Finland: To isolate or not to isolate ourselves from the world

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

If there is a post-Finlandization period in this country it manifests itself today through fear and suspicion of the outside world. As the April election result showed, a large minority of Finns don’t have a problem about returning to the days when Finland was near-isolated geopolitically from the outside world thanks to its special relationship with the former Soviet Union.

A Helsingin Sanomat poll published Wednesday showed that 40% of Finns are not very enthused about Europe and would not would not run under any circumstances to the aid of countries like Greece. Finland’s polarized society exposed itself in April, when a surprising 19.1% voted for the right-wing populist Perussuomalaiset (PS) party.

If the Helsingin Sanomat poll showed that 40% of Finns would be ready to turn their backs on Europe and the world, the PS victory in spring has turned that will into a strong political message. Even if the PS is a mixed bag of ideologies, it bases its support on anti-EU, anti-immigration and especially anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Helsingin Sanomat poll and the election result show how polarized Finland is today. On the one hand you have a large minority that wants Finland to effectively isolate itself from the world while the majority has a different opinion.

One of the matters that has impressed me a lot about the Finns is how this society can leap through history with Superman aspirations and with little debate.  A case in point is our ever-growing cultural diversity as a society after promoting ethnic and cultural homogeneity during the last century. The same is true when looking at Finland’s geopolitical near-isolation during the cold war era (1945-1991).

How difficult can it be for a country like Finland, which had seen its foreign population plummet to a mere 7,000 people in 1970 from 24,451 in 1920, to leap from a near-homogeneous society to one that is today tolerant and culturally diverse? A similar watershed was crossed in 1995, when we became a European Union member.

Fortunately the majority of Finns have been able to keep up with these breath-taking transitions. The Helsingin Sanomat poll shows that over half agreed at least to some degree that Finland should help eurozone countries.  Even if the PS scored a historic victory in April, 81% of Finns did voted for the traditional parties.

Debate in Finland is picking up as our society becomes more diverse ethnically and culturally. Our conceptions of ourselves as a unified ethnic and cultural block are changing but are still reinforced at school whenever  Finns are pitted against the outside world as is the case with the lessons of the Winter War (1939-40). Even though we are grateful to those who sacrificed their lives, glorifying these types of wars only serve to strengthen our sense of “us” and “them.”

It is a bit absurd that in 2011 we continue to place so much emphasis on the Winter and Continuation War (1941-44) taking into account that Russia is our neighbor and that the largest national and linguistic group living in Finland are Russians.

Finland needs today a much richer and varied debate on where our country is heading in this century.This debate is vital so we don’t end up living inside a nationalistic and xenophobic bubble.  It is as well the only effective way to challenge the threat posed by parties like the PS.

The whole issue can be summed up by an editorial of Sunday’s Helsingin Sanomat: “Finland’s greatest danger isn’t terrorism (in light of 9/11) but isolating itself (from the world).”