June 10, 2016

New Threat in the Baltic Sea Region?

Despite the very good relationship between Estonia and Finland, cracks occasionally appear in their communication. Naturally, I do not mean the fields of culture, trade or everyday contacts, but politics.

Finnish journalists Kaja Kunnas and Marjo Näkki, who have lived in Estonia for a long time, have written a nice book to explain to Finns why Estonia behaves differently from Finland in terms of foreign and security policy.
Finnish historian Jukka Tarkka already stated in his review of the book in Helsingin Sanomat that Kunnas and Näkki do not predict an attack on Estonia. Perhaps it seems relevant on the northern side of the Gulf of Finland that others have agreed with this position. When viewing all kinds of reports on the security situation in the Baltic Sea region, we can see that no one wants to suggest a direct Russian attack. Rather, people write that one cannot completely exclude the possibility of an attack.
We should begin exploring the book starting from its title: “Suomenlahden suhdekirja. Uudet vaaran vuodet” (On Relationships in the Gulf of Finland: New Years of Danger”). The choice of title is not random. In Finland, “years of danger” has come to signify the period from 1944 to 1948 when Finland was under the surveillance of a monitoring commission led by Andrei Zhdanov, the state had not yet entered into a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, and it was unclear whether Finland would remain a capitalist state or become communist in the event that far-left forces gained power. As we know, Eastern European states fled to the bosom of Communism in this period—with a little help from the Red Army, of course. There was no Red Army in Finland but Joseph Stalin could have occupied the country. The term “years of danger” comes from Lauri Hyvämäki’s eponymous book “Vaaran vuodet 1944–1948” (“Years of Danger 1944–1948”), published in 1954.
So now there is a new threat. What is it? After Russia occupied and annexed the Crimea and provoked military activity in eastern Ukraine, the West did not sit around and do nothing.
Finland is troubled by the presence of US forces in Estonia. In essence, they completely change the security situation in the Baltic Sea region, perhaps even more radically than the dissolution of the Soviet Union because the collapse of the “Soviet paradise” did not lead to the arrival of US forces. Neither did they come when the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004 or during the Russo–Georgian war of 2008.
However, the fact that US forces got here signalled that the previous security hide-and-seek needs to be stopped in Finland. For the Baltics, this meant strengthening ties with the US, while for Finland it signified the hope of improving its relationship with Russia.
At this point, the Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, enters the game—the book describes him as a soap opera star at home and a moral voice abroad. Ilves contributes to building a good relationship with the US, while Finnish leaders underline that they get on well with Russia. The book also describes misunderstandings between Estonian and Finnish leaders that have been already covered by the press on both sides of the Gulf.
However, Finland must now think about whether it wants to join NATO more carefully than before. The state’s relationship with Estonia, including understanding why Estonia wanted to join NATO, is one of the keys to the rusty locks of Finnish security policy. On the other hand, no quick changes can be made in foreign and security policy. Those interested in reading about the hardships Finland suffered on the road to acceding to the European Union can read the book by Jaakko Blomberg, former Finnish ambassador to Estonia, “Vakauden kaipuu. Kylmän sodan loppu ja Suomi” (“Longing for Stability: The End of the Cold War and the Finnish”). The desire to maintain stability lies behind the slow pace of change in foreign and security policy. It is, however, worth considering whether anything needs to be changed right now. The label of the “years of danger” seems to indicate that something needs to change.
One of the good points about Kunnas and Näkki’s book is that it shows how historical experiences have created completely different understandings of security guarantees. The book is very Estonia-centric but it would have been worth exploring the Finnish context a bit more as well. For example, there are many hard-core Communists left in Finland and anti-Americanism is deeply rooted there.
On the other hand, it is understood that the book is mainly intended for a Finnish audience, and discussing the Finnish context would not have been feasible given the probable prescribed length and deadline set for the authors. This is why the authors endeavour to explain the Estonian context.
As a result, readers are taken on a trip to Narva, the town about which the international media asked whether it would be next following events in the Crimea. Today it seems that it won’t, but it is questionable whether people should write so much about Narva. The people there are tired of foreign interest. In an interview in the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of Diplomaatia, President Ilves described how The Wall Street Journal’s Matt Kaminski took his voice recorder out in Narva and people immediately shouted that they did not want to join Russia …
Then again, Narva is not a dream destination for Finns, although it is the third-largest city in Estonia. There is no doubt that the county of Ida-Virumaa and its Russian population have shaped Estonian understandings about security. So writing about Narva need not be a sensationalist bid to project the Crimea scenario onto Estonia but, rather, an attempt to try to explain the roots of Estonians’ security thinking to the Finns.
Then there is Edgar Savisaar, of course. The leader of the Estonian Centre Party cannot be overlooked when writing about Estonia, and when wanting to explain Estonian politics to the Finns, Savisaar needs to be covered as well. He forms a kind of a core around which everything revolves in Estonian politics. It is also true that the majority of the Russian-speaking electorate votes for his party (Keskerakond).
The book ends with quite a strong message that, compared to Estonia, Finland is a big country. The authors underline that Finland is four times larger than Estonia in terms of population and seven times larger in area. Finnish salaries are three times higher and pensions four times larger than those of Estonians. Nevertheless, this statement does not mean juxtaposition—the outlook becomes more positive when we add the Estonian population to Finland’s five and a half million, as this adds up to seven million. The book’s exquisite final conclusion is that all seven million people are necessary.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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