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Friday, October 26, 2007

Annals of Russians Gone Wild: Now They're Threatening Finland

An editorial in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat:

The difficult history of postwar relations between Finland and the Soviet Union can be described as a success story for Finland, but its many traumatic experiences continue to be reflected in relations between the neighbours. Getting rid of them is not helped by the manifestations of Russia’s great power bravado, which has gained in strength. From the note crisis of the early 1960s, words such as "diplomatic note", "military consultations", and "joint military exercises" have caused shivers among Finns regardless of how routine the contexts were in which they were used.

On the other hand, ever since Finland became a member of the European Union, we have become very sensitive to statements from Russia containing criticism, to say nothing of admonitions. Three years ago an official at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki caused a good deal of controversy in a television programme, and later in a newspaper interview, by expressing disappointment at how mild official Finnish reactions were to the terror attack in Beslan.
He also had the temerity to question Finland’s ability to act as a bridge-builder between the EU and Russia. The Russian Embassy had to distance itself from the statements of its diplomat.

This time the controversy arose from the views expressed in front of a TV camera by Vladimir Kozin, a "PhD and elder researcher", at the Russian Embassy. He painted a picture of NATO as a growing military threat to Russia, and advised Finland to think three times before it decides to join NATO. He said that Finland should postpone any plans for membership by at least 15 years. He believes that Vladimir Putin will remain the real leader of Russia through 2023 - 2025.

How should one evaluate this kind of talk? At least the news and current affairs departments of the Finnish Broadcasting Company considered the statements to be major news. They sought to get as prestigious experts as possible into their various broadcasts, after failing to get the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to come. Initially, it was the neighbouring channel MTV3 which first made public the views on NATO, which were expressed at a closed seminar. The culture of debate has expanded in Russia, and especially at experts’ seminars people now dare to air different points of view in a quite high-spirited manner. The views expressed at the seminar by Vladimir Kozin on the concerns raised by the United States and NATO also reflect the changed situational assessment, which has been manifested in various connections in recent months, including Putin’s speeches. Russia feels that the West has not kept the promises that it made when NATO expanded to the east.

What was new was the undiplomatic character of the views expressed by the Russian diplomat on Finland’s relationship to NATO. They undoubtedly represented a way of thinking that has broad support in Russia, but not the official point of view of the Russian Foreign Ministry, as the Russian Embassy hastened to underscore. Already before that, President Tarja Halonen had pointed out that Russia’s attitudes toward Finland’s NATO membership were not reflected in Kozin’s speeches. Halonen was referring to her personal meetings with President Putin.

Criticism of the government of the country that a diplomat is stationed in, or the giving of even good advice, are not part of the code of behaviour of diplomats - especially not in matters where there are different views inside the parties of the government. However, sometimes breaking this rule can be seen to be appropriate for getting a message through. However, the impact could be different from what is desired. The allergy that Finns feel toward warnings or good advice from Moscow could well increase Finnish support for NATO membership, which has been weak up to now.

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