Witness to History: The Memoirs of Mauno Koivisto, President of Finland 1982-1994. Hurst and Company 1997.

by Tapani Lausti

During the last decade of the Cold War, Finland had a more active intermediary role between the Superpowers than has hitherto been realised. This role was taken up in person by the then Finnish President Mauno Koivisto, whose two terms of office lasted from 1982 until 1994 and whose memoirs have now been published in English.

George Bush, who at the time was still the American Vice President, sought Koivisto's advice when Washington wanted to reopen dialogue between the two superpowers. These contacts developed into a continual exchange of views on world politics.

At the same time, Koivisto, who is a fluent Russian speaker, established a very personal relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to appreciate the Finnish President's analyses. The Russian leader obviously needed a discussion partner and, according to sources in Moscow, thought that it was a pity there were so few people outside the Kremlin with whom he could talk as openly about complex problems as he could with Koivisto.

The Finnish President observed the collapse of the Soviet Union with profound interest. Knowing personally many of the central characters in this drama gave him a special insight into the momentous events. He often exchanged opinions with Gorbachev about the future of the country.

Koivisto recounts: "Gorbachev said that it was now clear that models could not be transposed from one country to another; there were many countries with private property and a market economy where people lived in poverty. The form of ownership and the market resolved nothing; at best they could be a precondition."

In his conversations with Bush, who by then had become President, Koivisto stressed the importance of assisting Gorbachev. The Finnish President suspected that Bush did not quite understand the seriousness of the Russian leader's situation.

Elsewhere Koivisto expresses dismay at some American analysts who seemed to view Russia as comparable to Latin American countries: "The West did not have a coherent strategy for supporting Russia, and no real resources had yet been released for that purpose. The only significant assistance had come from Western Europe, and we must bear most of the responsibility in the future as well. We could not afford to forget Russia's problems because if there were a general breakdown resulting in chaos, we would get the fallout."

Since Finland's occasional problems with Soviet leaders have often been closely monitored in the West, it is interesting to note that in his memoirs, Koivisto levels some criticism at Western attitudes towards Finnish foreign policy: "The West has had a powerful influence on Finland, even to the point of breathing down our necks. Often those who are pursuing their special interests claim that our credibility will suffer, or that we will be shamed in Western eyes, if we do this instead of that. No wonder our self-esteem is regarded as being defective."

In the final words of his book, Koivisto adds: "But perhaps this book has shown that other countries do not necessarily manage their current affairs at a higher level than we do."

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