Finland’s belated response to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

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By Enrique Tessieri

Finland lags behind the rest of Europe in some areas. Good examples are immigration and reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Is the growth of right-wing populism in Finland today only a belated response to the demise of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and Berlin Wall?

I remember clearly when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev paid his first visit to Helsinki in autumn 1989. That historic visit, which I covered for the London Financial Times, was the first big step in the thawing of cold war relations between Helsinki and Moscow.

Even if over two decades have passed since Gorbachev’s visit to Finland, it is curious that Finland has not yet begun to debate in earnest its cold war era. This is understandable since those policy makers who were junior civil servants in cold war Finland  are today senior officials on the verge of retirement.

The cold war era took too long and was too big of an event to forget or conveniently brush under the rug. Some of the matters we should look at are how the media was censored and how politicians used Finnish-Soviet relations to strengthened their grip on power.

The lack of any meaningful debate on the cold war and that era in general could explain in great part the victory of the Perussuomalaiset (PS) party in the April election. Was it a belated response to the end of the cold war?

Each European country is different and their responses to a post-Soviet Union era differs. In Finland, our initial response was to become an EU member in 1995 and to continue life in this corner pocket of Europe as normal as possible.

Finland’s past and present small immigrant population says as well a lot about the PS and today’s political situation. For one, it reveals that those that came out to celebrate the end of the cold war twenty-two years late are probably more anti-EU than anti-immigration. If this is the case, it shows why all right-wing anti-immigration populist parties in the Nordic region except for the PS have lost ground after Anders Breivik went on his mass-murder rampage in Norway on July 22.

If there is a silver lining in the PS’ election victory in April it is Finland’s slow but certain rejection of anti-immigration populism by the likes of PS MP Jussi Halla-aho and his cronies. Nobody knows for certain but it is pretty clear by the reaction of other political parties, the media and common people that we do not want to follow Denmark’s former example.

Why? Because immigration laws and attitudes have been pretty tight in Finland to begin with.

The present political situation has placed new challenges on the country’s traditional parties as well. The Center Party could be seen as the first casualty of the post-post cold war era.

It’s pretty clear that “Finland’s Spring” will get stronger in the months ahead as our economic standing weakens in the face of a financially ever-troubled Europe and anemic global markets. It would be a mistake to assume as well that the PS will be the only party to benefit from the situation.

A visible group like the PS with all of its populist rhetoric has fuelled the rise of other parties like the Greens, Left Alliance and Kokoomus.

People may flock to Kokoomus to offset the rise of the PS and others to the Greens and Left Alliance to challenge the rise of right-wing populism.

  1. eyeopener

    Hi Enrique.

    Historical understanding is not exactly humans’ best competence. It’s easier to follow the sheep that bleat loudest than to learn to think for themselves.

    Independence has come the hard way for the Finns. But the blame the Russians for that is many bridges too far.

    It’s not to me to point at political and military mistakes made by the Finnish Government before the II World War. Nevertheless it would be far more better to acknowledge those, debate on them publicly and draw the lessons learned from them.

    During my Barents Specialists education in Finland at the Lapland University I have run often in discussions about this issue. My professors agree with the above point of view. I am also aware that some parts of Finnish society will not agree with me.

    I do not believe that the rise of PS is due to a late recognition of the meaning of the Berlin Wall. Populistic movements blame other than their own nationals for the problems in the country. Problems coming from openess, easyness to enter the country, economic problems that have nothing to do with foreigners etc.

    Simple solutions that split up the country in “we” and “they” are to follow.

    So. What would happen if all foreigners would walk out on Finland?? I guess: bankruptcy within 2 years. Or draconic measures,like Soini has suggested (everybody has to go berry-picking, sweeping streets, cleaning toilets etc.) Has he done work like that??? No way. Getting his belly fat in Brussels as a European Member of Parliament, getting very well paid and achieving no nothing.

    Do Finns like confrontation in discussion and dialogue?? I seriously wonder.

    • Enrique

      Hi Hans and great to read your thread. I agree with you: The fall of the Berlin Wall was the only reason why the PS rose in strength but one of many factors that caused its rise in this country. As you know and may agree with me, the rise of the PS is due to a number of factors but one stands out: the economic recession. When the majority see their jobs and livelihood being threatened they easily blame a minority or minorities. In Finland they are the immigrants. You are absolutely right in pointing out that we must learn from our mistakes when looking at history. Learning from them can be difficult if we don’t acknowledge what went wrong. Here, I believe, there is a lot of room for improvement in Finland. In time I believe it will be the future generations that will bring up these important issues.

      I had an interesting debate on My Finland is International FB site with Ilkka Kivi. If you look at his threads you’ll notice the real issue that the PS are debating or coercing in Finland: The right to cultural diversity and defending white Finland.

      The rise of the PS has been revealing in many respects: For one, take your mind back to the 1930s and think of the potential of a country like Finland to be far right in light of an enemy like the former Soviet Union. That USSR has now been substituted for certain immigrant groups and the “threat” the PS claims they pose on us.

  2. eyeopener

    Hi Enrique. One of the points that PS seems to overlook is the fact that many of the foreigners in Finland are “whites” and those whites are in general the higher educated people. Do they include us (=whities) for extradiction as well?? Furthermore: many of the “coloured” foreigners are far higher educated than many of the PS parliamentarians or voters. What about the discussion on the Blue Chip Card for those high educated immigrants?? See also below!!

    That’s scary for the PS, don’t you think??

    Probably PS wants only Finns in their country. Also Finn expats with a totally different “Weltanschauung” and/or multi-cultural heritage?? Wonder how they argue on that issue.
    But in the case of “only Finns in Finland”: I would suggest Soini cs. withdraw from the EU and start doing things “the Finnish” way!!. But: then I claim the EU demands a re-payment for all the subsidies that Finland has received and is still receiving from the EU to develop their backward economy and underdeveloped regions from the 90s ongoing. Including the salaries Soini earned as a Member of the European Parliament.

    Already a long time ago, scientists like Saxenian and Florida have evidenced the value of diversity for societies. Competitiveness and innovativeness -as they advocate- is the result of the continuous exchange between different points of view stemming from alternative views to reality. Finland’s high position on the Competitiveness and Innovation Monitors is the result of these multi-varieted exchanges between actors, no matter their back-ground.

    It would be a disaster for Finland to drain this “multi-cultural creative class”. See my previous comment in this blog.

    In this perpective I would like to mention the barrage of suggestions from the Ministry of Education in their Strategy Report on Internationalization of Education in Finland. When I have to believe only 10% of the views expressed in this Report PS does not have a foot to stand on. Better: they would be eradicated from the political scenery.

    Wishful thinking?? Very well possible!!

    • Enrique

      Hi Hans, the PS are always a spooky bunch. Some of them more than others but scary. With the PS and other who think like them it is important to keep digging in their arguments and expose what they are really aiming to do in Finland. But as you know we have these types in all political parties in Finland from Kokoomus to the Social Democrats.

      Diversity has always been a part of any society that is why I am lost many times by the PS’ message. For example, we are against multiculturalism (the policy that allows non-Europeans from moving to Europe in an “uncontrolled” fashion) even though Finland is ALREADY diverse. Most sensible people agree with Saxenian and Florida.

      The next time a PS follower ends up on our blog, we should pitch him the following question: After Finland leaves the EU how will Finland succeed economically?

      As you know Hans, Soini and the PS don’t have any idea how they’d lead this country. All they know to do is insult other people and whine.

  3. Mary Mekko

    Finland during the Cold War had set contracts with USSR. I remember the defective vegetables coming in from Russia, because my Finnish friends were complaining about them in the 1980’s.

    The average Finn may not like a good argument on the bigger and broader picture of the the USSR threat, since it was just too scary to think of being taken over. Weren’t the memories of the Winter War enough?

    However, ask Finns about the details of living during the Cold War. On that they’ll go on for hours: the high prices of goods, the inferior quality of the forced- Russian imports, etc.

    Those agreements held down the standard of living for the Finns for a long time.

    But hey, at least Finland had Moscow TV! We in America didn’t, and I remember my facsination in watching it there in 1980’s Helsinki. Real Russians, walking around doing normal things, looking normal! We never saw that in the USA, only desperate poor old people cleaning the streets and falling-apart buildings.

    I travelled myself three times during the 1980’s to Russia, once in Helsinki by the FINN-SOV TOURS, a bus company that drove you over to Leningrad, for roughly $30/day, and put you up in a big hotel on the outskirts of town. Everyone on my bus was a Finnish male save me and one Finnish lady, in love with a Russian, going to see him. She and I teamed up.

    The first stop after the border near Vipurri was a sudden dash into the woods, a bus jolting on a dirt road, until we stopped in front of hut selling vodka. The 20 or so Finns got out, bought a lot of vodka, and drank it all the way to Leningrad.

    On the return bus ride, I had a big black sackload of art/craft items, bought with money exchanged on the street. I worried about leaving and having to declare how I acquired these items without receipts to show the mandatory foreign exchange. I was banking on saying that they were gifts.

    Lucky for me, as soon as we approach the Finnish border and bundle out to walk through the pass control, the young Soviet border soldier was so happy to meet an American, and a nondrunk at that, that we had a good laugh! He didn’t see the big black bag by my side.

    Russia was certainly a very lowlife place. Just the sight of rundown Vipurri, Viborg, was shocking.

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