27 April 1999                                  

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Intellectuals divided by events in Yugoslavia

Finnish intellectuals condemn atrocities by Serbian forces in Kosovo but many leading thinkers oppose NATO air strikes against Serbia. Some find them problematic but understandable. Several think that there may have been no other alternative after the talks in Rambouillet.

In a round of interviews by the national daily Helsingin Sanomat, 39 intellectuals responded to the question whether there were other ways to intervene than air strikes. Sixteen of them strongly opposed NATO action. A couple of intellectuals in this group had changed their initially favourable reaction. Only few of the respondents supported the air strikes without questioning the wisdom of the action.

The internationally most famous of the interviewees, the philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, regretted that NATO began the air strikes against Yugoslavia without legitimacy in international law. "I am afraid that the war makes life even more difficult for the Albanians and other Kosovans. Of course one has to differentiate clearly between events which are wrong and condemnable, like the actions by Serbians in Kosovo. But there is the other side in this matter which is that NATO’s military intervention in the events in Yugoslavia is very unfortunate. This double tragedy could be the swan song of our civilisation."

Another internationally well-known commentator, Max Jakobson, referred to his columns published in Helsingin Sanomat. In them, he has defended NATO air strikes as "a breakthrough for humanitarian interventions". Jakobson emphasises NATO statements according to which "the international community cannot allow the continuation of massive violations of human rights by Serbs in Kosovo".

Of the leading novelists in the group, Veijo Meri said that we are witnessing "NATO’s suicide". Paavo Haavikko, on his part, thinks that the events have revealed how "helpless and simultaneously violent NATO is". According to Haavikko, the Alliance is "incapable of controlling the events or creating alternatives". He continued: "In its violence, it cannot understand how it is posthumously justifying Milosevic’s actions."

Younger intellectuals were split in their opinions as well. The philosopher and writer Tuomas Nevanlinna deplores the way the United States has declared itself to be "the representative of human rights". Nevanlinna found this comparable to "the way the Communist Party declared itself to be the direct representative of the proletariat or the Nazi Party the representative of the German people". According to Nevanlinna, this is "totalitarian logic".

The popular philosopher Esa Saarinen, on the other hand, criticised intellectuals who "hypocritically condemn the use of force by the West in all circumstances". According to Saarinen, "in the light of history this is an untenable attitude when one thinks of various despots who have been destroying life through the centuries".

Helsingin Sanomat singled out an article by the novelist Kari Hotakainen as an example of bafflement among the intellectuals. Hotakainen wrote that "the events in Kosovo are so big and irrational that they overwhelm everything that is alive" – also the possible opinions of individual thinkers. Hotakainen refused to analyse the crisis and only declared himself a supporter of the Red Cross.

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