Frontline: Helsinki - Finland flirts with the West under a Tsar's nose

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YOU HAVE to hand it to the Finns. They have spent much of the last two centuries trying to secure, and then preserve, their independence from Russia. They fought a war against the Soviet Union and lost chunks of territory. Yet it is Tsar Alexander II, not a great Finnish national hero, whose statue adorns Senate Square, the most elegant site in old Helsinki. And even now, when the Cold War is over and no one owes Russia any favours, they're going to leave him there. Which helps explain the debate raging in Finland about whether to join Nato.

Let it be said that Alexander, as a colonial master, was pretty decent. He permitted the Finns their own currency and promoted the use of their language. Even so, times have changed. "Finlandisation" - that dirty word of the Cold War denoting a status somewhere between Soviet satellite and fully independent state - is a distant memory, and Finland is a member of the European Union.

Leave Senate Square and the city's old quarter, with its neo-classical facades and pastel colours so reminiscent of Russia that they were used as sets for Cold War spy films, and you could be in downtown Europe. The feel is of Hamburg, Oslo or Berlin. Even Stockmann's department store has lost its thrill. Once, for generations of Moscow-based diplomats and correspondents, the Helsinki store was the promised land, a source of Western luxuries an overnight train trip away. Now it's just a Nordic Selfridges.

In short, Finland has become normal - a founder member of the euro, with growth of 5 per cent last year and a forecast 3 per cent for 1999. Inflation is minimal, while the economy is no longer in thrall to what happens in Russia. "We have come of age." the Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, says. "With membership of the EU, Finland has reached its goal in post-war policy."

And yet the Bear - even today's enfeebled, limping beast - still casts its shadow. The national border which captures the Finnish imagination is still the 800-mile one to the east, the only direct frontier of an EU state with Russia. Had geography been otherwise, Finland would long have been a member of Nato. Instead, Helsinki is once again doing a nifty diplomatic double act.

Just as during "Finlandisation", when it beamed benign neutrality in the direction of the Russians but steadily strengthened its integration into the Western economy and institutions, Finland is now edging closer to the alliance without saying so. Mr Lipponen could not be more guarded: "We're relatively satisfied with the current situation, and not considering Nato membership. Technically we're non-aligned, but non-alignment actually implies the option of joining."

In practical terms, Finland is inexorably strengthening ties with the alliance. Its weapons programmes, most notably a recent purchase of 64 F-18 fighters in preference to Swedish Saab Gripens, are mainstream Nato; this year it allocated $1bn for a Finno-Swedish rapid reaction force. Helsinki is also involved in Partnership for Peace, often seen as an antechamber before full Nato membership.

"The parties are engaged, but a wedding day has not yet been set," the defence minister, Anneli Taina, has said. The Helsingin Sanomat columnist, Rusto Uimonen, likens the process to an electric plug inching towards a socket: "Suddenly, almost without noticing, we're plugged in."

The reason to plug in, of course, would not be security (for even a hostile Russia will not be a realistic threat for decades) but the changing realities of European defence. Nato's mandate is, if anything, broadening in the aftermath of the Cold War, and it may be expanded further at the April summit in Washington marking its 50th anniversary, which Finland will be attending.

But there is one problem: the Baltic states. The burning desire of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to join Nato is well known, and Finland feels responsibility for them, especially for Estonia - linguistically, culturally and geographically so close, and where Finnish companies have invested heavily. Alas, as Helsinki is aware, the three are neither ready to become Nato members, nor acceptable as such to Russia.

So what price the next Nato enlargement taking in inconvenient suitors like the Baltic states, Romania or countries from the former Yugoslavia, but those three pillars of prosperous neutrality, Finland, Sweden and Austria? That is what some in Helsinki expect.

But maybe there's another answer. A couple of years ago, the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd proposed a new Baltic security zone comprising Finland, Sweden and the Baltic states, and underpinned by guarantees from Nato and Russia, to bring Europe's north-eastern corner under the alliance's umbrella without upsetting Moscow. Little has since been heard of the idea. But Alexander II himself, if not Yevgeny Primakov, would probably approve.