Text by Iivi Anna Masso
Posted Online April 18, 2019
© 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard
College and the Massachusetts Institute of
Journal of Cold War Studies
Volume 21 | Issue 1 | Winter 2019
This book delves into a spy scandal involving fabricated allegations that an adviser to Finland's president in the 1990s had secretly worked for the East German State Security Ministry, the notorious Stasi, during the Cold War. Intrigues, backstabbing, and illegal leaks to the media made the whole thing painfully public. One might assume we were talking about a fictional television drama set in the tensest period of the Cold War. But, in fact, the book is a non-fiction account of an incident that occurred in the 21st century, long after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
In 2002 the Finnish security police, SuPo, officially opened an investigation into Alpo Rusi, a Finnish diplomat who had been enlisted as a foreign policy adviser to Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (in office 1994–2000), based on allegations that he had earlier worked as a spy for the Stasi. The allegations, which never led to a conviction, were leaked to the media, turning the case into an ugly process of public scapegoating. Rusi, together with Jarmo Korhonen, now tells the story behind the humiliating witch hunt in the book under review. The authors recount an important piece of Finland's political history and provide an anatomy of scapegoating.
The book is a painful reminder that a well-organized scapegoating operation—an operation based on “kompromat,” the Soviet-era term for compromising material—can work remarkably well. I can attest to its effectiveness, because it worked on me, a political scientist and long-term resident of Finland who should have known better. When the scandal erupted and Rusi suddenly came under suspicion, I did not question it.
At the time, I had just returned from a visiting fellowship in the United States and was preoccupied with writing my Ph.D. thesis on deliberative democracy. I did not closely follow either Finnish politics or Russian spy stories. What I heard about the Rusi case was what any average media consumer did. Finnish mainstream news channels fostered the image of a scapegoat, and I went along with it.
That is what makes Rusi's case a textbook example of how such labeling works. Even years later, when Rusi has repeatedly been proven innocent in courts and in public, some well-meaning and smart people still ask whether he could be guilty anyway. The public smear is harder to wash off than a misguided police investigation.
The launch of the Rusi-Korhonen book in November 2017 was well publicized in Finland and generated many positive reviews and a lot of attention—for a moment. The attention soon waned, however. The book could have, and perhaps should have, triggered a public debate about ethics in politics as well as in the media; that is, about the role politicians and journalists played in turning an innocent man into a criminal in the eyes of an entire country. Oddly, no such discussion has yet followed.
A central point made in the book is that Rusi was “collateral damage,” a scapegoat in an attack whose actual target was President Ahtisaari. The authors insist that the main goal of the investigation, which had been in the Works long before it was officially started and made public, was to prevent Ahtisaari from winning a second term in 2000. More broadly, they believe the scapegoating process was connected to wider and persistent attempts to steer Finland's foreign policy—in particular, the country's relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—in the “right” direction.
When in office, Ahtisaari was not yet a direct proponent of Finland's NATO membership, but he was open to a bolder debate on Finland's foreign policy options and was known for his pro-Western views. Rusi as his adviser was also considered a strongly pro-Western force in the president's office. The book offers plenty of evidence to connect some high-ranking Social Democratic politicians, such as the former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja and the former prime minister Paavo Lipponen, to the orchestrated campaign against Rusi.
These politicians are no longer in the government, but they are still active and widely respected public figures in Finland. Their continued presence in the public sphere underscores the urgent need for a public debate on how and why the campaign against Rusi could have happened in a stable Nordic democracy. The background information provided in the book raises important questions about the acceptable limits to power struggles and the ethics of lobbying. How can it be that when politicians are shown to have engaged in malicious smear campaigns by spreading groundless gossip and illegally leaking information about ongoing police investigations to the media they suffer no damage to their reputations?
What is perhaps even more troubling is the role of President Ahtisaari. The book does not paint a flattering picture of his behavior toward his persecuted adviser. By all indications, Ahtisaari did not support Rusi when the latter became the collateral target of attacks that were almost certainly directed at the president himself. The authors say Rusi found Ahtisaari's reaction “shocking.” As for the former president's readiness to reflect on the story in hindsight, the list of interviews at the end of the book includes an “interview request” to Ahtisaari. The request was turned down.
The book raises important questions about the responsibility of political leaders when the “active measures” of a foreign power victimize those around them. Does it matter how political leaders treat their subordinates? Where is the red line drawn? Is it acceptable to acquiesce in the vilification of a close aide if that seems to be required for your own political survival?
Another important question raised by the book is how we should react to such incidents. Public discussion has focused mostly on Internet trolls, vulgar comments, and hateful propaganda websites. Very little attention has been paid to the infiltration of foreign agents of influence into mainstream media and state institutions. Through those routes, disinformation is more subtle and more hidden and therefore much more effective and more dangerous. One of the merits of the book is that it meticulously shows how this “higher” kind of information warfare works in practice.
And work it does. If Rusi and Korhonen are right to insist that the indirect goal of smearing Rusi was to prevent Ahtisaari from having a second term in office, the goal was apparently reached. If a wider goal was to prevent any serious debate about Finland's eventual membership in NATO and to keep public opinion about joining the alliance firmly negative, then that, too, was largely successful. During the Finnish presidential election of 2018, in which the incumbent President Sauli Niinistö was reelected by an overwhelming majority at the first round, NATO was not really on the agenda of the campaign debates as an issue of serious disagreement. Only one of the eight candidates, Nils Thorvalds of the Swedish People's Party, openly endorsed joining NATO. He received only 1.5 percent of the vote, partly because many pro-NATO voters were put off by his Communist youth.
The book also offers something for journalists to think about. The investigation of Rusi was triggered by the sole fact that his name appeared on a Stasi document as someone who eventually could be contacted in the future. Apparently, Rusi's name had been mixed up, possibly on purpose, with that of his brother, who is fifteen years older and served as the government press secretary in 1968–1973, a period when Alpo Rusi was a student in high school and then the University of Helsinki. Alpo Rusi never actually became a contact, as Stasi officers repeatedly confirmed during the investigation. That investigation, based on just a tiny, obscure hint, would not have made Rusi a scapegoat in the eyes of the wide news-watching audiences if information about it had not been leaked to the media and if the media had not made a scandal out of it. The media worked in favor of the slanderers, either knowingly or out of laziness, presenting the case as if Rusi was assumed to be guilty by default.
The Rusi case has been thoroughly sorted out (a court case also found the state guilty of groundless indictment), but the discussion the book inspires should only be starting. The authors deserve thanks for getting the truth out, helping to deter would-be slanderers in the future. Campaigns of defamation still occur, however. In our golden age of “fake news” we should be less worried about Internet trolls and more vigilant about professionally orchestrated kompromat operations, of which the Rusi case is an unusually blatant example.
"The more you understand the world, the higher your chance of shaping it".
Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.
Valtiotieteen tohtori, suurlähettiläs, tasavallan presidentin entinen neuvonantaja, professori ja kirjailija.
Kirjoituksia saa lainata. Lähde on mainittava.