The Presidency of Martti Ahtisaari 1994-2000 needs to be re-evaluated - was he displaced by a pro-Russian clique mainly in his own party?
A blog post by Alpo Rusi (uusisuomi.fi, February 1, 2019)
An unofficial and slightly amended translation
Former UN diplomat Martti Ahtisaari was inaugurated the tenth President of the Republic of Finland on March 1, 1994. He was eligible for another six year term in 2000 but his party, the Social Democrats (SDP) wanted to organise a new pre-election process to test his popularity inside the party. The procedure was clearly initiated by a small, but powerful clique inside the party to prevent his re-election.
One of the main reasons of Ahtisaari’s victory in the presidential election in 1994 was popular discontent over the political system and ”the old faces”, who were criticised for the recession broke out in 1992. Ahtisaari was also the first President ever elected by a direct people’s vote in Finland. Many experts were worried the direct vote may have made President’s position too strong.
Ahtisaari and his cabinet - the author of this blog was a member - had to envisage a more democratic and independent role for the President. This caused a gradually deepening conflict between Ahtisaari and the old political elite as well as the mainstream media with close ties with the old faces. He was like a new kid on the block.
For Ahtisaari, the post-Cold War security environment was perfect concerning his experience and mentality. He often mentioned that he would not have been a good choice as President during the Cold War when Finland was under the Soviet sphere of influence. As President, his strategy could be defined with three goals: (1) to facilitate the joining of his country to the EU and at the same time to normalise the relations with the Russian Federation, (2) to contribute to the reduction of unemployment in particular by promoting Finland’s commercial relations with the new markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America, (3) to promote openness, justice and tolerance in the Finnish society.
During his first year as President Finland joined the European union. Further, a recovery from the worst economic recession and unemployment since the World War II began and not without Ahtisaari’s contribution. However, the researchers and journalists whose narrative often stressed that it was Ahtisaari’s predecessor, Social Democrat Mauno Koivisto (1982-94) who was the key facilitator of the Finnish EU membership, although the membership was decided by the people in a referendum in October 1994. Furthermore, the ground work for the membership was made by the non-socialist coalition government of Esko Aho (Center party) in 1992-1994 consisting of the application in March 1992 and of the negotiations in 1993-94. Ahtisaari, for his part, made a decision that Finland would hold a referendum before Sweden, which may have been decisive for both countries’s memberships, because the majority for the membership in Sweden was extremely narrow in the polls. The result of Finland’s referendum strengthened the majority for the membership in Sweden, too.
Finland had not, however, recovered mentally from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The strong communist movement, financially supported by the CPSU, disappeared but otherwise nothing changed too much. The Soviet Embassy in Helsinki had now a Russian national flag while the diplomats remained the same. The Finnish political elite was a child of the Cold War era. The key politicians were of the opinion that ”good relations” with the Eastern neighbour was always the basis of Finland’s foreign policy. This was easy because the diplomats at the Russian embassy were old friends.
In 1992 the director of the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs, Paavo Lipponen (SDP) stated in an article that ”as a member of the EU Finland has to maintain her excellent relations with Russia and this policy line has to be accepted by the EU”. One could think that such a condition constituted a kind of an opting-out for independent Finnish-Russian relations within the EU framework.
Lipponen became the Prime Minister in 1995 and ruled a large coalition government with the conservative party until 2003. His ”master work” was to launch the planning of Gazprom’s pipeline via the Baltic sea route in 2001 based on the initiative of the Northern Dimension of the EU in September 1997. Lipponen became a consultant of Gazprom in August 2008 and advocated his role as a bridge-builder between the EU and Russia.
It would be of crucial importance to scrutinise the possible Russian impact on the EU membership process in the early 1990s in Finland, Sweden and Norway. A former KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky has revealed that in Norway the KGB influenced the anti-EEC movement in the early 1970s and Norway voted against the EU membership in October 1994. May it be so that in Finland the KGB influenced the anti-EEC movement in Helsinki in the early 1970's but failed to influence in 1994? Finland had expulsed altogether 13 Russian spies with a diplomatic cover in June 1992, which was published in January 2017. The successor organs of the KGB, SVR and GRU were first weakened but recovered strongly in Helsinki already in 1995.
The work of the tenth President of Finland was made difficult by two main factors. First, there was a political dispute about the powers of the President based on the Constitution. Second, there was a dispute looming on the horizon inside the political elite about the direction of Finland’s relations with her Eastern neighbour. It was clear that the the old political elite with close ties to the Kremlin was irritated to be criticised for its ”Soviet past” and wanted to reject any discussion about finlandisation or wrongdoings during the Cold War era.
As a consequence, Ahtisaari faced a difficult situation when the parliament increasingly wanted to strengthen the power of the government versus the President, as it was stated, ”resulting from the EU membership”. However, the dispute was also based on political motives. Kalevi Sorsa, the former Prime Minister and ”the King” of the party, had remained bitter over his defeat in the pre-election to Ahtisaari in May 1993. Sorsa had been a candidate to be a successor of Urho Kekkonen already in 1982. The KGB had considered Sorsa as ”a trusted collaborator” in 1980 based on the documents found by Vladimir Bukovsky in 1992. These documents were handed over to Ilta-Sanomat, a Finnish key media, in January 1993. However, they were not published immediately but only after the pre-election in July 1993. It is a fact of life that Sorsa’s past, not Ahtisaari’s popularity blocked his presidency.
A special role to deepen the conflict between the President and the parliament was played by Seppo Tiitinen (Center party) who was appointed to Secretary General of the parliament in 1990 by Kalevi Sorsa, who acted as the speaker of the parliament. Tiitinen had been the head of the Security Police (Suopo) 1978-1990. He became a close friend and political ally with Sorsa during these years. In 1990, Tiitinen rejected to open an investigation about Sorsa’s alleged espionage both with East-Germany’s Stasi and earlier with the KGB, based on the information received from the friendly foreign intelligence organs. Tiitinen was also appointed to chair the committee to reform the Constitution in 1992.
As a veteran diplomat, Ahtisaari was an outsider in Finland’s domestic politics having been more or less continuously abroad since 1973. In this respect, one could compare him with former Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti (1919-22, 1936-38) who, as a professional diplomat, was asked to join the government twice but never managed to find a place in the inner circle and was pushed to resign as a result of a campaign carried out the Nazi-Germany. He was critical to Nazi-Germany, but his foreign policy was based on balancing and on a Nordic orientation. The mainstream media and the Finnish network of the German embassy played a role in the German campaign to get Holsti sacked successfully in November 1938. Holsti was a target of disinformation which was spread in the government and the media. Today we could say that Holsti was a victim of ”a hybrid operation”, launched by Nazi-Germany’s embassy in Helsinki in 1936.
Ahtisaari faced a lot of criticism about the Partnership of Peace (PfP) membership with the Nato. The leftist politicians, but also the Center party leaders labeled him as an American type of president, who wanted to secretly navigate Finland into Nato. Already in 1996, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov criticised the Nato PfP as a waiting room for a full Nato membership, which was echoed by Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen. Prime Minister Lipponen even criticised the Helsinki summit of Boris Jeltsin and Bill Clinton in March 1997 for reasons that are not well known. One could assume that Lipponen feared that the President could strengthen his role in case the summit would become a success, as happened.
All these accusations were wrong because Ahtisaari started supporting Finland’s Nato membership as late as in November 2002, two years after his term as President had expired. The Social Democratic party had held pre-elections of the candidate for the presidential election in May 1999. The move to have elections for the party candidate was a trick to get Ahtisaari out and Foreign Minister Halonen in.
Sorsa was critical in his comments on Nato’s role in the ending of war in Kosovo in 1999. He was afraid that Ahtisaari could have a second term as a President in the case of achieving peace, as he did, in Belgrade. Sorsa had been criticising Ahtisaari also for the lack of interest to develop and deepen relations with Russia. By promoting Halonen to be the successor of Ahtisaari, Sorsa achieved two goals: to start improving relations with Russia and to end discussion about a possible Nato membership of Finland. The Russian media welcomed Esko Aho and Tarja Halonen as friends of Russia after the first round of the presidential election. These two candidates managed to win the first round in January 2000. Finally, during the second round in February, Halonen narrowly defeated Aho.
Halonen took over the presidency on March 1, 2000 and appointed Erkki Tuomioja to be her Foreign Minister. Tuomioja had supported Ahtisaari 1994 but turned against him later in favour of Halonen, his old friend. Finland’s foreign policy was back on the track of Mauno Koivisto with respect to Nato and Russia. Kalevi Sorsa demanded the EU to cut the teeth of Nato in the flesh of Europe after having expressed his satisfaction that the Ahtisaari presidency was finally over in March 2000.
The turning point of Ahtisaari’s presidency had taken place on February 4, 1998 when he in his speech at the opening ceremony of the parliament stated that ”for the first time in history, Finland has good relations with all her neighbours simultaneously”. The leftist and center politicians felt to be insulted because it was said that Ahtisaari destroyed the foreign policy line of Kekkonen and Koivisto.
The public campaign against Ahtisaari and his foreign policy was more or less led by MP Jaakko Laakso (The Leftist Union and former communist party member) who was deputy chair of the defence committee of the parliament 1992-2011. Laakso was identified both by Vasili Mitrokhin's KGB archives and by the Rosenholz archives of the East Germany as a KGB’s collaborator ”Jan” during 1973-76 and Stasi’s ”Mantel” during 1976-89. Laakso was educated in the Moscow party school (1978-79). In 2000-2002, he was investigated by the Finnish security police for his role as ”Mantel”. He was not the only one whose alleged and vindicated espionage was not prosecuted purely for political reasons.
However, Laakso was revealed as a consultant of the Azerbaijani President and punished by the Council of Europe for lobbying against the principles in 2018. He has not been permitted to enter the facilities of the Council ever since. Laakso - either directly or indirectly - was working for the Russian embassy’s interest when criticising Nato and Ahtisaari in the late 1990s. However, he was not the only one. As Harvard project manager on Espionage Calder Walton has recently pointed out, the role of espionage and intelligence has been neglected in the studies of foreign relations and most books need to be rewritten accordingly. This may be the case in Finland too.
The legacy of Ahtisaari’s presidency needs to be re-evaluated. The nation without a historic memory is in danger to develop a political dementia, as a respected Finnish historian Mirkka Lappalainen has recently warned.
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