May 1999                               

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     Finland agonises over Kosovo

by Tuomas Forsberg

The Kosovo crisis may well turn out to be a watershed in Finland's security policy. The crisis is putting the credibility and workability of Finland's strategy in the post-Cold War era to the test. Finland can no longer withdraw into its shell. Rather, EU membership brings with it added responsibility for events in Europe.

When the NATO strikes started, Finland's foreign policy leadership reacted in a cautious manner. In his speech during the State opening of parliament, President Martti Ahtisaari accused Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic of human rights abuses and stressed Finland's willingness to contribute to the rebuilding process. Not a word about the UN or NATO. Later he pledged his support for the bombing campaign more emphatically: "The Kosovo crisis teaches all of us that peace needs structures that will last: democracy, cooperation and trust. If these structures are not in place, in extreme cases, aggression must be met with aggression in order to guarantee security and protect the innocent."

The situation was quite different during Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Finland in June 1998 when Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen took the opportunity to distance himself completely from the plans for unilateral military action in Kosovo. Two factors may explain the change of heart. First of all, it is easier to oppose decisions that have not yet been taken. Secondly, during the autumn it became increasingly obvious that something had to be done to protect the inhabitants of Kosovo. The fact that the pathologists examining the victims of the Racak massacre were Finnish could not fail to influence Finns' views of Milosevic's ruthless policies.

All in all, Finland's situation is problematic because it is in its own interests to defend both the values of the UN charter and those of the western 'international community'. As a small country, Finland has always been concerned about abuses of sovereignty rights that are in breach of the UN charter. Finland has wanted to be an active political player in post-Cold War Europe, but in the Kosovo crisis Finland's line has been partly reminiscent of the Cold War years, when in times of international conflict it preferred the role of doctor to that of judge. Finland's position towards the Kosovo crisis has been virtually the same as the stance it adopted during the bombing of Iraq last December. The bombings are regrettable but Finland believes that the responsibility for what is happening lies firmly at the door of Milosevic's rogue state. Comments on Kosovo bear the mark of the Cold War tradition of avoiding direct condemnation of the super-powers, but the use of military means and by-passing the Security Council is no longer viewed as seriously as before.

According to the public opinion polls, Finns have tolerated the NATO air strikes by a clear majority. Finnish intellectuals have tended to acknowledge the moral dilemma but have avoided strong opinions on the issue. The problem is that for some NATO is doing too much, for others too little. Although the left-wingers mostly represent the voices of dissent, opinion is no longer polarised between the political right and left as it was in the Cold War. Neither has the peace movement gained momentum as a result of the Kosovo crisis. What might be interesting, though, is that opposition has been visible, particularly within the pages of the Swedish-language national newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet.

Although the NATO air strikes are given support, it seems clear that the Finns themselves do not wish to be involved in this type of crisis management operation. For historical reasons many Finns associate defence strongly with their own home turf and see the Balkan crisis as a great power game. The Kosovo crisis has led to a 10% drop in support for Finland's membership of NATO, with only 20% of the population now in favour. The former Prime Minister, Harri Holkeri, reflected the mood of the country when he said that Finns now realise that NATO is no debating society. The situation is odd in a way: while developing its relationship with NATO, the Finnish government has emphasised that Finland is prepared to take part in joint crisis management but is not willing to commit itself to a joint defence strategy. Given its policy of military non-alignment the question of whether countries outside NATO will have some special role to play in resolving the crisis will be of particular interest to Finland.

Of course, the implications of the crisis go beyond purely military considerations. The Finns' desire to help has been evident and sums donated for Kosovo's cause have beaten old records. This caring attitude also became visible in strongly voiced criticism of the government’s initial proposal to accept only a few dozen refugees from Kosovo. Now Finland has decided to take in 1,000 refugees and is prepared to increase the number if needed.

Finland has not been a part of NATO's decision-making process and neither does it need to bear any political responsibility for it. However, it does have to abide by the majority decisions of the EU member states. When Finland accedes to the EU presidency in July, it will be even more difficult for it to continue with its long-established policy of "we don't support, neither do we condemn" towards situations such as in Kosovo.

120 years ago, Finnish soldiers marched towards the Balkans alongside the armies of the Russian Tsar. Finland's participation was seen as important because it was proof of its allegiance to the Tsar. Times have changed and Finnish soldiers are not being sent abroad into battle. Politically, however, Finland is once more in the position where it needs to demonstrate its loyalty: this time to the European Union.

Tuomas Forsberg is the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Translation from Finnish: Sheila Reynolds

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