23 April 1999

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Balkans crisis triggers speculations about stability in the Baltic

What if Finland was a member of NATO and the Alliance mounted an operation in Belorus, comparable to what is happening in Yugoslavia? What would be Finland’s role in the crisis?

Wild speculation? Perhaps. In any case, this was one of many scenarios imagined by Finnish commentators in the wake of the crisis in Yugoslavia.

An obvious area as a subject of such speculation is the Baltic. In its report on Russia published before the Kosovo crisis, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs analysed possible implications in a situation where NATO expands in the area at a time when strong patriotic forces are on the rise in Russia. In this scenario, Russia might try to increase its credibility in negotiations by strengthening its military presence near the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). "As a consequence, a big power crisis might arise in areas close to Finland", the report said.

Even if NATO understands the specific problems of member countries in crisis situations – as with Greece in the Kosovo crisis – some Finnish commentators think that for Finland, membership in NATO would make it impossible to stay outside military operations in a military confrontation in the Baltic.

In reality, public discussion about membership in NATO seems to have become more subdued in the course of the Balkans crisis. Professor Esko Antola from the University of Turku thinks that this is actually a shame. In his view, the events in Yugoslavia would have given a chance to consider the pros and cons of NATO membership in "almost laboratory conditions" (Helsingin Sanomat, 4 April 1999).

The official Finnish attitude to the security arrangements in the Baltic follows the old tradition of avoiding provocation of the Big Neighbour, Russia. Under present circumstances, membership of NATO would be a destabilising factor. Simultaneously, Finland – and Sweden – "regard the presence of the United States in Northern Europe as crucially important for stability" (see Tapani Vaahtoranta & Tuomas Forsberg, "Finland’s Three Security Strategies", in Mathias Jopp & Sven Arnswald, The European Union and the Baltic States : Visions, Interests and Strategies for the Baltic Region. Ulkopoliittinen instituutti [Finnish Institute of International Affairs] & Institut für Europäische Politik 1998).

However, in the light of the events in the Balkans, some questions have arisen on American strategic thinking in Europe. The NATO leaders have stated that the aim of the air strikes has been to promote stability in the area. To some observers the result has been anything but.

The Finnish Ambassador to Belgrade, Hannu Mäntyvaara, seems to have created an uproar inside the Finnish Foreign Ministry by describing publicly the NATO air strikes as a "complete political fiasco". In his view, the damage to the Yugoslav army has been minimal. He described the strikes as a "total war against Serbia". Mäntyvaara (who left Belgrade with his staff before the air strikes began) thought that the big NATO countries had dictated the Balkans policy to the EU. He didn’t believe the account of events according to which there was already a full plan in place for mass deportations of Kosovo Albanians -- a plan which would have been implemented even if there had been no air strikes (see Helsingin Sanomat, 22 April 1999).

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