Keeping the bear from the land of wolves: Finns hope to sever their final ties with Russia as they vote for a new president tomorrow, writes Annika Savill from Kirkonummi

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THE ONLY work the unemployed men of this village near the Finnish coast have had for the past year has been refurbishing the yellow wooden villa that now houses the local branch of their 'Union of the Unemployed'. With the jobless rate across Finland at well over 20 per cent, and half the construction industry out of work, the way forward is deemed to be trade unions for people whose trade is unemployment.

The newspaper cuttings on the wall of Villa Solhem speak of the 'happy sound once again of people working'. But the refurbishment is long since complete, and the unemployed men use the house for somewhere to go and drink coffee. Outside, in the blackness at 3pm, rain falls on top of the snow.

Some 60 per cent of the Finnish export market was lost with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The end of decades of successful barter trade with the Russians, and the overheating of the Finnish economy in the 1980s, has dismantled what was a leading industrial democracy of Northern Europe.

After half a century of skilfully and silently accommodating the Soviet shadow, the Finns are also trying to adjust to the idea of transferring their Big Brother from Moscow to Brussels. The majority had opposed entry to the European Union. But after the electoral success of Vladmir Zhirinovsky, who has repeatedly declared his intention to have Russia re-occupy Finland, opinion polls showed for the first time last week a majority in favour of EU membership.

With the first round of elections tomorrow, 11 candidates are campaigning for the job of president to succeed Mauno Koivisto. Comments on them by the man in the street provide ample insight into the gloom of the Finnish mind. Take Paavo Vayrynen, a former foreign minister running for president. 'If that man gets in,' said Pertti, 26, 'I'm leaving the country. He's sold us out to the Russians once too often.' It is alleged that Mr Vayrynen as foreign minister gave private briefings to the Soviet embassy in Helsinki on Finnish security matters.

How is it possible then that he should be one of the leading four candidates now? 'Well,' said Pertti, 'we are now back to the fact that we are, after all, in Finland. We are so few in this country. Many people believe that if we don't do these things like working with the Russians, the wolves will come and get us. Personally, I wonder why we live here at all. What do we need a president for, in a land where only wolves and bears should live?'

A surprise among the top four is Elisabeth Rehn, because she is a representative of Finland's Swedish-speaking minority. It was of her that Mr Zhirinovsky said that any country with a female defence minister did not deserve to be independent. But that the Finns should choose to elect a member of the few hundred thousand representing the legacy of another former colonial master - Sweden - still seems inconceivable. They have not had a Swedish-speaking president since Mannerheim during the Second World War.

'We need a president, not a monarch,' grumbled a campaigner for the top candidate, Martti Ahtisaari. 'Mrs Rehn's husband is a bit lazy.' This is Finnish humour for the implication that had Mr Rehn kept his wife happy in bed, she would not have gone into politics. Still, as Defence Minister, Mrs Rehn has managed to capture much of the women's vote.

Mr Ahtisaari, a veteran United Nations envoy running on the Social Democratic ticket, is felt by many to be the strongest candidate, because he has not been around to soil his hands. On his last 12-hour campaign-bus stint this week, he told me: 'I think people are more interested in an honest, fair person as president than in somebody who has been sitting around here making politics for years.' Apart from covering the length of Finland on his bus for the past two months, he has become known to the Finnish masses by appearing on a talk-show set in a sauna.

Though he holds a comfortable lead in the polls, this is not expected to be enough to give him an outright win. The second-place winner - Mr Vayrynen, Mrs Rehn or the fourth favourite, Raimo Ilaskivi, a former Conservative mayor of Helsinki, would do battle with him in the second round on 6 February.

The job of a Finnish president, in addition to orchestrating foreign policy, is that of string-puller behind the scenes of a government frequently of a different denomination from his own. Nobody demonstrated that fact better than Urho Kekkonen, Finland's legendary leader for 25 years until 1981. Under the new Finnish revisionism, Kekkonen has been posthumously accused of engineering, with the help of his friends in the Kremlin, the exchange of ostensibly hostile notes with Moscow in the early 1960s in order to consolidate his grip on domestic policy.

There are still those of the old school who dare not speak the name of Russia out loud. In Wanha Maestro, a hangar of a dance hall in Helsinki, Pekka asks me to join him in a foxtrot. A mild-mannered bird-ringer in his 50s, he has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 22 years without relapse. Like many Finns young and old, foxtrot and tango are his way of fighting seasonal depression. I ask him about Mr Zhirinovsky. He reaches for my pen, and writes: 'Vihata = USSR.' He says: 'It's your problem to find out what the word means.' I ask the barman. 'It means hate.'

(Photograph and map omitted)