President of Finland Sauli Väinämö Niinistö can be treated as an embodiment of reasonableness and peace, despite his life full of turbulent events. His election could become extremely unpleasant for Russia, but the Finnish leader appeared to be reasonable enough not to let the relations of Russia and the EU go to the dogs.
Sauli Väinämö Niinistö was born on August 24, 1948, in Salo, in a faithful family of a sales manager and a nurse with four children. The future president was the junior child in the family, where traditions were valued high. All indications were that Niinistö would have conservative views about life and the state.
After graduating from the school in 1996, the future president was admitted to the University of Turku, the Faculty of Law. The education was interrupted by two years of army. Receiving Master’s Degree at the age of 25, Niinistö did not rush to make a political career. He was back to the home town and entered police service. Afterwards, he worked as assistant judge. Getting bored with jobs in his degree field, Niinistö launched political activity.
With his traditional views, Niinistö chose the conservative National Coalition Party. At the age of 29, he was elected to the City Council. Simultaneously, he started quite successful private law practice. Making career in two fields at once helped Niinistö establish all the necessary ties for his future career beyond Salo.
In 1987, Niinistö was elected member of Eduskunta (parliament), stopped law practice and focused on politics. His activity was within the policy of his Party. Niinistö advocated for a relatively liberal market, law taxes, and maternity and child protection. In foreign policy, he came out for Finland’s accession to EU and NATO. He has never made any serious anti-Soviet or anti-Russia statements.
The future president could hardly be called charismatic, but his calm and confident manners won over. As a result, in 1994, he was appointed chairman of the National Coalition Party and led the party for seven years. A year later, he was appointed justice minister and then finance minister in the government of Paavo Lipponen. Finland (unlike its Scandinavian neighbors) shifted to EUR mostly due to efforts of Niinistö, an outspoken supporter of European integration.
Perhaps, Niinistö got additional sympathies of both politicians and ordinary citizens after personal tragedy. In 1995, his beloved wife Marja-Leena was killed in a road accident. After 21 years of marriage, he remained alone with two sons. That story did not put an end to his career. Quite the contrary, he was motivated to achieve more in life.
He was offered to run for president yet in 2000, but refused. Niinistö considered it too early and worked to gain certain popularity outside his country as well. Soon after he headed European Democratic Union that later merged with European People’s Party.
Dealing with politics, Niinistö had an office affair with Tanja Karpela, Minister of Culture, Miss Finland 1991. In 2003, they announced about their engagement. Soon after, Niinistö left for Brussels and took the office of Deputy Direction of European Investment Bank. Simultaneously, he took a managing position at the European People’s Party. Life on distance affected their relations and in 2004, the two politicians broke off.
The year 2004 appeared to be dramatic for Niinistö. In December, he was travelling to Thailand with son, when a severe tsunami hit the country. They could hardly escape the huge waves and survived. Niinistö showed not only political, but also physiological instinct of self-preservation.
In 2006, he ran for president. At that moment, he seemed to Russia an undesirable candidate for president, as his election campaign supported Finland’s accession to NATO and its eastern neighbors were not happy with it. When then-president Tarja Halonen, advocating for a neutral status of Finland, was re-elected with 51.8% of votes in the second round, many in Russia felt relieved.
However, Niinistö behaved as a true political “warrior.” Defeat did not knock him sideways. A year later, his right-centrist coalition party won parliamentary elections and he was appointed as parliament speaker. His European career was a success as well. In 2007, Niinistö became one of the leaders of the European People’s Party. Yet before being elected as president, he was already a European politician.
Neither had he forgotten about his private life. As chairman of the parliament, Niinistö had an affair with poetess Jenni Haukio, who was engaged in public relations of the National Coalition Party. Despite 29 years of age gap, the couple married on January 3, 2009. On February 2, 2018, immediately after re-election, Niinistö has become father of a third son.
Later, he headed the local football union. As football fan, he has probably dreamed to see Finland in UEFA or World Cup. In 2011, Niinistö run for president again. Finland’s favorite Tarja Halonen could no longer run for president, so his key rival was leader of the Greens, openly homosexual Pekka Haavisto. Despite all their tolerance, Finns preferred a person with traditional views. Niinistö was re-elected in the second round with more than 62% of votes.
He proved an exemplary president. Finland’s economy was one of the best in Eurozone. The major challenge to the country was perhaps the inflow of refugees in 2015-2016. Incidents involving migrants grew in number, but comparing to neighboring Sweden, Finland seemed “quite peaceful.”
In foreign policy, Niinistö remained committed to his stance and enhanced the cooperation with NATO, including through intensified joint drills. Nevertheless, he has certainly changed his attitude to Finland’s accession to NATO, among others due to public opinion polls. In fact, just one-fourth of the citizens wished to see their country in NATO, while 60% opposed the idea. During his current election campaign, Niinistö said he does not support accession to NATO at the moment, since there are no reasons to do it so far. However, he said, the world is changing and the country may have to apply for membership. This means that Niinistö is not going to make any hasty steps.
Despite his pro-Atlantic stance, Niinistö treated Russia with respected. He even tried to learn Russian, but did not make success. He was kidding saying he tried to learn Russian as many times as he tried to stop smoking.
Niinistö is a unique European politician who visits Russia every year despite all problems in the relations. Coming to power, he has not undermined the Russian-Finish relations. He invited Vladmir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to Helsinki, while most of the other European leaders avoided doing it. The Finnish president acted as a confident pragmatic politician who does not give way to emotions.
At the same time, Niinistö does not want to lift sanctions against Russia and is ready to prolong them, if necessary. Nevertheless, he is sure that Russia should not be isolated. The relations of Russia and EU have not gone to the dogs mostly thanks to him.
On January 28, 2018, Niinistö won elections in the first round, which is not a usual thing in Finland. He run for president as the candidate of the people, not the party. Almost 63% of votes in his favor proved his high approval rating. He will continue leading his country and influencing the policy of EU also as honorable chairman of the European People’s Party.
Niinistö is not the best political figure for our country. However, we are sure that he will not make any sudden undesirable actions against Russia. His peacefulness, reasonableness and predictability are what the people and partners in Europe appreciate. His turbulent life is another reason to respect him.
Vadim Trukhachev, Candidate of Science (History)