While Finland is expected to provide help in case of an attack on the Baltic States, whenever helping Finland is brought up, the response is restricted to “Join NATO,” noted Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in an interview with ERR. The Finnish president, who arrived in Estonia on a state visit today, does not consider this approach fair.
The Finnish president was interviewed on ETV’s “Välisilm” by Rain Kooli.
You recently returned from a joint state visit of Nordic leaders to Washington. What, in your opinion, was most important on this visit?
For obvious reasons, the main theme this time was security. And the promotion of both joint Nordic as well as bilateral relations, of course.
It is difficult to avoid the sense that relations between Finland and the United States have been growing closer. Minister of Foreign Affairs Timo Soini has recently spoken of the US in a perhaps even laudatory way, noting, among other things, that the US was Finland’s “secret love” during the Cold War already. Today nothing remains a secret, so how would you rate the relationship between the two countries — is this public coddling or what?
Well, I am not a particular coddler in any direction. Everything tends to be overanalyzed in the atmosphere currently prevailing in Finland. There are two extremes. My visit to Moscow causes one extreme — and, by the bye, the Estonian press as well, to some extent — to immediately interpret it as our having become so, so Finlandized… And on the other hand, my visit to Washington garners fierce reactions from the other extreme — as though we were laying down at the US’ feet.
But thankfully these extremes are on the smaller side. The overwhelming majority of people understand that we are maintaining as good of relations with our big neighbor as possible in such circumstances, while on the other hand it is in our own best interest to maintain good relations with the US.
So Finland has acknowledged the bipolar nature of the current world, but can we assume based on what you are saying that Finland refuses to choose sides between Washington and Moscow?
Finland bases its security policy on the fact that we will defend Finland in all circumstances, and we have fairly good resources for doing so — at least enough resources to force any [aggressor] to consider that [Finland] would put up a proper fight. At the same time, everyone can consider the fact that they have a good partner in Finland. Our geographical position is such, however, that it is worth it for us to use the diplomatic approach as well — to the extent that this is possible.
What more would have to happen in international politics before Finland’s international policy leaders found that it was time to bypass anti-membership public opinion and apply for NATO membership?
I am not prepared to bypass public opinion, especially on a topic of such burning importance to Finns. In order for anything to change with regard to this subject, public opinion on it would have to change [first]. Related to this subject is this in my opinion strange assertion that the people should not be asked anything via referendums because the people do not understand anything and give the wrong answers. We put joining the EU up for approval by referendum. Given the prevailing situation I would consider joining NATO an even bigger topic.
One of the central themes of a report recently published in Finland assessing the effects of NATO membership was the strategic importance of the preservation of independence of the Baltic States to Sweden and Finland. The question of what would happen in an actual military situation — whether Finland and Sweden would come to our aid — has been discussed in Estonia. Would Finland allow NATO forces to use its territory if needed to defend Estonia and the other Baltic States?
My position is that speculating on military situations is somewhat inappropriate. Of course such topics are discussed, but if these discussions were brought before the public, this would quickly give way to hopeless speculation and faulty assessments. At this point I’d like to point out two things. First of all, the Host Nation Support Agreement signed with NATO does not obligate us to do anything. Second, we constantly hear questions about whether Finland would help, but never an offer that “We could help Finland.” And the response to this discrepancy is that this is your own fault — join NATO and then we will help. And so it’s as though Finns were obligated to help despite the fact that we are so stupid that we won’t even join NATO. The equation doesn’t work quite like that…
Last year, ten times more asylum seekers arrived in Finland than during the year before, and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä has already declared that Finland has reached its breaking point. How much has this extraordinarily large flow of refugees changed Finnish society?
I wouldn’t say that it has changed Finnish society that much, but I do share the prime minister’s concern, to which I drew attention last fall already. Our situation thankfully isn’t as chaotic as it was and and remains in Southern and Central Europe, and so despite the arrival in Finland of 35,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, the situation is relatively under control. Changes caused by all of this will only become apparent after a longer period of time. The integration period is currently underway, which presents its own challenges.
But Finnish society has still changed: you yourself have pointed out that sharp language, lack of mutual understanding and hate speech have all cropped up.
It’s true that more visible judgment has arisen. At the same time, however, I have seen studies according to which the people’s values have not changed. It’s just that now those with forceful judgments highlight them more readily — and violently, in the case of Molotov cocktail attacks by extremists.
In the past year and a half, 2,500 people with unknown motives and backgrounds have disappeared from Finnish asylum seeker centers. How dangerous do you consider this in terms of crime and terrorism?
I sensed this danger as soon as the flight began in August of last year. As we tracked the origins of those arriving, then for example nobody at first came to us from Syria, while a major part of arrivals were young men from Iraq, of whom a portion have voluntarily turned back — which means that they were not escaping from any immediate danger.
It was easy to tell that of those individuals who did not meet the criteria for asylum and were denied their request, some just disappear without any documentation — and we do not know where. Surely some remain in Finland. The same problem exists at a much greater scale in Sweden, and in Germany as well, where there are actually tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in whose case their whereabouts and plans are unknown.
I of course do not mean to say that they are all automatically criminals. These are often people — like the young Iraqis who left [home] after the war — who are simply seeking a better life. Which is a perfectly human and in itself acceptable endeavor — we are all striving toward that. The issue is the mass of people. Those people in true distress have had to suffer as a result of the fact that those who could afford it and were simply seeking a better life went on the move as well.
Speaking of masses, Estonians have no need anymore to come to Finland as refugees, but they come to work in Finland by the tens of thousands anyway. Clearly all of them would not find work in the Estonian job market. As a result, the Finnish job market essentially becomes a part of Estonia’s social security, to which Estonia, in turn, does not have to contribute as much as a result. Do you consider this situation sustainable?
In the long run this is certainly not a sustainable solution. I do have to admit, however, that this reminds me of the 1960s and 70s, when Finland and Finns used Sweden as a buffer in the same way — in more or less the same numbers in relative to population size. This slightly disproportionate situation thrived over the years — some Finns returned to Finland, yet others integrated and their descendants remain in Sweden to this day. By the 1980s, however, this phenomenon between Finland and Sweden had disappeared. I believe the same will happen between Estonia and Finland.
You are very popular among your people. How is that?
I can’t read people’s minds. Even I have been surprised to get the most votes in parliamentary elections three times since the 1990s, and it appears as though trust [in me] remains. I don’t know what else to say other than that I try to give my best to be worthy of that trust.
Do you plan on running for a second term as president?
You are remarkably early in asking that question.
Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik