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Opinion digest: Finland's great century

Erkki Bahovski, editor of Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia, wrote in an opinion piece in Postimees on Wednesday that Finland's success remaining independent gives all small states a reason to hope that they'll prevail in the 21st century as well.

While 100 years are just a glimpse in the world's history, the same period is quite the achievement in the case of a small state, Bahovski wrote. Looking at the states that came into being following the First World War, Finland was in fact the only one that had been independent the whole time.

Finland declared its independence in 1917, still before the end of the war. A year later, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan followed. Ukraine made several unsuccessful attempts. Not one of these countries made it through the 20th century without being invaded, annexed, and occupied, Bahovski pointed out.

But what were the factors that allowed Finland to remain independent?

What took the country through a century characterized by industrial wars, genocide, superpowers and the threat of nuclear annihilation was the Finn's determination to remain independent, Bahovski thinks. According to him, this answer, if a bit simple, is the best explanation.

Finland's beginnings were difficult. Coming out of a civil war, the young state suffered from wounds that didn't heal until it had to fight off the Soviet Union in the Winter War and the Continuation War. Like Estonia, Finland had to cope with life in the shadow of its much bigger neighbor, Bahovski wrote.

Both countries were granted a break between the wars, if only because the Soviet Union couldn't move any sooner due to its internal problems, which included civil wars, famines, liquidating Stalin's opponents, collectivization, and industrialization.

When towards the end of the 1930s the giant finally awoke, Finland decided to oppose the Soviet Union's attempts at occupying the country. As Bahovski pointed out, there hadn't been too many positive examples of this. The already authoritarian Baltic states had given up, Poland was occupied, and even democratic Czechoslovakia had given in to Hitler. When the Winter War began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on Nov. 30, 1939, Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist.

After surviving its two wars against the Soviets, Finland had to get arranged with an existence in limbo between the East and West, dealing with the Soviet Union in its own way. This meant that at times the country wasn't able to call a spade a spade, and needed to run a kind of politics that always needed to take the country's geopolitical position into account.

The task of Finland's foreign policy at the time was to uphold the country's image as a properly democratic state, Bahovski wrote. This meant balancing off the policy of Finlandization. In April 1948, the "Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union" was signed, resulting in what became known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, after two of Finland's presidents in the post-war era.

This approach to foreign policy was based on the need to maintain a stable and peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union, and came at some cost to national politics. Though the state maintained democracy and parliamentarism, there were limits to both the freedom of expression as well as the flexibility of national policy.

Finland managed to remain neutral only because of its amicable attitude towards the USSR, while at the same time keeping the West at arm's length. This stance turned "Finlandization" into a term used as a pejorative in the West, usually referring to countries that refused to take a side and remained opportunistic regarding their own foreign policy positions.

Despite its drawbacks, the policy worked, though as an aftereffect Finland faced plenty of difficulties after the collapse of its neighbor and struggled to find a new direction.

Finland joined the European Union in 1995, but never joined NATO. The Finnish people simply don't want to. The most recent survey in the matter showed that just 22 percent would support such a move. But integration in the EU and challenges like the economic and financial crisis as well as the onslaught of the migration crisis are forcing Finland to contemplate what its own future in the 21st century might look like, and what has to be done to maintain the country's independence, Bahovski wrote.

In a nutshell, Finnish politics has followed Carl von Clausewitz's famous axiom of war being the continuation of politics by other means, Bahovski wrote, namely by defending its politics and its wish to remain independent by military force. The wish for a country of their own has been of decisive importance to the Finns for 100 years, and seems to hint that there is hope for the smaller countries in the 21st century as well.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

Source: Postimees

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