of right-wingers.
Older friends among the skinheads, favouring flak jackets and close-cropped hair, are the clearest common denominators of the far right of the younger generation. “Some say that they are students, some go to work, and some are unemployed”, Makkonen explains.
The skinhead groups of the 1990s were also found to have kids from many kinds of homes. The core group of 30 skinheads included children both from single-parent and nuclear families. Only a fraction made it through senior high school, but most had completed vocational education.
More than a political movement, the skinheads are reminiscent of a subculture united by opposition to everything that is “different”. Targets of the skinheads also included representatives of subcultures considered tolerant, such as hippies and hip-hoppers.
Criminal statistics give an impression of a vague and diffuse group with an eclectic criminal record. Of the hundreds of crimes committed by the Joensuu skinheads in 1995-1998, only slightly more than one in ten had a racist motive.
North Karelia, which is struggling with its new generation of skinheads, seems to be exceptional.
“Political views can be seen only in a few scattered crimes with foreigners as targets. There are no signs of organised activity”, says Tommi Tikka of the Oulu Police.
About ten years ago there were gang fights in Helsinki suburbs between Finns and immigrants. “Now the number of crimes committed by extreme right-wing groups can be counted on the fingers of two hands”, says police inspector Mika Pöyry.
According to the Security Police, Finland has a few dozen people who are members of active far-right groups.
In the chat room of the anti-immigrant Muutos 2011 (“Change 2011") group, the attitude toward the fringe groups is one of derision.
Internal disputes have undermined the group that was set up a few years ago. Still, the organisation hopes to collect the 5,000 signatures needed for the formation of a party.
One has to search quite far within the Finnish far right to find a group that does not want to be a party.
One such group is the National Resistance organisation. The organisation, which has attracted attention around the country with its sticker campaigns, swears by the name of National Socialism and urges people to join the fight for “the freedom of the North”.
We will shut down the present system, which has sold our future, which betrays our national and racial ideology, and which exclusively serves Zion, money, materialism, and short-sightedness is the declaration on the homepage of the movement. The oldest contribution on the page is from 2008.
One demand that stands out among the fascist goals is a call for the creation of a common Nordic state.
When asked to be interviewed, the members of the organisation refuse to speak to the “dominant media”.
The National Front is unlikely to get much success. The Finnish popular culture has always looked down on extremist movements that have a disdain for Parliamentarism.
“In Finland, extremist movements of both the right and the left have been moderate by broader European comparison. The ideal of order lies deep inside the Finnish political culture”, says Risto Alapuro, Professor Emeritus of sociology, who has studied political conflicts.
During the years that the Soviet Union existed, there were fears that getting out of line would throw open the doors to the bear from the East. This helped establish a conflict-averse political culture in Finland.
“People would prefer to embrace political disputes to death rather than push them out of the political debate.”
Researcher Vesa Puuronen, who has studied the Joensuu skinheads since the 1990s, recognises the embracing mechanism in the immigration debate.
“One of the peculiarities of Finnish politics is that even the smallest openings of debate by smaller movements are rapidly reflected in speeches of the large parties”, Puuronen says.
By taking on themes of immigration, the dominant parties deprive the far right of space and oxygen. So far, groups to the right of the True Finns party have not benefited from the increased intensity of the immigration debate.
Puronen feels that the success of the far right is hampered both by the lack of any credible leaders, and by supporters who shun traditional politics.
“They are reluctant to vote, and they run away if anyone proposes getting organised”, the researcher says.
This sounds very Finnish. In a moderate country, the radicals protest by sulking at home.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.8.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Immigration experts face racist harassment (16.3.2010)
Racist crime rarely leads to conviction in Finland (26.4.2007)
The racist attack that never was (26.11.2007)
Police looking into Joensuu’s current skinhead situation (4.5.2010)
Organised skinhead group fades away in Joensuu (8.8.2000)
MATTI RÄMÖ / Helsingin Sanomat