Walk on eggshells, make an art of balancing your policies with the big bear overshadowing your country. Base your foreign policy on pleasing the neighbor. Zip up your lips and define journalistic facts with political relativism. Or even better: avoid cognitive dissonance by adopting a world view from the ideology next door. Make a virtue of necessity, diplomatic wisdom and negotiation skills, and build on the surrounding reality (as defined by your political leaders who know what’s good for you).
That was the famous Finland Example, a.k.a. Finlandization. Some are now suggesting Ukraine should walk in Finland’s footsteps. This has raised some eyebrows in Helsinki: Wait a minute — the famous “Finland Example” was a solution for the Cold War times. Are we back there already?
It was not so long ago, but for me as a Finn born in the 70s, all of this sounds distant. Finland is an active member of the European Union, we use the Euro as our currency and we are NATO partners. Finland tops the lists in many international rankings. Just to mention a few: we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world and for years, we have ranked on top of the annual Press Freedom Index.
Finns strongly identify themselves as Europeans, or Westerners. We also have very close ties to other Nordic countries. Our society is built in a similar way, based on the Swedish concept of the welfare state.
But geopolitics is as it is. Finland is a neighbor to Russia with a long border, and mutually respectful and friendly relations. This was not always the case. Animosity between the two nations has a long history, and it culminated in two wars between 1939 and 1944, with Finland losing both times — though without losing its independence.
After the wars, having lost a tenth of its area, Finland had to sign a treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual (military) assistance with Moscow. But the country was not annexed to the Soviet Union, not even to the so-called Soviet Bloc. And the paragraph about mutual military assistance was never applied. Finland tried to balance its relations with the Soviet Union and function as a neutral country between East and West.
Unfortunately, the relationship was not at all an equal one, because the Soviets didn’t approve of Finland’s neutrality until 1989, when Gorbachev finally acquiesced to it.
The true will of the majority of Finns (challenged, however, by a loud minority) even during the coldest of Cold War years was to belong to the West, if not on political maps, then at least mentally. From clothing to cars, everything American was adapted, emulated an imitated enthusiastically, to the point of Finland winning the European championship in American football in 1985. Learning the Russian language was almost totally neglected in Finnish schools, with English, German and French being the most popular foreign languages.
Finland had a unique bilateral trade arrangement with the former Soviet Union that climaxed in 1983 and ended in 1991. It was very profitable for the relatively few big and privileged Finnish firms that had a license to export to the Soviet markets. In practice, the arrangement constituted a notable subvention system to the selected firms. The system led to sclerotic industrial structures in Finnish manufacturing. As a result, a large share of exports was highly specialized to the Soviet markets. A case in point was the Finnish garment industry, which made nice profits for several decades and then collapsed almost totally in the 90s with its not-so-fashionable product lines.
What can we learn from the Finland example? The Russian Federation is not Soviet Union, far from it. History does not repeat itself and we shouldn’t misconceive the present based on the past. Finland went its own way, as hopefully Ukraine will, too. If I were to offer a suggestion: imitate the best, leave the rest. If that is what is planned in Ukraine and for Ukraine, the country may have a chance.
But let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that the Finnish way is a long-term solution to Ukraine’s problems: slowly but inevitably, Finland moved from a position of being an almost Soviet ally to neutrality to a member of the European Union. And at least that last step is something the present-day Russia would not approve of at all.
For Finland the adjustment to a fully competitive economy in the world markets involved a process of painful creative destruction, something Ukraine might want to have a closer look at.
Before the loud and clear rush to the European Union with Russian approval, an unspoken goal for Finlandization was to quietly tiptoe towards the West. Would Russia allow this kind of development with “Ukrainization”?
Krista Taubert works as an anchor and subeditor for a leading current affairs program “A-studio” at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Finland.
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