Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Going Along to Get Along

In one of the dozens of articles I’ve been reading in the last couple of weeks about the crisis in Ukraine, I ran across a word I have not seen in quite some time – “Finlandization”. As tensions have ratcheted up over the incursion of Russian troops in Crimea (I almost wrote Chechnya there), it is a word that may be due for a comeback.

When I first arrived in Finland, some seven years before the Iron Curtain came down, you would often encounter “Finlandization” in the international press. In those days, it was a word that many Finns would bristle at. That is if “bristling” is something you could actually detect a typically low-key Finn doing. 

Suffice it to say, back then, in the depths of the Cold War, Finlandization was a concept many people here took exception to.

As it has been used in the West, “Finlandization” is shorthand for the way a smaller nation bordering a powerful, imperialistic, and potentially hostile country is able to maintain its independence by carefully taking into account the interests of its often-touchy, gigantic neighbor and then applying some reasonable accommodation, as needed, so as to not upset the big guy and keep relations, you know, on an even keen. Go along to get along, as they sometimes say in the US.

The Baltic Star protest, 1985.
I’m not a political scientist (no news flash there), so this explanation of Finlandization may not be spot on. (Another way to look at it is as a form of kowtowing to an unfriendly neighbor out of fear, and this is why for Finns it was often seen as a pejorative term. Hence their bristling.)

And I’m not sure how accurately it describes reality. To what degree did Finland really chart its post-war course with one eye firmly on the USSR? That might be open to debate, but I can certainly see how sensible it might be not to go out of your way to antagonize a nation with a history of invading close neighbors who displease it.

During the Cold War, Finland, like Sweden and Austria, took a staunchly neutral position. It wasn’t a member of either the Warsaw Pact (why would it be?) or NATO (a better fit). Later, Finland did join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, as has Russia, though I’m not sure what kind of concrete cooperation this means for Finland in practice.

Possible membership in NATO has surfaced as a topic here now and then, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite for the alliance. It will be interesting to see if Russian’s Crimean incursion moves the needle on this debate one way or the other.

(There are Finnish troops in Afghanistan as part of something called the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, a completely different cooperation forum between both NATO and non-NATO nations, including Russia.)

I’ve been trying to jog my memory recently, hoping to recall what might be considered actual examples of Finlandization from my early days here. For a casual observer such as myself who didn’t speak the language, all but the most obvious instances of the Finnish government bowing to the wishes of Moscow would probably have gone unnoticed. But, as I think about it, maybe it is true that there was a self-consciously Soviet-friendly atmosphere back then.

I recall a French friend who often complained of what he saw as an anti-western bias in the Finnish press. He felt the media here were always sure to balance any negative story about the USSR with an equally negative story about the West or America. Perhaps he was exaggerating. This is something I definitely noticed myself only when listening to Radio Moscow’s English-language service, which you would expect from the Soviets anyway.

But, I can’t say whether the same journalistic practice was adopted on this side of the border, or how widely. Still, I did notice that the news on the Finnish radio about the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986 was punctuated with somber Middle Eastern music, which was untypical and I took as a sign of sympathy (or solidarity) for the Libyans. That would be hard to imagine nowadays. Maybe I was imagining it then.

One clear-cut case of Soviet influence that does come to mind is the movie Born American. In 1986, the young Finnish movie director Renny Harlin tried to release his film about three Americans who, while visiting Finland, recklessly decide, on a lark, to sneak across the border into the Soviet Union, with thrilling and salvage consequences. The film (Jäätävä polte, in Finnish) was initially banned here due to violence and its anti-Soviet storyline. Luckily for Harlin, he was able to find work in Hollywood – no mean feat in itself.

Otherwise, not all anti-Soviet expressions were restricted, by any means. I remember the 1985 port call made by the M/S Baltic Star, a ship charted by some 400 protesters and refugees from the three Baltic states annexed by the Soviets at the beginning of WWII. Prior to the ship’s visit, which took place during a summit attended by the new Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the TASS news agency had vigorously denounced the visit and insisted that Finland not allow the ship to dock. The Finns did not comply, and the protesters, including dissident Vladimir Bukovsky were allowed to march down Bulevardi carrying banners and pre-1940 Baltic flags, while chanting “Nyet, nyet, Soviet”.

Another event I attended out of curiosity that I’m sure the Soviets would have preferred not take place was a lecture given by tall, bearded man from Afghanistan. It’s important to remember that at the time it was the Soviet empire that was bogged down in that medieval backwater, not the American one. I don’t recall now who had organized this public-relations event, let alone who the speaker was. In any case, he was supposedly a mujahedeen, and he certainly looked the part -- a commanding figure wearing an Afghan cap, baggy, light-gray "Aladdin" pants and a blue suit jacket.

Among the audience of Finns of different ages, one person stood out, a painfully clean-cut, dark-haired young man in a gray leather jacket. Despite the room being packed, no one took the seats on either side of him. The Afghan’s Finnish host kicked off the proceedings by first showily acknowledging the man in the leather jacket as “our honored KGB representative”.

Through an interpreter, the Afghan began to rail against the Soviet occupation of his homeland, detailing the horrific acts he said the Red Army was inflicting daily on his people, women being bayoneted, children being thrown from helicopters. As he concluded, he warned, “Gorbachev is not a good boy. He smiles with iron teeth”.

During the Q&A afterward, an older woman protested that Finns have good relations with the Soviets and should not be criticizing them. At that, the host of the event launched into a long rebuke of her, to which everyone clapped – except the man in the leather jacket. Someone then directed a question at him, asking for a comment about the Soviet role in the war. He turn red, smiled weakly, but said nothing.

Generally speaking, I do think Finns have good relations with Russia, nowadays on a somewhat more equal footing than before and not (I would hope) under any real threat of coercion. The most publicized points of conflict that have arisen recently have not been exactly huge, in geopolitical terms.

In 2012, the four children of a Russian mother living in Finland were temporarily removed from their home by child protective services because of suspected abuse. This kind of thing surely happens regularly in Finland and is generally regarded as proper for the welfare of the children. However, this particular case sparked an outrage, at least on the other side of the border, as it became a cause célèbre in the Russian media, even requiring the Finnish president to respond with a statement on the matter.

A few months before that cross-border controversy, a researcher from the Finnish Environmental Institute was arrested while investigating increased phosphorous levels in the Luga River, which empties into the Baltic Sea near St. Petersburg.

Though the water sampling he was conducting was part of a jointly planned Finnish-Russian study, the Finnish researcher was detained by the security guards of a fertilizer plant located along the river. After being questioned for a day by local police, the researcher was promptly sent back to Finland without being allowed to complete the rest of his sampling. This time, the media buzz was mostly on this side of the border, maybe even entirely on this side of the border.

Even more recently, a Finnish woman Sini Saarela was arrested by Russian authorities when she took part in a Greenpeace campaign last September protesting the first commercial offshore oil-drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean, Gazprom’s Prirazlomnoye platform.

Saarela, who with a fellow protester tried to scale the side of the giant platform, was initially charged with piracy (carrying a possible sentence of 15 years). That was later reduced to hooliganism (possible seven-year sentence) before she and the entire crew of the Arctic Sunrise were released at Christmastime, after three months in a Russian jail.

I’m sure there was certain amount of popular support in Finland for Saarela’s plight, though I have a feeling that political stunts, even in the name of environmental protection, don’t always play well here.

Still, Saarela gained enough international fame that she, and her oilrig-climbing partner, won a distant second place in the Guardian newspaper’s 2013 Person of the Year poll. Interestingly enough, first place went to Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who has currently found sanctuary in the same country that had detained Saarela.

These little frictions between neighbors are, of course, nothing compared to the underlying tensions that existed back when Finland’s eastern border was a sharp fault line between capitalism and Communism, between democracy and totalitarianism, between open and closed societies.

If Finlandization, or something like it, helped Finland keep its way of life intact for forty-odd years on this side of that fault line, then it would seem worthwhile and -- as Henry Kissinger seemed to suggest recently -- maybe not a bad option for the future of Ukraine. Then maybe it will be called "Ukrainization". Finns might like the sound of that a bit better. 

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