Koivisto could not have known what turbulence lay ahead of him in 1984. Uhro Kekkonen, Finland’s President was ill. Koivisto, as Prime Minister, by the articles of government, was to be the interim President. History would have told him that he was to become President in his own right: his predecessors, Paasaikivi and Kekkonen, had both followed the same path.
Much needs to be appreciated concerning Mauno Koivisto’s position as president of Finland. Such pre-eminence had onerous responsibilities and clear restrictions. As president he was the sole voice in matters of Finland’s foreign affairs. He was not required to seek permission from the parliament on any matter. In fact it was also his prerogative to appoint the prime minister and chief ministers of state who were then to be responsible for internal administration and the passage of legislation.
In matters of foreign affairs the president was severely circumscribed. He was required to always openly promote Russia’s best interests. This was written into the 1917 constitution at the founding of the modern Finnish state. Written into the peace treaty signed at the end of
World War II was also the requirement that Finland would militarily oppose the passage through Finland of any German forces, or any forces in sympathy with Germany, attempting to threaten Russia.
Finland’s political system has free and regular elections based on a universal franchise. Its form of government might best be described as a Presidential Democracy.
Not surprisingly Koivisto has chosen to record his own experiences as a President of Finland beyond what can be found in official transcripts. This enables him to control the way the world will remember him.
Foremost among the issues raised in his book is the clear expression of the need for the policy of considering the U.S.S.R.’s ahead of all others. Koivisto often refers to Finland’s history as a justification for such apparent subjugation. He notes that in recent times Finland has found itself losing to Russia on two separate occasions - at the end of the Winter War and at the end of World War II when she was an ally of Germany. Pragmatism alone shapes how Finland views its giant neighbour. But as Koivisto rightly notes the Finns have gained much of value from this consideration of Russia’s welfare beyond just peaceful coexistence. They have been recipients of Russian protection against the predations of others and also of favourable trade arrangements- two extremely valuable spin offs. Koivisto likewise makes it perfectly clear that Finland’s policy of ‘good neighbourliness’ extends to the whole world and in particular to those ‘capitalist states’ so fearful of Russian power. No country could ever feel threatened by Finland due to her obvious even-handedness.
It is clear from Koivisto’s book that beyond a foreign policy giving a large of measure security Finland gained much as follower of the tenets Social Democracy. Though somewhat behind their Nordic neighbour, Sweden, they never- the- less provided a good standard of living for all and a welfare system that covered everyone ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Removed geographically and politically from the mainstream the people suffered in no way from their country’s finding their own path.
Koivisto’s accounts of his involvement in foreign relations are dealt with chronologically. Much is obviously transcription of his working notes whilst other parts are a recollection of past events., Interspersed throughout is a verbatim record of letters sent and received. He was on intimate terms with the world’s great leaders and these letters provide an interesting and informative insight into their thinking on important events.
Any ‘blow by blow’, ‘day by day’ account is necessarily complex, forming a net work of changing interlocking events. For the sake of simplicity it is useful to note that the records fall broadly into two fields. Firstly, there are those matters that Koivisto inherited and which were ongoing. Progress in areas such as the establishment of a Nordic nuclear-free zone, the move towards arms reduction in Europe and Finland’s entry into the greater Europe of E.F.T.A. and the E.U. were often slow and at times stalled. But, secondly, there were those events, sudden and unforeseeable, that demanded quick and decisive action. The shooting down of a Korean jet liner, the rapidly changing power base in Russia due to the death in office of two of its leaders in just a few months, a missile gone astray over Karelia, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, and, greatest of all, the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev. These more dramatic events naturally grab the reader’s interest. Throughout these vicissitudes Koivisto maintains a calm and clear mind, giving advice when sought and comfort where necessary. Few foreign affairs ministers can have had such a demanding call on their talents.
Returning to the question of nuclear disarmament, it is interesting to note Finland’s singular fear of the adoption of cruise missiles as a front line attack weapon. These were reasoned by the Finns to be particularly threatening to them. Launched from submarines hidden in the Arctic Ocean, they would of necessity fly low across Finnish territory on their way to targets inside Russia. By treaty Finland was expected to defend Russia from attacks through Finnish air space. Bringing down the missiles would obviously subject the Finns to nuclear annihilation. Their neutrality could not save them. Koivisto forces the reader to see the changing nature of the arms race from a new standpoint.
It is impossible to cover with any adequacy all the great issues Koivisto faced. Those mentioned above must suffice to give some indication of their complexity and gravity. However, some attention must be given to Koivisto’s dealings with Gorbachev. They were great friends as well as being thrown together as leaders of neighbouring states. Koivisto spoke fluent Russian and had a close association with Moscow through an erstwhile Soviet ambassador to Helsinki, Viktor Vladimirov. Koivisto had developed a love for all things Russian. When Gorbachev rose to power it was inevitable that the two would become friends. In many ways they were alike. Each was given to careful consideration before taking action. Each was capable of seeing other viewpoints and was polite and ready to listen. Gorbachev often sought Koivisto’s advice and shared his fears and frustrations with his friend. He didn’t always follow Koivisto’s advice, and, characteristically following the collapse of the Soviet economy which precipitated the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Koivisto attempts to take some of the blame away from Gorbachev. He says, ‘I talked about these things (fiscal instability due to an over supply of currency) many times with Gorbachev. If what I said had been wiser, he would have been more receptive.’ It is useful to note that Koivisto was for many years Finland’s leading banking advisor and economic expert.
The collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the resultant political upheaval had important consequences for Finland. They were called upon to take a stand against the unilateral decision of the Baltic States to free themselves from Russian control. Finland condemned the violence that broke out in Lithuania. They condemned the marginalisation of Russians stranded in Estonia. These people of Russian birth were treated officially as non-citizens and were to have no rights as citizens. Such a stand seemed to be a continued support of Russia and an attempt to deny the Baltic stated the same democratic freedoms Finland so valued. Finland, by urging a policy of ‘hastening slowly’ and compromise, was alienating their Baltic neighbours. Finland’s stand appeared as nothing more than self interest an won her few friends.
The foregoing paragraphs will offer some indication of the interest Koivisto’s memoirs generate for the reader. Events move rapidly and the reader is swept along with the passage of events. There is little time to dwell on a crisis before another presents itself. One cannot envy Koivisto being called upon to pass judgement in so many tricky situations.
Koivisto’s book is not without its lighter moments. He paints a rather amusing picture of the extreme measures to assure the safety of President Reagan when he visited Helsinki in 1988. The Americans were insistent on taking over riding responsibility for the security arrangements. Decoy vehicles and planes that by-passed waiting reception committees to taxi at great speed to remote areas of the airport give an impression of a Hollywood farce. George Bush visiting at a later time was much more easily accommodated.
In assessing the book one can think of many positives. Being a first hand account it is written in the first person and this makes the account personalised. One easily falls in line with Koivisto’s thinking and shares his concern and sympathy for others. His frequent reference to historical precedents to support his position lends a lot of interest. He never denies his pragmatism pretending to virtues not found in others. His assessments of others is always fair and sympathetic. One feels that he is attempting to relate things as they really were. The use of personal correspondence, no doubt selectively chosen to bolster his case and carefully pruned, adds veracity. It is obviously not possible to claim another’s words falsely. People would be only too anxious to seek correction of any falsehood.
The fact that Koivisto is fluent in Russian and English becomes important in a book such as this. His dealings with his all-important Russian neighbours would have been first hand encounters without the intervention of translators. Likewise, as an English speaker, he has read the translation as we have before us and approved it. What the book says is exactly what he wanted it to say. He can lay no later claim to have been misinterpreted.
No book is without its faults. An obvious criticism of this book is that it is always flattering to the President. No error of judgement is laid claim to. The nearest he comes to being wrong is not to foresee some events. It is almost a claim of infallibility.
More serious to my mind is a failure to mention the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1968. Such an event , whilst he was Finland’s Prime Minister and just before he was made president, must surely have made some impact in Finland. Palme was of course notoriously confrontational in his dealings in foreign policy whereas Koivisto was always the peacemaker. I guess that they were not particularly close. But if this event which rocked the world, and especially Finland’s next door neighbour, Sweden, is not worthy of note one wonders what else has been omitted. What appears to be a full account of the events of the day may have serious omissions.
As mentioned, Koivisto was a leading banker for many years. He repeatedly gave gratuitous advice to others on proper economic management. At the close of his memoirs he states that didn’t seek reappointment as president for he ‘didn’t think he had any unfinished business of a serious nature’. This is a surprising statement. There was an economic crisis engulfing the world. Oil prices had risen to unprecedented levels and all the world’s currencies were under stress. Finland suffered more than most. The costs of necessary imports were high and she had lost her ‘most favoured nation status’ with the collapse of the Russian economy. Surely such a circumstance is worthy of note if not a response.
Another strange omission is Koivisto’s failure to record that his successor, Martti Ahtisaari was elected to his position as president. The rules governing the powers and method of appointment of Finnish presidents had long been questioned as being undemocratic - even as far back as 1917. At last there was a change to political accountability. No longer would a person be ‘rubber stamped’ through prime minister ship on to presidency. Such a momentous change to the method of attaining the office he is vacating is surely worthy of mention.
Criticism aside, this is an immensely valuable book. Simply as a review of European history if has much merit. Its clear and focussed style brings clearly to mind a not too distant past.
Jacobson, Max. Finland: Myth and Reality. Otava Printing Works, Keuruu. 1987.
Kirby, D. G. Finland in the Twentieth Century. C. Hurst & Company, London. 1979.
Koivisto, Mauna. Witness to History: The Memoirs of Mauna Koivisto. (translator Klaus Tornudd) Hurst & Company, London. 1997.
Nausidinen, Jaakko. The Finnish Political System.(translator John H. Hodgson). Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass). 1971.