February 20, 2014

Breaking two myths with one stone

Rausmaa has overturned the myth that Finland, especially in the person of Mauno Koivisto, did not support Estonia’s efforts for independence.

Heikki Rausmaa. Kyllä kulttuurin nimissä voi harrastella aika paljon. Suomen ja Viron poliittiset suhteet keväästä 1988 diplomaattisuhteiden solmimiseen elokuussa 1991 [translation]. University of Helsinki, 2013.
Since Estonia regained independence, its relations with Finland are closer than those with any other country, but academic research on the subject is scarce. There are older analyses on the two nations’ relations and history, but now it seems relations with Finland can be summed up with the phrase “we know all this already.” Indeed, while a few articles have been written about bilateral relations,  there is still no broader overview.
Heikki Rausmaa has now taken it upon himself to fill the void, with a doctoral dissertation that disproves the myth that Finland, and especially Mauno Koivisto [Ed. note: born 1923, prime minister from 1968-1970 and 1979-1982; president from 1982-1994], did not support Estonia’s independence efforts and ignored events in the Baltics.
Far from it. In reality, Jaakko Blomberg, later ambassador to Estonia, formulated Finland’s foreign policy such that: 1) good relations with Moscow were maintained; 2) the Balts’ independence efforts were supported; and 3) the previous two principles were not in conflict with one another. Indeed, the key to effective foreign policy often lies in simplicity and clarity;  there is always a rule of thumb representing a certain state’s interests. But implementing—that is, framing—these rules is a different matter.
Presenting his dissertation at the Finnish Embassy in Tallinn last year,  Rausmaa made no secret of the fact that Finnish politics were motivated purely by the country’s own  realpolitik interests. His is thus not a romantic national interpretation  in search for a bridge to Finland as with  the era of Koidula and Jakobson.
As Finland had officially adopted a policy of not publicly supporting the Baltic states’ independence movements ( especially that of  Estonia), it concealed its activities under the guise of culture. The Koivisto quote used in the title of the book – “A great deal can be done in the name of culture” – tells us what’s really going on. In the shadows of cultural relations, Finland also provided political support to Estonia.
Estonian politicians got the message – only Edgar Savisaar [Ed. note—prime minister of Estonia 1991-92; now mayor of Tallinn] later criticized Finland for its meager support. In fact, obfuscation tactics were successfully implemented on both sides of the Gulf of Finland:  the Finns told Moscow that it was solely a matter of  culture, and although Moscow and its embassy in Helsinki watched closely, , no outcry ensued. At least in the early years, the beauty of the game was that in Estonia local officials voiced their support for perestroika (and perhaps there were some in Estonia who really believed those officials). Only in the spring of 1990—after   elections of the Congress of Estonia and the Supreme Council, when the Estonian Communist Party was ousted for good, was the course set for outright independence.
However, this obfuscation carried a price. Together with Moscow, the Estonian and Finnish public  did not see the reality of Finland’s support. Koivisto’s popularity in his own country actually  suffered, since  the Finnish public – in contrast to Finnish officialdom—openly  supported and helped Estonians. This was a peculiar phenomenon in Finnish society, considering how many years presidents Juho Kusti Paasikivi [Ed. note: served from 1946-1956] and Urho Kaleva Kekkonen [Ed. note: served from 1956-1982] had managed Finland’s foreign policy without regard for public opinion. But the world was becoming freer, the Soviet grip was loosening, and the people would not accept any such official smokescreen. It was a peculiar political catch-22  – if the public was let in on the secret, this would have risen the ire of Moscow. Thus, Finnish politicians, with Koivisto at the helm, had to come to terms with unpopularity. Moreover, Finland became isolated from the other Nordic countries, which wanted to give more official support to the Baltics.
It is this political elite to which Rausmaa has turned his attention. He has conducted a lengthy and thorough study of what the publications of Finland’s political parties had written about Estonia. This is useful, but it does not give the full picture, since Rausmaa’s analysis has for some reason left out the public reaction as portrayed by Helsingin Sanomat and Yle. After all, these media outlets, especially Yle, were also followed on this side of the Gulf of Finland. Yle’s reports on Estonia and the Baltics had a greater impact on the public, and probably on politicians as well, than did the party mouthpieces.
In the course of bursting one myth—that  Finnish officials did not want to help Estonia – Rausmaa inevitably exposes another, perhaps even bigger, myth. This myth has not only become  conventional wisdom, but is  a feature of Estonia’s current foreign policy:  that in 1991 we started with nothing, and look at where Estonia is today!
In reality, Estonia did not start with nothing in 1991. At end of the book, Rausmaa makes the extent of Finnish aid quite clear. In 1991 alone, Estonia received 50 million Finnish markka [Ed. note: Equivalent to €8.4 million, without accounting for inflation]. The same went for 1992 and 1993. “The Soviet Union would undoubtedly have collapsed on August 1991, thus freeing Estonia, whether or not Finland supported Estonia. Yet thanks to Finland’s support, Estonia was much more prepared for independence in August 1991 than it would have been otherwise,” writes Rausmaa.
And that’s the root of the problem. Estonia already had quite a lot at the moment of independence: crude but functioning institutions, financial aid (not only from Finland; much also came from Scandinavia and from Germany) and so on. Of course, Estonia’s desire to become an independent country was essential, and more research should be done—if  only in the context of comparative politics—on why foreign aid is successful in one country but not in others, even those that have received funding for decades. So why, after all is said and done, did the Soviet Union collapse in 1991, and what baggage did the former Soviet republics bring with them when they entered the new era of independence?
Reading Rausmaa’s dissertation, it becomes clear that there is much more academic research to be done on the period of the restoration of independence—as well as on  Estonian-Finnish relations. This work is certainly a strong step in that direction, and hopefully it will not be the last.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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