Finland is going to have a presidential election on January 28. Debates between the candidates have already started there. Seven candidates are running for presidency. They represent a wide range of political parties and movements, from the Finns Party (True Finns Party) to Swedish Centrists. The list of candidates includes an independent Eurosceptic. Prof. Nikolay Mezhevich, President of the Russian Association of Baltic Studies, has told EADaily what the presidential election means for the country.
Who, do you think, could be initiator of the December article in Helsingin Sanomat saying that Finland is tracking re-deployment of Russian troops in the Western Military District? Why and what for was it published?
I do not think that Russia could be initiator of the article, as Moscow knows well who tracks what without such articles. Neither Americans could be initiators of the article, because it is also known that US intelligence service has been residing in Finland for long. I think the whole story looks like an internal Finnish affair aimed at shattering positions of current president Sauli Niinistö who is leading the race (according to polls, his rating is about 70%). However, the scandal resulted in nothing sensational. It also makes sense to answer the question here to what extent recurrence of 1937 is possible, I mean how possible are arrests of journalists, putting ammunition stealthily not only on the southern side of the Baltic Sea (in Lithuania and Latvia), but on its northern side as well. The Finnish democracy looks solid, but the current trends make me concerned, I must say.
I would like to stress that attitudes towards Russia will not play the decisive role at the current election. For Finns, the main thing is discussion of the ways of the country that has been coming through difficult times with the current president. I mean a plunge in the GDP, rising unemployment rate, some certain changes in the social policy.
Does it mean that the outcomes of the election in Finland cannot seriously affect the quality of the Russian-Finnish relations?
Yes, it does. There are several reasons for it. The first one is that Finland is a parliamentary republic, the president’s post there is not the same with the posts of president in France, USA, or Russia. The Finnish president is someone like the president in Germany. The post has a symbolic meaning, the president there does not enjoy any serious powers. That is why Finns are more passionate about parliamentary elections. The second thing is tat Finland is a northern country, and in most such countries they do not take U-turns in policies that have been shaping for decades. As a rule, we see evolution of policies there, when it takes years or even decades to come from one political model to another one. Undoubtedly, Finland, like many other countries, is preparing for some changes now, but these changes do not depend on certain election.
Recently, several Finnish politicians have been making worrying statements calling to join NATO. For instance, candidate from the Swedish People’s Party Nils Torvalds has been actively promoting NATO values in this campaign.
There are such attitudes is Finland, actually, and they have been growing for a long time. The Swedish parties and movements in Finland mostly vote for Finland becoming a NATO member. At the same time, in Sweden, which is not a member of the alliance either, there is no consensus on the issue. It reminds to me policy of the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, who is now President of the European Council. He came to Vilnius to congratulate Lithuania on joining the eurozone, while Poland still has its own currency, zloty. So, willingness of Swedes living in Finland to push the country into NATO reminds me a situation when a man wants to push another man from the tram to see what happens.
Some foreign media state the Finns want their candidates to answer if Finland joins NATO in the future. Why are they so concerned with the issue?
The matter is that every citizen in the country believes that Finland is a democracy, so politicians must hear attitudes of the people on the issue and vice versa. Polls show that Finns do not support the idea of joining the alliance. They do comprehend that this can result in instability, growth of the military budget, and ordinary citizens will have to pay for it, but not Donald Trump or the USA.
Nevertheless, sociologists say that every fifth Finn (about 22%) wants the country to join NATO.
Well, I think it is a true figure. But things are not that simple here. If one asks a Finn if he wants to NATO, he will say: “Yes, of course, I do.” But if one asks if he is ready that his salary will be cut by a third, it will make him think of it very thoroughly. I do not think that in real life Finns are ready to sacrifice like Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians are. So, if Finland someday joins NATO, this will be a very long perspective.
Does it mean that most Finns are more inclined to be economically pragmatic and have friendly relations with Russia?
“Friendly” reminds me of my youth, it is the end of 1970s and the beginning of 1980s. Now, it is more about respecting each other’s interests and prioritizing economic values in the bilateral relations with Russia. For instance, Finns say: the eastern market is very risky, because it is not easy working with Russians, but once you’ve got used to it and got used to Russians, you will earn more than in the markets of Sweden, Germany, France and other countries. Besides, it would be very unwise to have a confrontation with Moscow in the year of centennial of independence.
May a sensation happen at the Finnish election, when they will need a second round with Sauli Niinistö and, for instance, Laura Huhtasaari who leads the Finns Party?
Truly speaking, I do not see it possible. I think, if my comparison is appropriate, the current Finnish president has the same strength as the current Russian president. It needs to be noted too that traditional parties are being re-assessed now in Finland. Classic Social Democrats who have been in power in Northern Europe for about a century are coming to the background, dissolving and breaking up. Nationalists do not enjoy much support either. Laura Huhtasaari is forecast to have only 5% of the votes. As for new parties (populist Pekko Haavisto from the Green League is expected to be the second one at the election with 11% of the votes), that manage to get to the parliament, usually they live one or two electoral cycles, and then become history. I think the same thing will happen in Finland. However, one must take into account that environmental issues are popular in Finland. If we look further, I do not think that any serious changes will be taking place during the six-year term of Niinistö. But after resignation of this respected politician something may change, particularly, in the attitudes of the Finnish public towards NATO.
Interviewed by Yegor Zubtsov, Saint Petersburg