Finland: Time to Choose

Finland: Time to Choose

On June 6 NATO began its BALTOPS naval exercises in the Baltics. These have been held every year since 1971, but this is the first time that forces from that military bloc – including 200 US troops – have landed in Finland, which is not a NATO member. They came ashore on the Hanko Peninsula, where a Soviet naval base was once located...

Another event is also fueling concerns – the Anakonda-2016 military drill that began at the same time in Poland, which the Guardian describes as «the biggest movement of foreign allied troops in Poland in peace time» and the «largest war game in eastern Europe since the end of the cold war».

* * *

After World War II, Finland was transformed into an industrialized country, leading to a dramatic improvement in living standards, thanks to its privileged trade and economic relations with the USSR/Russia. However, the global financial crisis has checked Finland’s momentum. This year, per capita GDP is expected to reach $39,200, as compared to $42,400 in 2008. After the 2012-2014 recession, the economy grew at a purely symbolic rate of 0.4% in 2015, staying at the 2006 level.

Helsinki’s decision to take part in the anti-Russian sanctions has had a negative impact on the economy. In 2015, exports from Finland to Russia dropped by 32%, or by 3.6 billion euros. Goods destined for the Russian Federation now make up only 5.9% of the Finnish export market (for comparison: this number was 8% in 2014 and 9.6% in 2013). It is estimated that Finland has suffered a loss equal to more than 1% of its GDP.

In March, during a meeting between the presidents of Russia and Finland – Vladimir Putin and Sauli Niinistö – the latter stated that not one person in Finland would object to having the sanctions lifted. But unfortunately, this universal desire is out of step with Finland’s real-world actions on the international stage. After a May 13 meeting with the leaders of five Nordic countries, Barack Obama announced that they were in solidarity with Washington’s views on the need to extend the sanctions against Russia. Among those «in agreement» was Finland, which has been victimized by the sanctions.

Against this backdrop, there is increasing talk of possible membership for Finland in NATO. But Finnish politicians are not of one mind on this issue. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, the leader of the Centre Party of Finland, believes that a nationwide referendum must be held before the country can apply for NATO membership. This view is shared by President Sauli Niinistö. Currently the government’s official position is that the country does not need to modify its security policy. If the government’s stance on this changes, it will be necessary to conduct a referendum. According to the leaders of the National Coalition Party (a member of the ruling coalition, along with the Centre Party of Finland and the Finns Party), a referendum is not mandatory, and Finland should simply go ahead and apply for membership in the North Atlantic alliance. The Finns Party, which is seeing its popularity ratings fall, has not taken a clear-cut stand on this issue. Representatives of the opposition parties – the Greens, the Left Alliance, and the Social Democratic Party – are demanding a nationwide vote on the matter. The former chairman of the Swedish People’s Party, Carl Haglund supports NATO membership, but says that Finland should join the alliance along with Sweden.

The Finnish government has established a working group that drafted report on NATO, submitting it in late April to Timo Soini, the minister of foreign affairs. The paper claims that membership in the alliance would be a factor in preventing a potential attack, but would lead to a serious crisis in the country’s relationship with Russia, significantly impacting trade. The document asserts that it would be more advantageous for Finland to make a joint decision on NATO membership along with Sweden.

However, Helsinki is not taking any decisive steps, because, as noted in Foreign Policy, the majority of Finns are against joining NATO, with only about a quarter holding a favorable opinion. «Many Finns are enthusiastic about hosting the flocks of Russian shoppers and tourists who spend money in Finnish border towns – and, if they’re concerned about anything, it’s the way that falling oil prices and economic sanctions have cut into what had been a bright spot in a contracting Finnish economy», writes Foreign Policy. 

* * *

Before the NATO exercises in the Baltic began, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini paid a visit to Moscow. Those talks, as Sergey Lavrov noted, were fruitful. At the closing press conference, Lavrov mentioned, in particular, Rosatom’s involvement in the construction of nuclear power plants in Finland, as well as Fortum’s projects in Russia’s Eastern Urals (Fortum, a Finnish company, plans to invest four billion euros in the development of electric power in Siberia and the Urals).

In the meantime, while the diplomats are busy negotiating, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported on June 10 that NATO member countries have discussed the possibility of assisting officially non-aligned Finland in the event of a crisis. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä claims that he knows nothing about this and that Article 5 of the NATO treaty does not apply to Finland. However, the uncertainty cannot last long. If Finland is faced with the choice of either «non-alignment or NATO?» Helsinki will have to pick.

In early July Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Finland. Negotiations will take place at the presidential residence of Kultaranta in the city of Naantali, not far from Turku, during which, among other issues, the two presidents will also discuss Helsinki’s position in regard to the advances that the North Atlantic alliance has recently been making toward Finland. 

Tags: NATO  Finland