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Martti Valkonen

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Martti Valkonen


After the long years of standstill in the relations of neighbouring countries, the Russian side certainly felt embarrassed when Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, one day in middle nineties launched a new outspoken diplomatic route through shallow and dangerous waters on stormy Karelian question. This was the inflammatory field on the Finnish-Soviet/Russian relations.

During his six years 1994-2000 in the office Mr. Ahtisaari said several times about lost Karelia such words which his predecessor Mr. Mauno Koivisto (1982-1994) and his successor Ms. Tarja Halonen (2000-) clearly have not wanted to say.

Since the early years of president Urho Kekkonen (1956-1982) in fifties-sixties neither the leaders in Kremlin nor we Finns have heard words about lost Karelia from leading politicians before the years of Ahtisaari.

From the point of view of Finnish national considerations the most important moment came when Ahtisaari said as a matter of fact in a television interview that the question of the lost territories stays as a sore place in the relations and that it is a problem which forever keeps to the subconscience of every Russian political leader in Kremlin.
Lost Karelia is always at present when Finnish and Russian leaders meet, subconsciously if not in spoken words, Ahtisaari wanted to say. There is no need to say more to compel those people who demand to stay quiet about Karelia to find new argument.

It is true that not even Mr. Ahtisaari spoke often about Karelia in public. But those words were enough to unlock the many doors which Soviet and Finnish politicians and officials had kept closed together and separately.

The well known statements about Karelia by Ahtisaari took place 1997 in Kremlin, 1998 at Kuopio, small Finnish town in Eastern Finland, and 1999 at Vaasa, a seaside town in Western Finland, and in a television interview. He gave some other statements, too, but these can be seen as sideeffects to the main events.

Yeltsin´s three surprises

Russian president Boris Yeltsin startled at least thrice his Finnish colleagues during his own office 1990-2000, when he unexpectedly opened his mouth about Karelia.

First time Yeltsin embarrassed Mauno Koivisto in summer 1992 during his state visit to Finland, when he apologized to the Finns for the ugly and illegal pressure which the Soviet Union had always put onto Finland and the nasty way with which the Soviets had always put its fingers into the Finnish domestic affairs. Koivisto was taken by surprise and he was not able to react in any way to Yeltsin´s apologies and his short and rare moment of openness.

Second time Yeltsin surprised his Finnish counterpart was in May 1994 in Kremlin, when Ahtisaari paid his first state visit to Russia. Yeltsin gave an answer to a question by Finnish correspondents about the lost Karelia and the Winter War and said: "We with president Ahtisaari cannot accept Stalin´s criminal policy of aggression towards Finland."
Ahtisaari was standing by Yeltsin, and kept silent. He lost that occasion.

It was the same way when Yeltsin for the third time spoke of Karelia. It took place in Kremlin in November 1997, when Ahtisaari paid a visit to Russia. That time Yeltsin had changed his policy 180 degrees when he invited the Finnish correspondents to his impromptu press conference and told them to keep for ever silent about Karelia. He tried to give the order that the Finnish press would never ever write about Karelia and that any discussion about the lost territories must not continue in Finland.

It was only later in his own press conference when Ahtisaari spoke and said that he would be the last person to forbid discussions about Karelia in Finland.

It might be that the reason of Yeltsin´s denial was an earlier press interview of Ahtisaari in the Russian press. Ahtisaari had told to a Russian paper that the Finns saw and still see the Winter War as a huge wrongdoing, injustice and misdeed from the Soviet Union. Ahtisaari said that it still is a very traumatic period in Finnish-Russian relations.

The interview might have been the reason to Yeltsin´s behavior. Some observers have said that at that time, Mr.Yuri Deryabin was Yeltsin’s advicer on Finnish relations. He was a Soviet diplomat who was known as "a Finland Eater", a notorious term which has been in use for more than a century since the Tsarists times when high officials in St. Petersburg tried to make autonomous Finland a Russian gubernement.

Obviously Deryabin had advised Yeltsin to deny the Finns even the basic human right of free speech. It is worth to note that Yeltsin himself picked up the Karelia question and was not answering any questions from the press. The only reason to call the conference was to give the order of silence about Karelia. That really sounded deeply Deryabin politics.

"Discussion must go on!"

Yeltsin´s denial did not work. Discussion went on and articles were written.

Actually the tempo of debate got new strength. New participants took floor in public. One fresh participant was brigadier general Kari Hietanen who spoke for the return of lost Karelia.

Ahtisaari picked up Hietanen´s proposal. It was told that even the Russian Embassy had given a note about the general. In 1998 Ahtisaari said at Kuopio that the official Finnish opinion draws some limits which the official people like diplomats and officers must obey but at the same time it would be very strange if the discussion would not go on.

President repeated the official Finnish view at Kuopio: "The official standpoint is that Finland has no territorial claims towards Russia. If Russia wishes to talk about the return of lost territories, Finland is ready for that."

Ahtisaari put more steam onto debate in 1999 at Vaasa where Karelian Association had its annual meeting. President repeatedly spoke about the heavy and tiresome time when Finnish population had to flee from the invading Soviet armies in 1939 from ancient Finnish towns and villages in Karelia.

He told that new generations had been born and therefore the number of Finnish evacuees has risen up to more than 600 000 persons. He gave clear arguments for the continuing debate. He said, too, that even if younger people do not know their own Karelian origins for the time being they certainly want to learn about it sooner or later and they have got all the rights to have that possibility. Therefore "civil debate about Karelia is our legal right and our duty".

Clearly Ahtisaari wanted to say that people must talk about Karelia and not keep quiet. It is many times more in substance than any other leading Finnish politician has since the war said about the most difficult national challenge, which is waiting for solution.

It was a psychological mirror image which president opened for public view in July 1999 in a television interview. It was broadcast in October, same year. President said: "The Karelia question is and will be a sore point in Finnish-Russian relations." He said that whoever will be in power in Kremlin he feels always openly or at least subconsciously that something is wrong, and it is the Karelian question.

That is it, the basic truth and problem in Finnish-Russian or Russian-Finnish relations.

Talk to the Finns

It seems to be so that Ahtisaari understood that his main task was to talk mainly to the Finns and clear up many problems of Karelia question. The Finns are used to keep quiet about any injustice and wrongdoing they have experienced. Ahtisaari spoke about the need for civil discussion. The presidential demand is a necessity in a country where population has always kept silent in two languages and waited for high officials and politicians to speak and write first before ordinary citizens take the floor.

One must first create a debate within the civilian society. Then it is possible that a public opinion will be formed on the national level. Only then it might be possible to talk about negotiations with the neighbour. Very many politicians are still preaching against any Karelian debate, mainly because they seem to suppose that they win popularity to their own political career in the neighbouring country.

Still, it is obvious that while in office Ahtisaari gave orders to the Foreign Ministry to draw some plans, so called Karelia File, to be ready for any talks with Russia - at the moment when Russia shows green light for the talks. And Russia will start talks at once when the leaders in Kremlin realize that the talks and return of Finnish territories are in the best interests of Russia.

Certainly they have a Karelian File in a safety box in the Foreign Office although the diplomats are not allowed to say that publicly. The surrounding world and Europe keep changing rapidly. Any day we may face a new turn and challenge when Russia suddenly opens new rounds of talks about Karelia. If the Foreign Ministry and the Foreign Minister him- or herself that day arrive to the table empty handed, without well thought Karelian File, they have worked terribly and unbelievably badly.

President Tarja Halonen has inherited from her predecessor a real mansize hole in the old brickwall of silence. First opinions have been uttered when President Vladimir Putin, too, tried to forbid the Finns to talk about Karelia when Ms. Halonen was on her first visit to Russia in June 2000. Ms. Halonen told to Putin that they can speak about anything between Finland and Russia.

Later in September 2001 Putin was in Finland and he offered some new ideas to develop Karelia internationally. Neither Finnish journalists nor Ms. Halonen put to Putin any questions of his proposals. So we do not know at present what Russian president really has in mind for future reconstruction of relations and Karelia. So the official political line is more or less open and vague and we have to wait till Halonen has time to build a new structure for relations and whole Karelian question.

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