Ambassador Sakkov: Things haven't been this exciting in Finland in decades

Ambassador Sven Sakkov at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki.
Ambassador Sven Sakkov at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki. Source: ERR

In an interview with ERR earlier this month, Estonian Ambassador to Finland Sven Sakkov spoke about the year 2022, which proved a seminal one for Finnish politics, post-Finlandization, Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies' three earthshaking words in 2007 — and the significance of the large number of beautiful old American cars in Finland.

Former Finnish Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki [in office in 2003] has published a memoir which has been covered in depth by Finnish newspapers. This is a fantastic jumping-off point for our interview, which we're recording in Finland on Thursday [March 9].

Described in the book is Finland's internal political situation in the spring of 2003, where, ahead of the elections in Finland, the two biggest parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Center Party, were literally competing to see who could appear more anti-U.S. and -NATO.

The U.S.' war in Iraq had just begun, as had inviting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to join NATO, and somewhere behind closed doors, U.S. President George W. Bush proposed to then-Finnish Prime Minister and Social Democrat Paavo Lipponen as well that Finland should consider joining NATO.

These memos were leaked, sparking one of the biggest scandals in domestic Finnish politics in decades, and they impacted the results of the election.

Sven Sakkov, thinking back over the past 20 years, Finland's come a rather long way, hasn't it? What's happened in the last year in the attitude toward NATO is groundbreaking.

It's been absolutely groundbreaking.

As far as 2003 or more or less every other year is concerned in shaping Finnish foreign policy, Finland is characterized by the search for a very strong consensus — on many other issues as well, but specifically when it comes to foreign and security policy.

We're seeing it even now, in the votes on NATO accession. Last May, there were 188 votes in favor; there are 201 members in the [Eduskunta], but the speaker themselves cannot push the button. And now, when the NATO treaties were being ratified, there were 184 votes in favor. Even more Left Alliance representatives were in favor of it in parliament than against it.

It's been an exceptionally exciting year. I don't think things have been this exciting [in Finland] in 30 years.

Are you referring to the early 1990s, when Finland was joining the EU?

What happened in the space of a year from 1991 to 1992 — the Russian market and the Soviet Union collapsed, Finland's relations with Russia changed radically and Finland decided to join a major European organization. A break like that only happens once every 30 years.

If I remember correctly, then it was President [Sauli] Niinistö who in a public speech said something like Finns are characterized by a very stable calm attitude which appears phlegmatic on the outside, but if necessary, when circumstances require, they're capable of very rapid changes.

If something needs to be done suddenly, then they act very quickly, like in 1991-1992, which culminated in March 1992 with the application to join the EU.

At the time they were trying to catch up to Sweden. Incidentally, the Finns are hurt to this day that Sweden set sail toward the EU without consulting them, leaving them out in the cold somewhat.

Journalist Anvar Samost (left) and Ambassador Sven Sakkov at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki. March 9, 2023. Source: ERR

I've looked for examples to describe this breakthrough in security and foreign policy approach. I found a striking incident from 2007 where then-Finnish Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies — from the National Coalition Party, which is still a very important party today — went to speak in the United States and spoke a somewhat different language there, both literally and figuratively, than what Finnish politicians were accustomed to speaking to the Finnish people.

Asked what Finland's top security threats were, Häkämies replied, "Venäjä, Venäjä, Venäjä," or "Russia, Russia, Russia." This triggered widespread outrage in Finnish society. Häkämies received massive criticism; he suffered big time politically.

Now not too long ago, speaking before the Eduskunta, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Eduskunta Jussi Halla-aho said, "Killing Russian soldiers is a good thing, and Ukrainians should be helped to kill them." And this message now has broad public support! This is an enormous change!

Minor correction — Häkämies said, "Russia, Russia, Russia" [in English] when asked to name the main security risks to Finland. I heard it live; I was a defense adviser at the Estonian Embassy in Washington at the time. That night there was a reception garden at the Finnish Embassy. I went over to the minister and complimented him, saying that it was a really great speech, and that the question-and-answer part was especially good; I congratulated him on his clear message. He said, "You're the first person to say anything good about it." That he'd otherwise spent all day getting bawled out about it.

This very clearly illustrates how building and maintaining consensus is crucial in Finnish politics; this is valued in its own right.

I've asked politicians who had been active at the time after the fact that if Häkämies very clearly stated something that everyone knew and everyone agreed with, then why the trouble when he said it out loud?

The trouble was in the fact that he said it not before parliament, but abroad, that he hadn't agreed on it beforehand, and the president and the rest of the country's leadership weren't aware of it, is what I was told. In other words, Häkämies broke the consensus — there are some things you don't talk about, or they're talked about differently.

As far as I can compare, Estonia's foreign and security policy debate is much more intense, more genuine and more open. Here in Finland, it's channeled somewhere behind closed doors.

Finnish friends and colleagues have said throughout these decades that support for NATO membership there is very low — 21-23 percent — but when the president, the commander of the [Finnish Defense Forces], the defense minister, foreign affairs minister, prime minister — when a group like that goes on TV one night and says, "Dear people of Finland, we have to do this," then everything changes in an instant, and support isn't 21 percent anymore, but 61.

And that has since happened.

What happened is that last spring, public opinion changed at exceptional speed without politicians or the country's leadership having said anything.

So it actually happened the other way around?

Yes. Around February 24 last year, polling took place on four consecutive days, two of which were still in peacetime in Europe and two in wartime, and then it spiked to more than 60 percent.

If we look back at the period where public support for NATO was consistently 22-24 percent, neither the Finnish people nor its politicians had any illusions then either about what Russia is like. I'm talking about a period that was far from peaceful anymore — after 2008 or 2014. How could attitudes like this toward NATO exist?

Finland and Estonia may share a diagnosis — as can its people — but that doesn't mean that the prescription for what to do should be the same. They found that they can manage to ensure their security another way.

What's interesting is that at the time that general public support was 20-21 percent, it was 80 percent among officers or retired officers of the FDF. People knowledgeable about the matter had a different attitude.

I remember that in Estonia, prior to joining NATO and the EU, support for NATO and people's awareness of what NATO is were very clearly correlated. At the same time, the more people knew about the EU, the less they supported it — I'm talking about in 2003.

But here in Finland, this knowledge of what's involved has clearly existed all along.

Seeking consensus behind closed doors, looking for solutions not in public — this is rooted somewhat in Finland's history. Let's consider the [Finnish President Urho] Kekkonen era, where no one even wanted to hold public discussions on such topics, as public discussion would have upset a certain neighboring country too much.

Finland had a special relationship with the Soviet Union during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, during that period of Finlandization. There was a friendship treaty that formally covered very peculiar cooperation in which the Finns actually understood who they were working with, but they made deep compromises for survival's sake.

Much has been said about Finlandization. Over the past year however, within this groundbreaking period, people have started talking about the term "post-Finlandization," referring to the 2000s, where prominent Finnish politicians made statements that 40 years ago could have easily been said by Urho Kaleva Kekkonen as well.

This term is indeed currently in use. Last week, for example, a book was published that uses this term ["Jälkisuomettumisen ruumiinavaus" by Pekka Virkki].

If we're talking about economic relations, they were very close in the 2000s. Right now, big Finnish companies have had to, among other things, either extricate themselves or attempt to sell — led by Fortum, in retrospect with Fortum's catastrophic investment in Uniper, a German company ultimately nationalized by Germany. We in Estonia haven't really had anything.

We've had completely different relations with Russia.

And Russia has likewise had completely different relations with us.

We've been well immunized, and not because of the fact that we've always been very smart, but because starting in the 1990s already there were multiple tariffs [imposed] in our direction and so on — Russia itself has ensured that we aren't dependent on their economy. And thank God it turned out this way.

Let's look at a specific project like Nord Stream, which is connected to Finland in several different ways. When construction of the first Nord Stream pipe began, a lot of Finnish politicians tried hard not to call it a security issue; they said it was an economic issue.

Then-Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, Eero Heinäluoma, a leader of the SDP, of course former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, who later ended up a consultant for Nord Stream EG — that was just embarrassing — they all stressed that this was a purely economic issue from Finland's perspective, and this was moreover done at a time when the war in Georgia had already taken place. It was done at the time the second pipeline started being built and war had already begun in eastern Ukraine and Crimea was occupied.

Has any sort of different take on this in retrospect come up over the past year?

In journalism, yes; investigative journalism has produced some very interesting articles.

It wasn't just Finland, though. Germany's state leaders said the exact same thing — that they see no security issue involved whatsoever; that this was purely an economic matter; that its construction was perhaps somewhat of an ecological matter, but that there was no foreign or security policy dimension to it whatsoever.

Once again, Estonia was right about that.

We had a pretty big dispute about it as well. It was pretty close, one could say.

I don't remember a dispute as such; it seemed to me as though we have a very clear position.

We had a well-known former politician, a businessperson, who wanted to store those sections of pipe at for example the Port of Sillamäe and so on.

I've been to the Port of Kotka; I've seen that enormous lot where they were stored and where there is now a completely empty lot.

From a journalistic perspective, ex-post analysis has indeed taken place in Finland, but politically? Many of those politicians remain active — like Erkki Tuomioja, Alexander Stubb — some have left, and some are somewhere in between.

Knowing Finnish society, will political reappraisals be forthcoming or will that remain at the journalism coverage level? Will the breakthrough that's occurred from a security policy perspective bring about an ex-post reappraisal from an internal policy perspective?

Honestly, I don't know how to gauge that.

I can say that there are elections coming up in Finland — parliamentary elections are being held April 2 — but there are no signs that digging around in the past is a significant part of election issues.

The election issues are different. What the future holds, that I can't say.

Looking back one more time at the post-Finlandization period, can we say that something like this can never happen in Finland again? That that is firmly behind them? That Finland has gone through that stage in history where it had special relations with the Soviet Union, and economic cooperation relations with Russia, but all of that has ended and that period in Finnish history is over for good?

The Finns indeed are saying as much quite clearly and in unison, that they see no chance of economic relations with Russia returning or that they'd want them to return. And there aren't really any voices to the contrary to be heard here; perhaps those people just aren't speaking up.

I think that some day in the future, once the regime has changed in Russia, all of Europe will be faced with this question.

I myself am immensely skeptical that Russia's fundamental imperialist nature will change.

Even if the person changes, if the regime bears a different title, the Russian, Muscovite Empire has been doing the same thing over and over for the past 500 years. Starting with the conquering of Kazan in 1552, followed immediately by Old Livonia and then Astrakhan. Ever since Russia started morphing into an empire and conquering the peoples around them, it's just been the same policy all along.

We know this — we've experienced it enough firsthand — but have our Western European friends, with their constant wishful thinking that Russia is big and important or that they have to get along well? And should the opportunity for this ever present itself, I cannot be so sure that there won't be a rush for it.

If someone new comes and says I'm a democrat and let's change our relations and the worst thing you could do is demand some sort of reparations or extraditions right now because our society doesn't understand that, we have a democracy and then crazy people will come to power. That right now I am your only hope.

It has always been the case that the West looks at whoever is in power at the time as just about the only hope, that everyone else is even worse. All the time, since the time of Gorbachev: don't rock the boat here, otherwise crazy people will come to power. But it was [Russia's first president Boris] Yeltsin who came to power instead.

Who opened fire on his own country's freely elected parliament. Western countries supported him.

We became free.

Ambassador Sven Sakkov at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki. March 9, 2023. Source: ERR

We've spoken about Russia and Finnish-Russian relations, but Finland has other important neighbors and foreign political partners with whom the security policy breakthrough has led to changes in relations.

Finland and Sweden met with Turkey in Brussels on Thursday. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO together, but as you recalled from 1992, when Finland followed Sweden into the EU, these two countries are once again moving in tandem with respect to NATO, but once more there's a note of mistrust there — although maybe in reverse, as it seems Finland will have an easier way in than Sweden due to Turkey and in part Hungary's recalcitrant behavior.

What does the Finnish-Swedish relationship — which from the Finnish perspective has been absolutely vital throughout history — currently look like?

For Finland, that relationship with Sweden is indeed incredibly important; you could sort of compare it with how Estonian society feels about Estonia's relationship with Finland.

I don't quite agree that there are any sort of notes of mistrust between Finland and Sweden with respect to their road to NATO.

I believe it was very clearly to Finland's credit that Sweden made its decision so quickly — under the previous government already — because Finland's goal was to join together with Sweden if possible. Hand in hand.,

The difference now isn't due to them not trusting one another, but rather the possibility that Turkey will ratify only Finland's application and that Sweden will be left hanging.

It's very unlikely that this will happen during the current composition of Turkey's parliament. But after that there's still some time until the Vilnius summit. NATO exists from summit to summit, which is why this timeframe is important. Now the question arises — if Turkey ratifies only Finland, what then?

Personally I'm sure and I see that Finland has made all their decisions. Then the paperwork will be taken to Washington, where, according to the North Atlantic Treaty, the state will become a full member of NATO the moment their instruments of accession are deposited with the U.S. State Department.

It would of course be best for us, Finland, Sweden as well as all of NATO if they indeed became members of NATO together, but as quickly as possible.

If the Sweden process should drag on, how will that impact public opinion in Sweden? I don't know Sweden very well, but such a concern could very well exist, and we're not talking about a couple of months here, but rather if this should drag on for longer.

How does Finnish public debate regard the possibility that Finland may end up in NATO without Sweden? Is it regarded positively or are they critical? Is there any support for this? Approval?

The last poll I saw about this was several weeks old, but it might have been something like 53 percent of Finns believe that if this is the case, then they shouldn't wait for Sweden.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin has repeatedly expressed that, and I quote, "We're all aware that the best option for everyone is if we join together," which actually leaves all options open.

What will even become of Sweden in the event that its NATO accession should end up dragging? Let's assume this will in Sweden is maintained at the political level and among the people — evidently this would be a situation where they have security guarantees comparable to NATO on the part of NATO [member] states?

Well no security guarantee without NATO membership will necessarily work, even if given by the U.S. and U.K. The Budapest Memorandum is a good example of this.

That is a very brutal example.

Yes, but let's think back, and put it into perspective. Estonia's NATO accession process lasted ten years. Of this, we had a format for five years in which we could actively work on this — we were a [Membership Action Plan] state. The ratification process lasted 14 months.

And now? Eight months. The ratification process began at the beginning of July; Finland and Sweden submitted their applications for NATO membership on May 18, 2022. Everything has taken place at lightning speed.

When I tell this to Finns, they then say that that was during peacetime, but right now there's a war going on in Europe. I say yes, and that's why Estonia joined during peacetime. That that's the whole point.

We have always said that it's useful to join NATO when it's possible to do so calmly and without arousing strong emotions. Well, and so it went that Finland and Sweden chose a different path. What I want to say is that nothing is catastrophically broken — if it should take Sweden a couple more months, I wouldn't call this a difficult or insurmountable issue.

Turkey is a very important and yet not at all easy NATO member. We've seen this ourselves with our matters in NATO, but we've ultimately always arrived at solutions on everything, and indeed, as much as we're hearing publicly, Turkey doesn't seem to have any issues with Finland.

Because Finland bound itself to Sweden, it has ended up in a situation where Turkey is currently holding ratification back. If we look at the issues Turkey has publicly talked about as holding them back, they've all been tied to Sweden, not Finland.

Prior to making the decision, President Niinistö called [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan — the communication channel was there, and no problems were foreseen at the time.

If we look at the change in security and internal policy that has taken place in Finnish society, one very important aspect is certainly relations with the United States.

Historically, Finland has not had very good relations with the U.S. Looking back at 2003 again, where we first began, just as Finnish politicians competed among themselves to see who could manage to be most unforthcoming in terms of NATO, they also competed to see who could manage to say the nastiest things about the U.S. president at the time or be most critical of the War in Iraq.

During her terms of office, [Finnish] President Tarja Halonen hardly spoke with the president of the U.S. at all. Now everything has changed; President Niinistö has been in the U.S. so much that I couldn't even tell you just how much.

He's there right now too.

How has this relationship developed?

When it finally became clear to people in Estonia who have been involved their whole lives in security policy that Finland is indeed actually joining NATO, we rubbed our hands together and were overjoyed because now we can really start working on bilateral Estonian-Finnish defense cooperation.

When the same realization dawned on people who have been involved their whole lives in Finnish security policy, then their first instinct was that this is great, now we can really start doing stuff with the Americans. The F-35 decision had been made before that already, but same line.

We already talked about what security guarantees are worth or what they aren't, but what's much more effective than some piece of paper anyway is still the physical presence of the U.S. or other significant NATO member states, above all nuclear states — with troops, ships and planes.

A very intensive program of joint military exercises has been launched over the past year. When I read the papers, it seems like the Americans are always training somewhere, especially up north, as that is a resource Finland has — meaning how to wage war in the Arctic. And they know how to do this very well. From Finland's perspective, this will provide an opportunity for intense technological cooperation and technology transfer.

This is the sort of military, technical side. But how is Finnish society going to start looking toward the U.S.? There are a significant number of intellectuals, socially relevant thinkers here who throughout their lives have been exceptionally critical of the United States — even in ways that would be startling in Estonia.

At the same time, nowhere else have I seen as large a concentration of beautiful old American cars and as many Elvis impersonators as in Finland. There are even TV specials about it.

In other words, this is a complex issue, where the U.S.' softer power has also had an incredibly profound impact through this Cold War.

Ambassador Sven Sakkov (left) and journalist Anvar Samost at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki. March 9, 2023. Source: Emma Tamm/ERR

We've spoken at length about Finland's relations with Russia, NATO, the U.S. and Sweden. Let's talk about Finland itself too.

Finland is about to hold parliamentary elections in completely new circumstances. People surely have different considerations than during the previous elections.

Before the interview I looked at the latest party ratings, but there was no indication that anything was much different — the top three parties were largely the same a year ago. A couple of parties had traded places, but the center-right National Coalition Party (NCP) is ranked first, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) is at a close second, the right-wing Finns Party is right behind, and then come the Center Party, the Left Alliance, the Greens — this makes it seem like [Finnish] society is stable and no major changes have taken place.

The NCP's success has been gradually drying up over the past four months. At one point their lead over the Social Democrats was five percent.

I remember four years ago, the three big ones were all within one percent of one another at the elections. We might end up with a photo finish again, where it ends up being difficult to predict whether the NCP, the Social Democrats or the Finns Party will win.

What has changed over the last four years is that support for the Center Party keeps going down a notch all the time.

The Center Party is an [agrarian] party representing rural residents' and agricultural interests, which in its day was very big. That very same Anneli Jäätteenmäki we talked about was a Center Party prime minister.

Yes, historically speaking it has been one of the big ones, one of the three big ones; now their spot among the big three has been taken over by the Finns Party. The Center Party is below 10 percent right now. That is one of the key issues of this election — what percent will they earn, and how will they feel?

Center Party politicians are rather openly stating that they've been in the government too long; that the current outgoing government is too left-wing for them; that they've been punished for it by their voters and supporters. This shows in the drop in support. Unless they get an unexpectedly good election result —

Which is quite unlikely.

— then it's difficult to imagine they'll be in the next government.

At the same time, the next government may, unlike the current one, end up right-wing — or a bourgeois government, as they say in Finland.

And the Center Party is precisely who is needed to put this bourgeois government together. It won't come together without them. And that's the big intrigue — if the NCP wins, who they'd have the opportunity to form a government with.

The NCP and the Finns Party would also need the Center Party, maybe someone else as well.

Should that not end up being possible because the Center Party wants to be in the opposition, analysts are writing and saying that the next likely option in the case of a NCP win is what is even historically known as a "blue-red" government, i.e. a National Coalition Party and Social Democratic government.

One interesting party from Estonia's perspective is the Finns Party. I've been comparing the parallels in developments between [the Conservative People's Party of Estonia] and the Finns Party with some interest.

Regarding the Ukraine issue, for example, the Finns Party, under the aegis of its ex-chair Jussi Halla-aho, has been one of Ukraine's biggest supporters in Finland — they are the ones who have continuously been pushing Finnish policy and society to give Ukraine more weapons and more firmly and clearly support them, quite unlike the rhetoric we've heard from EKRE in Estonia. The Finns Party has likewise significantly adapted its other rhetoric to public expectations.

What could their political outlook be following Finland's parliamentary elections — would they once again make, but this time much moreso, a suitable government partner?

Considering what they themselves or even NCP leaders have said, one entirely possible option precisely is the Finns Party plus some remaining parties, right? We talked about the Center Party.

At the same time, it's not that easy. Because one very clear distinction between the Finns Party and the NCP is the labor migration issue, where the NCP says that specialists from all over the world need to be brought into Finland to level Finland's aging population — more good, highly educated, hardworking folks — but the Finns Party is against this.

In 2015-2016, during the migration crisis in Europe, Finns Party leaders, especially current Foreign Affairs Committee chair Jussi Halla-aho, very clearly stated that those were young men who wanted to come here at the time, but right now we're seeing that the war refugees are women and children. That the men are at war, the women and children are refugees and it is our duty to help them. This is a very clear distinction.

I recommend reading Jussi Halla-aho's tweets. His understanding of Russia, of the nature of Russia, would suit Estonia's political landscape perfectly as well. Incidentally, he speaks Russian and Ukrainian. His doctorate was on the morphology of Proto-Slavic verbs on the basis of Old Church Slavic.

He's a very fascinating politician. I've honestly never met one like him before, where, no matter the interview, you could directly transcribe everything he says. It's all so logical; every comma precisely in place. You wouldn't have to edit a single thing — just straight to the printer and publish it.

The Finns Party is very different from what it was in 2015-2016. Ultimately the Finns Party has two issues on which this party has been formed — one has been Euroskepticism and the other, opposing immigration.

Not too long ago, the Finns Party's current leader drew a lot of political attention by saying in an interview somewhere that withdrawing Finland from the EU still remains a programmatic objective of theirs. But they don't appear to be actively pursuing this; it seems to just be an issue they have listed somewhere.

Finally, let's come back to Estonia. Finland has always served Estonia as a good yardstick for measuring Estonia's own development. I know the Latvians often use Estonia as a similar yardstick. Every time I visit Latvia, sooner or later it comes up in conversation with Latvians about how [we] did something, how the Latvians did it and how the Latvians feel the Estonians did a better job of it.

Given the new circumstances, will people in Finland start to look toward Estonia as a possible example on some matters?

It's traditionally Sweden that Finland looks toward that way.

A perfect illustration of this whole history can be found way back in 1908, when a caricature was published in Sädemed, [daily] Postimees' humor supplement, featuring an Estonian and a Finn, with one standing on Estonian territory and looking northward through a spyglass, and then there's a Finn on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland looking southward through their spyglass. Everything is accurate besides the fact that the Finn is holding their spyglass backwards.

As I said before, in connection with NATO we'll now have many opportunities for military defense cooperation. It's another matter that the Finns will be more interested in defense cooperation specifically with bigger countries like the U.S. and U.K. But we have the Gulf of Finland; the majority of Estonians live on its northern coast, and the majority of Finns on its southern coast. The majority of us live within approximately 300 kilometers of one another on either coast here — this is an important factor.

We're hearing this said the most by Prime Minister Sanna Marin — that we should have listened to you; that you, the Estonians, were right. Of course it's not just the Finns saying this.

Estonia's problem is that it's nice to know that we were right, but we want to be listened to now; for us to be right now; that people aren't coming to us ten years from now and saying we should have listened to you but didn't. This is the most important thing we have to work on here in foreign policy.

The forces behind Finland's new economy play a very important role, as they have a completely different attitude toward Estonia. For them, Estonia is a prominent and interesting example to move toward in terms of digital and e-state developments.

How unicorns are raised in Estonia, how venture capital is involved in the creation of new startups, everything in which we rank first in Europe — all of this interests these people in particular. I'm not talking about the political elite; rather, it's the interest of the new economy's business elite in Estonia that's increasing by the year.

Ambassador Sven Sakkov at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki. March 9, 2023. Source: ERR


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