February 1999                               

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Debate on Karelia stirs controversy

Karelian activists are enthusiastic, economic experts doubtful, Finnish politicians careful and their Russian colleagues resentful.

These reactions have been triggered by a growing debate about the possibility of returning to Finnish ownership the parts of Karelia which were ceded to the Soviet Union in the Armistice Treaty of 1944, a cession confirmed subsequently in the Paris Peace Treaty. Most of the Karelian population moved to other areas of Finland rather than become Soviet subjects. Nostalgia for lost territories and resentment of injustice incurred has characterised much Karelian debate ever since.

Many Karelian activists would like the Karelian Association to take a more aggressive stance and demand the return of the ceded Karelia. The association does officially favour the return of the lost areas but toes the official government line according to which the initiative should come from the Russians.

The few public Russian comments have been negative. On a recent visit to Finland, the President of the Russian Duma, Gennady Seleznyov -- a communist -- suspected that the people who want to discuss territorial problems are seeking to create problems for relations between the two countries.

The debate has been encouraged by the dire state of the Russian economy and public life. Some Karelian activists believe that under the circumstances the Russians might even agree to give up an area which, after all, is a burden with its underdeveloped economy. They say that Russia is not interested in developing the area.

On an immediate practical level the Karelian Association has demanded that the use of Finnish aid for adjacent regions should be concentrated in Karelia. The organisation also supports the channelling of more EU money to the region.

Some experts see this sort of economic co-operation as a first step towards later negotiations about the return of Karelia.

Other experts warn of difficulties which the return of the region might create. The cost of developing the Karelian economy could be enormous. Conflicts might arise from the facr that the Russian population in the area could not be transferred elsewhere. This would create a situation where Russian should eventually be made an official language in Finland, in addition to Finnish and Swedish. One commentator wrote that those who support Finnish membership in NATO should realise that Western security guarantees would not be given to a country which has territorial demands on Russia.

And finally, the Finnish EU Commissioner, Erkki Liikanen, warned that the demand to return to old borders would open a European-wide debate about many similar border situations. Liikanen is also doubtful about proposals to make Karelia a special economic zone administered by the EU, Finland and Russia together.

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