The battle for hearts and minds over NATO membership has been going on for at least fifteen years. For more experienced watchers of Finland, the images here present some of the major players in the drama. As a starter, this picture shows former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, former President Martti Ahtisaari, and the current Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Stubb.
HS - International EditionDr. Jukka Tarkka is so angry that he can scarcely get the words out of his mouth.
“Why won't Finland change, even though Europe is changing?” he thunders.
Tarkka wags his finger at Jyrki Katainen, the chairman of the National Coalition Party, and challenges him: “Wouldn't it be time to start telling people about what is happening in Europe? That would be an important educational task for the National Coalition Party! Now we need leadership!”
The occasion is a meeting of the Atlantic Council of Finland, and the gentlemen's disagreement concerns Finnish membership in NATO.
The Atlantic Council was set up in 1999 to nurture friendship and cooperation between Finland and the United States.
In practice, this boils down to supporting Finnish NATO membership.
About 100 older gentlemen in formal dress and a few women are gathered at Helsinki's Astoria Hall.
Many of them are seasoned diplomats and former ambassadors. They have been working for decades toward the goal that Finland might one day be a truly Western country.
Joining NATO was supposed to put the final seal on the long process, and in the mid-1990s everything seemed to be moving in that direction.
But now it appears that the wish of the veteran ambassadors will not come to pass.
Many are already of the age that they are afraid that they will never see the fulfilment of their dream.
The idea is alarming to them.
Jyrki Katainen appears to be in pain as he raises the microphone to his lips and begins his answer.
MAY 6th, 1996
Veteran diplomat and journalist Max Jakobson was speaking in a quiet and hoarse voice, but the people gathered in the auditorium of the University of Helsinki were hanging on his every word.
It was early May 1996, and the auditorium was filled with people with a strong commitment to national defence.
All the listeners had attended the national defence course organised by the Finnish Defence Forces.
Jakobson's presentation climaxed with a prophecy.
He predicted that the three countries that joined the European Union the previous year - Austria, Sweden, and Finland - would seek to join NATO as well. The first would be Austria, then Sweden, and finally Finland.
After the speech, the prestigious listeners withdrew to the lobby of the university to chat and to enjoy a glass - maybe even a couple - of wine.
Spirits were high.
Jakobson's speech was applauded, and his skills as a visionary were praised. Many recalled how Jakobson had predicted, with great foresight, the re-unification of the two Germanies, had recommended the dismantling of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, and had worked hard to get Finland to join the EU - long before Finland's politicians did.
They, after all, are always so overly cautious.
The next morning, Helsingin Sanomat published Jakobson's entire speech verbatim.
It was not likely to be missed by a single reader, as it occupied an entire page of the newspaper.
Jakobson's May address launched public debate in Finland on whether Finland should join NATO or not.
Jakobson and other supporters believed that it was just a matter of time before Finland would join NATO.
The population rather reluctantly agreed with him.
Opinion polls showed that a clear majority opposed membership, but expected nevertheless that Finland would eventually join NATO.
That was the spirit of the times.
In the mid-1990s there was a strong Western orientation.
Finland wanted to shake the monkey of Finlandisation off its back and seek to join the West.
APRIL 27th, 1999
In late April 1999, President Martti Ahtisaari officially announced that he would not be seeking a second term, and would not be a candidate for the Presidential elections of 2000.
It was the first setback to Finland's NATO project.
Ahtisaari announced that he would pull out on the same day that he returned to Mäntyniemi from Washington, where NATO had held its 50th anniversary celebrations.
At the meeting, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were accepted as members of NATO.
As an old diplomat and a friend of the USA, Ahtisaari took a positive view of NATO membership, even though he had to make assurances to the contrary because of his position at home.
Ahtisaari had very good relations with US President Bill Clinton.
As a high-ranking diplomat, Ahtisaari saw that Finland had “a window of opportunity” open.
In the parlance of international politics, this means that at a certain moment, the country is in a favourable position to act.
The previous time that a window was open for Finland was in the early 1990s, when Finland sought and acquired EU membership.
Now the window was open for NATO.
The United States secretly tried to entice Finland to become a member. Finland's assistance would have been useful as NATO prepared to take the Baltic countries into the defence alliance.
Relations between Finland and Russia had been so good that they might have been of use to NATO in the negotiations.
Russia naturally opposed NATO's enlargement to the former socialist countries, and especially to former Soviet republics.
In addition to this, Russia opposed Finnish NATO membership.
Russia would not be able to prevent NATO enlargement, the Americans assured the Finns.
Russia was weak. President Boris Yeltsin was already seriously ill, and governments in Moscow changed at intervals of a few months.
The window of opportunity was open for a moment, but Finland did not want to jump through.
There were differences within the foreign policy leadership: President Martti Ahtisaari, Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen (Social Democrat, SDP), and Minister of Finance Sauli Niinistö (National Coalition Party) were in favour of joining NATO, but Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen (SDP) was vehemently opposed to the idea.
On the other hand, Lipponen and Niinistö were not themselves actively promoting joining NATO.
Instead they focused their efforts on the euro, which they wanted Finland to join.
The highest-ranking civil servants at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs opposed membership.
If Finland would have sought to join NATO at the time, they felt that it would have happened in the wrong company.
Recent applicants for NATO membership were countries that had just been freed from the yoke of socialism.
If Finland were to join NATO some day, it should happen in the company of old partners, such as Sweden and Austria.
On the other hand, there was support for NATO membership among senior civil servants at the Ministry of Defence.
In addition, in the 1990s, there had been three pro-NATO ministers holding the defence portfolio: Elisabeth Rehn (Swedish People's Party, SPP), Anneli Taina (National Coalition), and Jan-Erik Enestam (SPP).
The brains behind the NATO project was the ministry's section chief, Dr. Pauli Järvenpää.
At the end of 1999, supporters of NATO membership set up the Atlantic Council of Finland.
The council elected as its chairman Jaakko Iloniemi, the managing director of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA, and a close friend of Martti Ahtisaari.
MARCH 1st, 2000
The project for Finnish NATO membership suffered its second serious setback in the early months of 2000.
Tarja Halonen had been elected President, and in her maiden speech in office she announced that Finland would not seek to join NATO.
It was an important speech, as the new President delivered it at the most prestigious venue of the republic: in front of a plenary session of Parliament. Listeners included Martti Ahtisaari, who had just stepped down as President, as well as the second government of Paavo Lipponen, and the 200 Finnish MPs.
Supporters of NATO membership had suffered a series of blows in the Presidential elections.
After Ahtisaari had stepped down, it had been hoped that Sauli Niinistö would run on a National Coalition Party ticket, but he refused.
Next the hope was put on Elisabeth Rehn or Riitta Uosukainen (National Coalition, at that time the Speaker of Parliament).
They missed their chances, and one reason for this was the very well-founded suspicion that they were pro-NATO.
Reaching the final round were Halonen and the Centre Party's Esko Aho, both of whom were strong opponents of NATO membership.
Those who were in favour of joining NATO went for Aho, because they believed that he was against NATO simply for tactical reasons.
His views might have changed, but those of Halonen, who was opposed to NATO heart and soul, would not.
NATO became a dirty word when it bombed Serbia in the spring of 1999. Finns did not approve of the bombings, and the popularity of membership fell considerably. [this was news to me, I lived abroad as was young at the time -R]
NATO's reputation was not even improved by the fact that it was through the bombings that Serbia was forced to sue rapidly for peace and to withdraw from Kosovo.
Martti Ahtisaari acted as a midwife for the peace agreement, and Finnish troops joined the NATO-led and UN-mandated KFOR forces sent to keep the peace in Kosovo.
The anti-NATO sentiment grew even more when George W. Bush became President of the United States in early 2001.
The new US President made Finns' hair stand on end, and the distaste did not ease in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the autumn of 2001.
The retaliatory expedition into Afghanistan launched by Bush and the preparations for war with Iraq turned opinions against NATO.
There were also events on the world stage that closed the window of opportunity for Finland to join NATO.
NATO decided to expand to the Baltic region and to other parts of Eastern Europe, and the United States sought actively to cooperate with Europe's so-called “new democracies”.
Finland was no longer needed as a go-between.
Russia's new leader Vladimir Putin proved to be an even more difficult partner than Yeltsin.
From the very beginning he considered it self-evident that Finland, its good neighbour, would not be joining NATO.
Sweden and Austria lost the little interest that they had in joining NATO, and started to cut back on their own defence forces.
They were safe and protected from the storms of the outside world.
Finland could not afford such deep cutbacks in defence spending.
At the beginning of the Putin era it was noticed that Russia was starting to re-arm.
During the Ahtisaari Presidency, moves were made to implement changes in the Defence Forces to make them compatible with NATO, and to join in close cooperation with the alliance.
The most visible aspect of this cooperation was the so-called Partnership for Peace, which involved among other things Finnish participation in joint peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
In the early years of the new century, Finland had become a sort of military auxiliary member of NATO.
APRIL 17th, 2003
After the Parliamentary elections in March, President Tarja Halonen appointed a government headed by Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki of the Centre Party.
The atmosphere of the event that marked the appointment was so cordial that the President and the new Prime Minister held each other's hands and giggled like schoolgirls.
Paavo Lipponen, who lost the post of Prime Minister, had a dark look about him, and the feeling was the same among those promoting NATO membership.
They had pinned their hopes on Lipponen.
Even well-known right-wingers had backed Lipponen, who got massive tallies of votes in precincts in Helsinki that were generally strongholds of the National Coalition Party.
The right supported Lipponen because in the televised debates during the Parliamentary election campaign he had defended - or at least understood - the intentions of the United States in Iraq.
On the other hand, Jäätteenmäki had squarely criticised Lipponen.
The Centre had adroitly spread fear during the election campaign that Finland would get involved in a war if Lipponen were allowed to continue for a third term as Prime Minister.
The new foreign policy leadership was a nightmare for those promoting NATO membership.
In addition to Halonen and Jäätteenmäki, there was Social Democrat Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, a ferocious opponent of NATO.
Starting off as Minister of Defence was a colourless Centre Party figure by the name of Matti Vanhanen, but he became Prime Minister after Jäätteenmäki resigned, only a few months later.
Vanhanen was initially looked upon with suspicion in NATO circles. However, during his lengthy period as Prime Minister, Vanhanen began to gain in appreciation.
He was no bad pacifist, and he had a calm and friendly attitude toward the Defence Forces and NATO.
The National Coalition Party went into opposition in 2003 after a long period (16 years in all) in government, and a year later Jyrki Katainen became the party's chairman.
Another prominent politician rose alongside him, Alexander Stubb, who was elected to the European Parliament in 2004.
In these elections, supporters of NATO membership concentrated their votes on Stubb and the Social Democratic Party's Lasse Lehtinen.
The National Coalition Party started to publicly support membership in NATO.
The new policy was weighed up by voters in the Presidential elections of 2006.
The election climaxed in the second round as a contest between Tarja Halonen and Sauli Niinistö.
Halonen remained sharply opposed to NATO membership, and Niinistö was in favour of it - albeit not as outspokenly as his party, the National Coalition. Halonen won the election, but for the first time in years, supporters of NATO membership had reason for satisfaction.
Niinistö had done much better than expected.
Perhaps there was still some hope for NATO.
APRIL 19th, 2007
President Tarja Halonen was looking very sour as she shook the hands of the ministers of the new coalition government, Vanhanen's second cabinet, in the spring of 2007.
The previous government had only one supporter of NATO membership, Stefan Wallin of the Swedish People's Party.
In the new cabinet there were ten of them - half of the ministers in the government, representing the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People's Party.
The National Coalition Party had won the election - and with a campaign involving NATO into the bargain.
The parties of the right had criticised the President and the outgoing centre-left government, specifically mentioning Halonen and Foreign Minister Tuomioja by name, for dealing inadequately with relations with the United States.
It was payback for defeat in the Presidential elections.
These government negotiations in 2007 were the first in which the parties of the coalition had written their own foreign policy programme.
It was sent to the President's Office only for the purpose of informing her about it.
The President nevertheless had a messenger keeping her informed about the government formation talks, who had told her that the National Coalition Party was demanding new paragraphs about NATO in the government programme, and had got them approved.
The National Coalition Party chose the portfolios of Minister of Defence and Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Ilkka Kanerva was named Foreign Minister, and Jyri Häkämies became Minister of Defence.
Häkämies is a man whom the President felt was a real annoyance.
Then Kanerva was forced to resign, and in his stead came Alexander Stubb, an even more annoying figure than Häkämies in his support for NATO membership.
The hopes of NATO supporters ran high when the new government got down to business.
There was joking in the Atlantic Council - albeit with a certain amount of sarcasm included - that Finland could get through the NATO door at the same time as Croatia and Albania, which were to be taken into NATO at its 60th anniversary celebrations in the spring of 2009.
That hope also proved to be in vain.
When Albania and Croatia were accepted into NATO, Finland was still thinking about it.
The President and government ministers have spent dozens of hours talking about the pros and cons of NATO membership.
Reports, studies, and memorandums were drafted, and hundreds of speeches have been delivered.
The most dramatic situation in the government emerged in the late summer of 2008, when Russia attacked Georgia.
Foreign Minister Stubb had already urged consideration of Finland's joining NATO.
He got no support from the President, and not much from the people, either.
After the war in Georgia, NATO membership was backed by 28 per cent of the people, and 60 per cent were opposed.
Support for joining NATO has not risen any higher than that in the past ten years.
Last autumn, one in four supported membership.
In spite of this, the tenacious NATO brothers-in-arms Stubb and Häkämies have repeatedly told the President that Finland should join.
The answer has always been the same: we will not join.
At times the President's personal relations with Stubb and Häkämies were cool to the point of open hostility.
As a compromise, a brief sentence was added to the joint communiqué from the President and the government, saying: “There continue to be strong reasons to consider Finnish NATO membership.”
It reportedly took a long time to agree even on that form of words.
NATO's official stance is that Finland can join if it wants to.
However, Ivo Daalder, the US Ambassador to NATO, warned in the early autumn of 2009 that NATO membership would bring about a dispute between the alliance and Russia.
The warning was revealed in January in reports leaked to Wikileaks.
The leak proves that Russia is also playing a double game.
Officially it says that NATO membership is a matter for Finland and Finland alone.
In the background, Russia is trying to frighten NATO about the consequences of Finnish membership.
DECEMBER 12th, 2010
Historian Dr. Jukka Tarkka is upset, and he wants an answer from Jyrki Katainen during the meeting of the Atlantic Council of Finland.
Katainen takes the microphone.
He appears ill at ease.
Those who are present know that before them stands a young politician who has been in favour of Finnish membership in NATO since he was quite young.
He chairs a party that officially is pushing for Finnish membership in NATO, and in a few months time, he may become the next Prime Minister of Finland.
In spite of all of this, Jyrki Katainen answers: “Believe me when I say this. The right kind of will for this does not exist.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in the February 2011 issue of the Kuukausiliite monthly supplement.