Mauno Koivisto (25 November 1923–12 May 2017)
Former Finnish President Mauno Koivisto, who departed this world in May, was perhaps the most controversial Finnish politician for Estonians. It has now become clear that Koivisto, who appeared to falter in supporting and recognising Estonia, really did support the country—through cultural cooperation, in which Finland invested tens of millions of marks. It just had to look more discreet from a diplomatic perspective.
Several analysts have already noted that the question of supporting Estonia was more or less the only point on which the Finnish public—which is usually fine with the foreign policy of its country’s leaders—did not understand Koivisto’s policy. Let us recall the early 1990s, when Finland was open for Estonians and every Estonian knew a Finn and vice versa. People went to Finland to buy goods that could not be had in Estonia or simply to look around and breathe the air of freedom, like the author of this piece. There was a lot of enthusiasm at the grassroots level. And then Koivisto made some statements …
We have to understand the environment that Koivisto came from. He was the first president after Urho Kaleva Kekkonen, whose 25-year term of office was an entire era in Finnish history. Koivisto began his career during Finlandisation, and at the end of his term Finland was ready to accede to the European Union. In the years from 1982 to 1994, while Koivisto was president, the world changed beyond recognition. Finland, which previously had to ask Moscow what international organisations it could join, suddenly understood that this was no longer required.
Koivisto understood Finland’s neighbour very well. His book The Russian Idea is about coping with the eastern neighbour. In 2002, I got the chance to interview Koivisto at a presentation of the book, which had been translated into Estonian. He warned that he would not talk about the early 1990s or the recognition of the Baltic States, but only about his book. I think we had about ten minutes and we did not cover many subjects. When I asked what might be Finland’s and Estonia’s “idea”, Koivisto’s reply was brief: to survive.
It is characteristic of Finns—and maybe also of Estonians—that when something has been decided, the choice is not changed. When, in 1991, Koivisto decided to recognise Estonia—the then prime minister, Esko Aho, described this decision-making episode colourfully in his memoirs—there was no way back. Koivisto, who had slopped a bucket of cold water over the Baltic nations in 1991, was the first Western head of state to visit Estonia in 1992. Since then, Estonian-Finnish relations have only bloomed, albeit with some misunderstandings over NATO and Russia. One might say that Koivisto set the tone for the modern relationship.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.