We will do best in an open world

Marti Aavik
, arvamustoimetaja
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Sander Ilvest

President Kersti Kaljulaid will be hosted by her Finnish colleague Sauli Niinistö during her two-day visit to Finland who says that while he has no ambition to serve as an arbiter between Russia and the West, neighbors who share such a long border simply have to communicate more closely.

Congratulations 100-year-old Republic of Finland!

Thank you, thank you!

Which jubilee year event are you most anxious to experience and would recommend to Estonians visiting Finland?

They number so many that I will repeat the answer I gave to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: there are 365 days and reasons to visit Finland. To highlight something special, it is the independence festivities week – there will be a host of different events then.

How closely do you follow sports?

Quite often. Whenever I have the time.

Finland has seen more people from other countries recently, and it has sparked a lively debate. Have the Finns discovered something new about themselves in the process?

I cannot say whether Finland has really discussed if the number of refugees we've seen in the past 18 months has somehow called into question our Finnishness. I believe there is no such change.

Refugees are not an entirely new thing for Finland. Of course we have seen that people can have different backgrounds; however, we will manage them.

The principal characteristics of human nature are astonishingly similar everywhere in the world.

Have years of economic difficulty somehow changed Finnish “sisu”? Perhaps caused it to surface more?

I have reverently hoped for it.

I was finance minister when things really were looking grim in the 1990s. Then I discovered this about us: once we hit rock bottom, more and more people will come to realize that enough is enough, and that it is necessary to move on somehow. Economics describes this as creative chaos – chaos that produces good results.

Since the financial crisis, I have missed a new awakening in Finland. Now it seems we are moving again also in terms of the economy.

You believe things pursued to try and improve competitiveness have started to bear fruit?

I do believe that in part; however, Finland is very much dependent on the global economic situation. Receding shadows elsewhere will also benefit Finland. Competitiveness is very important; however, matters are decided by developments in the world and Europe especially.

President Donald Trump's election program has left the world fearing a wave of protectionism. How should small countries like Finland and Estonia react? What is your opinion of these fears in general?

First of all, protectionism has always existed. It existed before Trump, and it will be here after he is gone. At least corresponding aspirations will. Even in Europe. President Trump has simply said it out loud.

We are yet to see the impact of his actions – the meaning of his speeches in practice. That is what people are looking to with great interest and anxiety.

Forceful steps to protect the U.S. domestic market would cause a chain reaction – others would set about protecting their markets. That would be a poor development for small countries like Finland or Estonia. We can do best in an open world.

Today we are still waiting to see what will happen; nothing very significant has come to pass yet.

Will Trump bring a negative change that could somehow reverberate all over the world? For example his dislike of free press.

We saw how Trump's speeches on NATO changed into reality at the Munich security conference. Both Vice President Pence and James Mattis assured NATO allies, Europe in general really, that U.S. dedication has not changed. Pence visited Brussels on the following day and admitted cooperation with the EU and the union itself is important for the USA. So we can put these two concerns to bed for now.

Hopefully matters will become clear gradually. So far we've learned those two things.

When it comes to journalistic freedom, it is more accurate to say the U.S. administration is in the middle of a skirmish with the press. That is definitely something new. However, the press is still free to criticize in the USA.

Finland has rather special defense cooperation with Sweden. What is the level it is currently on?

I attended a security policy conference in Sweden three years ago. I discovered that both countries had a new inner preparedness to launch cooperation on a whole new level. We have come much farther than I dared believe in those three years.

I believe we will continue to move without a clear ceiling or end goal. We will be taking it one step at a time to see how this cooperation goes. It has gone quite well so far. I believe mutual trust has grown stronger. That is the alpha and the omega of all manner of cooperation.

There was quite a lot of talk of increased EU defense cooperation, at least before Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary Mattis' speech in Munich. Can the EU learn something from the cooperation model between Finland and Sweden.

The European Union has several bi- and trilateral cooperation models promoted by Germany for example. I suppose there is a lesson somewhere in Finnish-Swedish cooperation; however, each cooperation model forms a separate whole.

I've been a staunch promoter of common EU foreign and security policy for years. I believe the European Union should be able to adopt more responsibility for the safety of its citizens. It is not a competition with NATO. Security is perhaps the number one concern people and families have today. Feeling safe is the foundation for everything else.

Lack of security might manifest in fears of terrorism and the influx of refugees and immigrants in western Member States. In the east it is Russia. The European Union should be able to make its citizens feel safe. I believe it would give people new faith in the union.

Should we create a European army?

The word itself is confusing. There is no single NATO army either. The European Union currently has 28 armies, and it will have 27 once the UK leaves. It is a matter of fitting together resources and perhaps their common use one day.

I know how sweeping this question is in nature; however, a lot of people are talking about a change in world order. It was already a step toward changing the world order when Russia attacked Georgia and Ukraine some time later. Do you perceive the threat or possibility of the world order changing?

I believe – and this is the general position of small countries – we need to strictly adhere to the system of international agreements and international organizations. There is definitely room for improvement, as pointed out by President Trump. However, the goal is for there to be respect for things that have been agreed on together as well as efforts to try and reach a common understanding in terms of that world order also in the future. To avoid a situation where order is created by force or in a few sweeping moves.

Finland has tried to be active here, if only in terms of little things regarding which progress can be made. I have been quite happy with the development of aviation safety over the Gulf of Finland. Judging by recent comments at least, NATO and Russia seem to agree on something for the first time in a long while, no matter how small the detail. These are the kinds of small things we should use to bring trust into the world order we have agreed on, not one formed on conditions dictated by those who are stronger.

You have had several chances to meet with President Putin. I have noticed newspapers of several countries inquire as to what is behind this relationship. What is Finland's goal?

There is nothing special behind it. I have failed to notice this issue in the papers of a lot of countries…

Sweden for example…

I believe that rather it is the Baltics. Sweden's position is that they would not invite Putin for a visit.

Let us take Sweden's example. Their foreign minister visited Moscow quite recently. That is a rather grand opening move. To my knowledge it is something that hasn't happened in decades.

Participants of the NATO Warsaw summit were unanimous in that dialogue with Russia is absolutely necessary. True, we need to decisively address deterrence at the same time.

The fact I've spoken to Putin has not raised questions, but interest. I have been quite remarkably heartened. The fact that this contact exists has been regarded as significant. These conversations are definitely different than the ones Chancellor Angela Merkel has. We have often compared how we see things after these conversations.

I believe it is entirely inevitable that Finland, the border of which with Russia is as long as the corresponding borders of all other NATO or even EU countries put together, cannot treat Russia the same way everyone else can.

Is Finland trying to act as an arbiter?

I'm not really comfortable with such declarations of mediation.

However, I have tried to look for ways for the sides to understand each other better. I have also communicated certain views, sometimes following a request from Estonia. Perhaps they have been taken into account in some way.

I heard a forecast a few years ago that suggested that perhaps you will be the one to use their authority to raise the question of whether Finland should join NATO during the next presidential election. Could that be a possibility?

I do not think next year's presidential election will become a NATO election. The situation today is that around 25 percent of voters support joining NATO today, while roughly 50 percent remain opposed. Membership in NATO is not under the president's thumb; it is a decision for the parliament elected by the people.

A few years ago I thought Sweden's upcoming Rikstag election would become a kind of NATO election. Today, signs suggest that will not be the case there either.

In other words, your stance remains unchanged: if membership in NATO is supported, Finland and Sweden will do it together?

It is very important for Finland, and I'm sure also for Sweden, to keep that door open.

I met with Defense Secretary Mattis in private at the Munich conference, and I was given answers that completely satisfy us.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Timo Soini said on Sunday that he will not continue as chairman of the True Finns. Could this reshuffle the coalition?

That is very difficult to forecast. I understand Soini's decision – he has been chairman for a very long time. What will happen next is up to the True Finns themselves first. Next the suitability of the new chairman will be discussed by other members of the coalition.

Is there danger of racism or a serious extreme right wing movement in Finland?

Corresponding observations concern a relatively small group of people. We have one group concerning which the police have launched an investigation with the aim of banning their activities. It is not a very big organization as I understand it.

These kinds of phenomena tend to get more attention than they merit.

We see reactions many people are trying to explain through purely economic factors; however, perhaps Western treatments have unjustifiably overlooked differences of nations and cultures.

The way people are, the main part of their behavior is very similar all over the world. That said, of course there are visible differences between cultures. I place my hopes with humanness – that there will always be something to ensure different people will manage.

We have had a discussion on multiculturalism that clearly divided Finland into camps. I think we did not define multiculturalism. I also believe it cannot mean that Finland could one day be made up of regions sporting different cultures.

What it could mean was expressed by a man who came to Finland from Iraq. He said that when he's at home he observes his own traditions, but when he is at work or running errands he does things like the Finns do. I believe he has found a good harmony for himself and his family.

So a person can have several identities?

In some way and regarding certain things, but not one on top of the other. He proceeds based on his culture in some things, and based on local ways in others.

The connection between Estonia and Finland is very busy as it is. Do we even need major projects like the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel?

All projects that eventually look big have been born out of convergence of small streams. The closeness between Finland and Estonia, Finns and Estonians, individuals and companies – it is what creates this grand whole that keeps expanding.