Most boring presidency ever

The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) is showing as a summer rerun "Presidentit" (2005), a drama series on Presidents of Finland. It dramatizes some small part of their presidency, with a narrator popping in at the beginning and end of each episode to give some background. The series suffers from some overacting and clumsy exposition inserted into the dialog, but it's commendable that YLE is at least trying to popularize the country's history.

For many Presidents, there's an obvious choice for that one dramatic moment to put in film. To give a few examples, Pehr Evind Svinhufvud's episode deals with the Mäntsälä rebellion, Kyösti Kallio's with the start of the Winter War, and Juho Kusti Paasikivi's with the negotiation of the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. With Risto Ryti and Urho Kekkonen, there's a lot from which to choose.

The series goes through the first ten Presidents, but there's no episode for the current incumbent, Tarja Halonen. This got me to thinking: what moment in her presidency would make for good TV? We didn't join the EU, the Soviet Union didn't break up, there were no notable foreign policy crises, no vitally important treaties were negotiated, wars didn't end, wars didn't start, no one rebelled, no threats our democracy emerged, and there were no divisions to heal. This has been the most boring presidency ever.

An aspiring dramatist would probably be forced to go with former Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki's resignation and Halonen played a rather small role in that particular drama. There's always the campaign for a second term, but even that was more important to Halonen as a person than Finland as a country. She has steered clear of NATO, but there's no drama there because there has been precious little conflict.

Point is: we're not living in interesting times. To alleviate the boredom, Halonen should get to work in creating some dangerous foreign policy crisis in which catastrophe can only be averted at the nick of time by acting with determined, steely resolve. If she gets to punch out a terrorist, so much the better.

Patent nonsense

The Economist provides a country ranking based on most patents per capita:

1. Japan
2. Switzerland
3. United States
4. Sweden
5. Finland
6. Germany

So take that, you lederhosen-wearing sausage-munchers! Suomi! Suomi! Suomi!


Katainen on taxes

Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen (National Coalition Party) has been outlining his tax policy plans in recent days. The news is good for old folks:

[Katainen] was quoted as saying by regional daily Turun Sanomat on Sunday that tax rates faced by pensioners would be brought to the level of those levied from wage-earners next year.

Mr Katainen told the paper that tax cuts beyond the levelling move could be expected only at the end of the four-year legislative period. [...]

The tax cut outlined by the minister would apply to pensioners claiming between 13,000 and 31,000 euros a year who currently pay more tax than wage-earners do. The estimated tax revenue loss would be about 200 million euros.

People who buy or sell food have to wait a bit longer:
[Katainen] told commercial broadcaster Channel Four Finland (Nelonen) on Sunday that the government would probably not cut the VAT rate on food at the beginning of 2009, adding a tax cut of about 550 million euros would be implemented later.

In addition he repeated the usual talk about the importance of avoiding overheating and amortizing debt while the going is good. None of this is all that controversial, but pushing back the food VAT cuts isn't going to be popular with the Centre Party, which has been promising those cuts to its food producing supporters for a long time.

To get back to the Rosenholz affair - you knew it was coming - Katainen has defended (fi) fellow Coalitionist Interior Minister Anne Holmlund. Katainen also opined that the Security Police's Stasi material can be made public if it doesn't endanger Finland's opportunities to acquire intelligence information from international sources. Given that Denmark and Germany have already taken the step, I suspect the danger is rather minor.

Update: Oh, and the limit for tax-free inheritance will go up (fi) to 20'000 euros from the start of the next year.


Vanhanen on Rosenholz

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) has been defending the Security Police (Supo) pretty strongly over the Rosenholz affair. Quoth Vanhanen in Aamulehti (fi) and Helsingin Sanomat (fi):

"It's probably good to have a discussion on this matter inside the government if there's a need. I however stress strongly that the Security Police, whose job is to handle essential national security issues, must have a right to secret information. All information that officials have isn't meant for publicity."

"The Ministry of the Interior supervises, and the Ministry acts as responsible to the Parliament. We have a new, competent Interior Minister. This isn't down to supervision."

"Now that Supo gets new leadership, its natural task is to see how Supo could advance history writing while taking into account its commitments."

Ilkka Salmi, an aide to Interior Minister Anne Holmlund, has been tipped (fi) to become the next Supo chief. Salmi is a reasonable appointment in that he has relevant experience from working in Supo. However, if the new Supo leader is tasked with getting to the bottom of the Rosenholz affair, then the Interior Minister's former aide may not make the most credible source for an exculpatory verdict.


Rosenholz affair reactions

As you would expect, the papers are full of the Rosenholz affair today. YLE News provides a round-up of reactions:

National Police Commissioner Markku Salminen told YLE Friday that he is considering if the Interior Ministry should take an active lead and publish the information which it can release. However, he pointed out that the materials in the possession of the Security Police are its responsibility and the Ministry cannot make a decision about release on its behalf. [...]

[Interior Minister Anne Holmlund] says that her September schedule includes time to better familiarize herself with SUPO activities and at that time she will likely have talks on matters related to the issue.

The Interior Minister is taking the position that increased parliamentary oversight of the Security Police can be taken under consideration, but she has also noted that it has to be remembered that some of the information held by SUPO is such that it cannot be published. [...]

The Office of the President Chief of Staff Jarmo Viinanen on Friday denied the Aamulehti report claiming that the Security Police had misled President Halonen.

Minister of Interior Holmlund also said Friday that she has not received any misleading information from the Security Police.

President Halonen said on Thursday that she hopes that any cover-up surrounding the Stasi materials affair would come to an end. She said that the materials should be made available, at least to the extent that there can be no claims of secrecy.

It seems to me that the contention that the Security Police (Supo) hasn't acted inappropriately is based on a very fine distinction indeed. The assertion is that Supo's material is not the same as the Rosenholz files that per government policy should have been made accessible, even though Supo has admitted that the relevant content is the same. One might get away with that argument in a purely legal discussion, but in a political debate it's not likely to work too well and I'm surprised that Holmlund is trying it.

The obvious question to Halonen is, if Supo hasn't misinterpreted the Cabinet's 2000 decision and was thus correct to withhold the information up this point, why is it not correct to keep withholding it? Now, in 2007, Halonen thinks the material Supo does have should be released - based on what exactly? If Supo wasn't wrong previously, has government policy now changed?

Helsingin Sanomat carries an interview with Professor Seppo Hentilä (fi), an expert on the Cold War era, who makes some good points. "Supo has no option but to make the information public. In 2000 it was decided that the information must be given to three entities, judicial officials, scholars of history, and concerned parties. There's no need for a permission for the Rosenholz key from the CIA. In Germany and Denmark the corresponding information is already in use." (In the same article, Supo assistant chief Matti Simola says he suspects that a permission from the United States would be needed.)

Hentilä suggests that Supo should give the material to an independent group of researchers and lawyers, which in turn would report to the Parliament. He says that the situation won't be resolved if Supo's actions are checked only by other officials, which I take as criticism of Holmlund's approach.

Speaking of which, Aamulehti contacted opposition leaders (fi), who weren't very positive in their assessment of Holmlund's response to the revelations. Timo Soini (True Finns) used the phrase "miserable monkeying around". Eero Heinäluoma (Social Democratic Party) took a slightly more measured tone: "It's justifiable that Holmlund should clarify for the Parliament what has happened. The report should tell what material has come to Finland and what sort of right-of-access principles have been applied to them." Matti Korhonen (Left Alliance) was the only one to bring up resignation at this point.


Security Police misled government over Stasi data

We have a proper scandal with behind-the-scenes intrigue and spies and everything. Aamulehti claims (fi), based on some crack investigative reporting by its owner Alma Media's Helsinki branch, that the Finnish Security Police (Supo) has been in possession of the so-called Rosenholz files - or at least the relevant information contained therein - and disregarded a government decision to make the files available to researchers by misleading the government into believing that it didn't have the material. The files contain data that would allow putting names to codes used in East German documents of Stasi's Finnish contacts.

The backstory is that ambassador Alpo Rusi (Centre Party) was investigated in 2002 for suspected links with Stasi, apparently based on information contained in the Rosenholz files. According to Aamulehti's reporting, the security police told the government that its Stasi-related material wasn't the same as the Rosenholz files, which per government instructions should have been shared with the German Stasi archive where they could be accessed by researchers and such. The government believed that Supo was supposed to receive the files from the CIA, which had gotten hold of them via Russia, but that the files never arrived in Finland. Now Supo has admitted (fi) that intelligence information it received "contains in relevant parts the Finland-related information content of the Rosenholz material".

The responsibility for overseeing Supo lies mainly with the Interior Minister, currently Anne Holmlund (National Coalition Party). She has given comments that seem misinformed at best. In a rather extraordinary column (fi) in Aamulehti, Alma Media reporter Taneli Heikka wrote that Holmlund made an emotional phone call to his colleague in which she accused Alma Media of searching for the "weakest link". Still, she has been on the job for less than a year and the oversight failure goes back to 2000, when the Interior Minister was Kari Häkämies (Coalition), now a municipal official in Kotka. Then the portfolio passed on to Ville Itälä (Coalition), currently a MEP; Kari Rajamäki (Social Democratic Party), currently an MP; and finally Holmlund.

Supo chief Seppo Nevala has handed in his resignation citing health reasons. He had been on sick leave for months and the police claim that the timing is a coincidence. If Aamulehti's reporting proves accurate, I imagine that deputy chief Petri Knape will follow Nevala out of the door shortly. Aamulehti's interview with him (fi) deserves to be translated here in its entirety:

Reporters reached deputy chief Petri Knape in the Security Police parking lot in Helsinki on Wednesday morning.

Alma Media: "Morning. Why did the Rosenholz material from the United States dealing with Finns never reach Germany's Stasi archive, where it could be accessed by researchers and concerned parties?"

Petri Knape: "Is that tape recorder on?"

Alma Media: "Yes."

Knape: "Put it away. The Security Police has nothing to add to this matter."

Alma Media: "Why has the Security Police given ministers and the court differing information on whether the Rosenholz archive is in its possession?"

Knape: "That isn't accurate. Check your information before you write."

Alma Media: "There are documents on the matter. Why has Supo lied to the Foreign Minister that the Rosenholz archive is not in its possession, even though the state has proved otherwise in court?"

Knape: (Leaves to go indoors and stops for a moment to stare angrily through a glass door.)



The Putin generation

Apparently Vladimir Vladimirovich is quite popular in Russia. Undoubtedly the glorious leadership he has provided has a lot to do with it - not to mention the price of oil - but I have to say that the Russian media doesn't seem to put a lot of effort into reporting on the negative aspects of his reign.

I read a few articles in Russian papers on the Finno-Ugric festival attended by President Tarja Halonen and they gave very little attention to the human rights angle that was so prominent in Finnish coverage. For example, Moscow Times somewhat optimistically headlined its story as "Putin Wants Minorities to Feel at Home". Since it was an AP story, it at least mentioned human rights issues, although in a pretty mealy-mouthed manner. Kommersant played its story, "King of the Csardas", mostly for laughs, with the only hint that something might be amiss coming when the reporter paraphrased Halonen's comments.

In other news concerning authoritarian Russian leaders, according to a recent survey, Russian youth think Stalin wasn't half bad:

When asked if Stalin was a wise leader, half of the 1,802 respondents, aged from 16 to 19, agreed he was.

"Fifty-four percent agreed that Stalin did more good than bad," [...]

The majority of respondents thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy

On the plus side, the results were even worse (PDF) in 2005.

Where could the kids be getting these opinions? The Washington Post reports:
The teaching of history has always been a charged subject in post-Soviet Russia, especially when it touches on the rule of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose purges led to the deaths of millions and the notorious gulag system of labor camps.

A textbook that took an unflinching look at Stalin's policies, including his nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 and the mass deportation of Chechens and other Caucasians during World War II, was pulled by education officials in 2003. [...]

According to the new history manual ["The Newest History of Russia, 1945-2006"], Stalin was brutal but also "the most successful leader of the U.S.S.R."

"As for the methods of coercion used toward the ruling bureaucratic elite, the goal was to mobilize the leadership in order to make it effective in the process of industrialization, as well as in rebuilding the economy in the postwar period," the manual states, while providing few details on the scale and horror of Stalin's totalitarianism. "This task was fulfilled by means of, among other things, political repression, which was used to mobilize not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite."

I wonder how other countries managed to industrialize without mobilizing citizens to make them more effective. (And when I say "mobilize", I mean "kill".)


Talkin' Operation Enduring Freedom blues

In June there were reports that the government is at least interested in taking a larger command role in Afghanistan. Gerard O'Dwyer wrote in the Defense News:

Finland may take over command of the northern-Afghanistan contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), under a proposal by Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's center-right government.

"Our Finnish troops in Afghanistan are operating in the north of the country at present," Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva said in a statement. "We are examining a broader role for Finland, and that would mean taking on regional command responsibilities. We will discuss this at government level and also discuss the issue with the American government."

Kanerva said the regional command responsibility issue arose when he met with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, in Washington on June 11.

For the past week or so everyone has been taking turns to opine on the matter. Raimo Väyrynen of the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs - not to be confused with Foreign Trade Minister Paavo Väyrynen - led the way last Wednesday:
[Väyrynen said] the Finnish government and president should consider expanding the country's contribution to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan.

The academic said Finland should be open to the possibility of accepting a command in northern Afghanistan, despite the higher demand need for resources and a projected increase in risk.

On Thursday Social Democratic Party's leading lights exchanged views the matter. Former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, a noted NATO enthusiast, is in favor of Väyrynen's views; but former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, a noted NATO opponent, disagrees and thinks that Finland should focus more on Lebanon instead.

Foreign Minister Kanerva (National Coalition Party) weighed in again (fi) on Friday, saying that foreign countries have a responsibility to help Afghanistan back on its feet. He doesn't simply want to send more troops to Afghanistan, but Finland should strengthen its presence in Afghanistan and clarify the principles behind the operation - whatever that's supposed to mean.

On Monday Foreign Affairs Committee chair Pertti Salolainen (Coalition) expressed his wish that the government hurry up and report to the Parliament on its position on Afghanistan and also the NATO Response Force. Today Defense Committee chair Juha Korkeaoja (Centre Party) said he would like a slower schedule.

From a tactical perspective, getting parties and MPs behind the government policy now will provide cover for the government later should the operation end in failure. As far as the general public is concerned, politicians could probably get away with never mentioning Afghanistan again, aside from the - thankfully rare - times there are Finnish casualties.

Still, there seems to be genuine enthusiasm for doing more in some undefined way, especially inside the Coalition. As you might expect, there's a correlation between supporting greater involvement in Afghanistan and openness to NATO membership. A cynical person would suggest that Afghanistan merely provides a tangible way for politicians to display their pro-West credentials.

Update: President Tarja Halonen has gotten in the act (fi). She says a deeper analysis is required and the time for decisions is in the autumn.


Red and yellow

I recently read "Siniristilippumme" ("Our Blue Cross Flag") by Caius Kajanti, a rather thorough account of the history of the flag of Finland. Contemporary newspaper articles arguing about what the flag should look like and what the national colors ought to be are pretty funny from a modern perspective.

The alternatives were red and yellow on one hand and blue and white on the other. Red and yellow came from Finland's coat of arms, which features a golden lion on a red background. Blue and white came from the nature: blue water and white snow.

The book has lots of pictures of different proposals. From a purely aesthetic perspective, my favorite was Akseli Gallen-Kallela's proposal that looked something like this:

You have to admit that it would have made for fine-looking ice hockey uniforms.

Like everything else in Finnish pre-independence politics, even the issue of national colors developed a language component to it. Red and yellow was supported by many Swedish-speakers, perhaps because they went back to the days of Swedish rule, whereas blue and white were supported by the Finnish-speaking right. The latter won, of course, but only after the Civil War had made the color red unpopular.

Incidentally, it's fairly commonly believed that the current flag's white cross on a blue background came from the Uusimaa Jacht Club (Nylandska Jaktklubben), which in turn got the design from the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. According to this book the issue isn't that simple. The Nordic cross form and the blue and white colors were picked independently of each other.

Vanhanen versus public debate

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) doesn't want (fi) ministers to answer media polls. He was motivated to ban the practice because Alma Media, a publishing house behind several newspapers, wanted to know what ministers thought about making public the so-called Rosenholz archive - a list of Finns who had contacts with the Stasi that's currently in the possession of the Finnish security police. Two ministers out of 20 answered that survey. Justice Minister Tuija Brax (Green League) defended Vanhanen's edict as being in line with previous practice. She said that the purpose wasn't to stop ministers from talking to the press, but rather that it applied to surveys which only gave a set of simple alternatives. On the other hand, Vanhanen's economic adviser Jukka Ihanus said that the ban was about making sure that the government has only one public opinion. Vanhanen, himself, appropriately enough, declined to comment.

This isn't the first sign that Vanhanen is not a fan of public debate. The government's position on the EU's not-a-constitution had to be pried loose by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. In the public daycare fee row, Vanhanen's reaction was to increase secrecy in the drafting stage for new legislation. Last weekend's Ilta-Sanomat carried a long article on Vanhanen relationship with party secretary Jarmo Korhonen, in which a few anonymous Centrist insiders defended Korhonen's habit of disagreeing in public by claiming that Vanhanen tries to avoid intra-party debate. Now this edict comes to light. None of these examples is particularly bad if considered on its own, but put together there's at least some cause to worry.


Good water

I'm not sure about the scientific validity of this test, but the results agree with my prejudices so I'll pass it on:

[Aamulehti] compared tap water from Tampere with a major foreign brand and the water from Finland's largest bottling company, and found that the bottled brands had hundreds of times more bacteria than tap water.

None of the water was harmful in any way to the health, but nonetheless the tap water was the only one that met hygiene standards for household water supplies.


Commish Rehn's prospects

Recent signs point to Olli Rehn (Centre Party) continuing as Finland's EU Commissioner for the next term. Earlier this week Social Democratic Party chair Eero Heinäluoma said (fi) that his party is prepared to back Rehn, which means that Rehn shouldn't have trouble getting two of the big three to support his candidacy. He has been getting some good reviews and the calculation is that he might get a more important post than a less experienced candidate. I also have the impression that Rehn isn't seen as a particularly partisan figure, which makes his easier for the Social Democrats to swallow.

For some time now I've thought that Rehn has some of the qualities usually looked for in the President of Finland: experience relevant to leading Finnish foreign policy and a certain aura of broad acceptability. The downside is that he's a bit too liberal and pro-EU to have much of a constituency inside the Centre. He also isn't as well-known to the general public as some other prospective candidates like Speaker Sauli Niinistö (National Coalition Party). Starting another five-year term as Commissioner in 2009 would complicate the matter further, as the next presidential election will be in 2012. Nevertheless, if Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen doesn't want the Centre nomination, Rehn would be a fairly obvious alternative candidate for the Vanhanen camp to push.

To get a feel for Rehn's thinking, I've been reading his 2006 book on the EU, "Suomen eurooppalainen valinta" ("Finland's European Choice"), wherein he presents pro-EU arguments from several angles. For example, he sees Finland's current EU policy as a continuation of the active neutrality pursued during Urho Kekkonen's presidency. According to Rehn, Kekkonen's policy "involved an effort to build such an international system that it would restrain the great powers' aspirations for supremacy" and "to remove Europe's border fences and build security by opening doors." (Rehn's propensity for saying nice things about Centrist icon Kekkonen is the main tip-off that the book's author is a Centrist - aside from the obligatory chapter on the importance of agricultural subsidies, natch.)

On foreign policy matters, Rehn adopts a moderate if always pro-EU approach. He's very supportive of further EU enlargement, as you might expect, and generally wants the EU to use its "soft power" to advance all the usual nice things. He criticizes Russia's approach to the EU for trying to divide EU members for power political purposes and thus missing the opportunity for deeper cooperation, but is very conciliatory about it. He doesn't appear to be much of a fan of the Bush administration, faulting "the [American] hard right borne out of religious fundamentalism" for not properly appreciating the UN. On the other hand, he has mostly positive things to say about NATO, calling for more civilian and military cooperation between it and the EU.


Banging on about a referendum

As far as I can tell, there's no logic to this post in the Economist's EU blog. We are told:

To date, the best guess of British officials and politicians watching the referendum row is that Mr Brown will eventually get away without a national vote, for the reason that the Conservatives under Mr Cameron can only hammer away at the topic for so long but will then have to drop it. This is because Mr Cameron is determined to avoid the fate that dogged so many Tory leaders in recent years, of being defined by Europe. Banging on about a referendum, crudely, may chime with the specific views of British voters, if you invite them to think about the new EU treaty. But most British voters, much more importantly, do not want to think about the new EU treaty, or the EU at all. Their irritation with Europe is such that any party that talks about it, even to attack it, ends up incurring their wrath. That is what happened to the Conservatives under John Major, when any number of loons and bores on Europe became the public face of the party.

So if Labour doesn't consent to a referendum, they risk... the Conservatives screwing up their election campaign. Huh? Either campaigning for a referendum is an effective election strategy, in which case the threat of Cameron doing so would put pressure on Brown, or it's a losing proposition, in which case Brown should wish that Cameron take it.


Herring-smokers write books too

Yesterday's Grauniad carried a highly refined example of the "foreign writer travels to Finland and does touristy things" genre. It has it all: lots of lakes, saunas, the Kalevala, huskies, smoked herrings, a classical music festival, and the nightless night. But here's something you may not have known:

The Finish people are keen to impress on visitors their cultural heritage. Much of this revolves around the epic poem, the Kalevala, first published by a Finnish academic in 1835. The poem was put together from the ancient oral histories of the Finnish and the Karelian people from the west of Finland and across the border in Russia.

It was the first book to be written in Finnish, and is seen by many Finns as the cornerstone of both their language and their culture.

Sounds plausible to me.

They do it themselves

Here's the weird law of the day:

The vast majority of people in New Zealand are against a recent rule approved by lawmakers that bans using images captured inside Parliament to satirize, ridicule or denigrate lawmakers on broadcast and print media, according to a poll by TNS released by TV3. 71 per cent of respondents disapprove of this measure.

It seems to me that the politicians of New Zealand have gotten this entirely the wrong way around; if anyone anywhere should be allowed to be satirized legally, it's lawmakers inside Parliament. Maybe it's intended as a preemptive strike - as in, there's no point in satirizing a lawmaker who would vote for such a rule.


Getting down at the Finno-Ugric festival

Helsingin Sanomat has gotten hold of the schedule (fi) for President Tarja Halonen's trip to the Finno-Ugric festival in Saransk. There will be a bilateral meeting with Putin, during which the dark lord will presumably try to bend our Tarja to his will; a dinner; the opening of a new theater; and, of course, the festival - featuring a handicrafts exhibition and a folk dress demonstration. In the evening a helicopter will take three leaders to visit a school and a cultural center in the village of Staraja Terizm. Party on, I say.

Alas, everyone isn't quite as placid. Re the guest list issue, previously addressed here, euro|topics provides a partial translation of an article (hu) by Gyula Máté:

This summit has little to do with the aspects historians, ethnologists and Finno-Ugrics find interesting because the current Hungarian head of government is about as interested in the Finno-Ugric past as Putin is - namely not at all. By excluding Estonia from this summit Russia wants to demonstrate that it has the power to isolate the Estonians from their 'historical' partners... Hungary is economically dependent on Russia. The summit in Saransk highlights the dilemma of Hungarian foreign policy: How can we move closer to Russia without harming our Euro-Atlantic integration?

It's true that the meeting has little to do with the aspects historians and ethnologists find interesting. It's not a meeting of historians or ethnologists, after all, but of political leaders who have current political issues to discuss. The meeting has to do with bilateral relations and, we can hope, the living conditions of Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia. I'm not sure why this should be considered a strike against it.

For another thing, I'm still not quite clear on how the meeting is supposed to isolate the Estonians. Finnish leaders meet with Estonians all the time and will continue to do so. What sort of isolation is that? If a Finno-Ugric summit between Hungary, Finland, and Estonia is needed - is it? - arranging one won't require Russia's permission. This meeting obviously won't function as one and isn't intended to do so.


Tiilikainen on the limits to a multi-speed EU

Teija Tiilikainen, the State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of the leading EU policy thinkers in the country, wrote a column (fi) on the EU in Turun Sanomat. The Finnish News Agency (STT) summarizes:

"It is not possible to take that many further steps from the current level of off-step without causing the EU as it stands today to disassemble and a wholly new system to arise," Ms Tiilikainen writes.

"Yet there has been no serious debate between member states over this radical change."

Ms Tiilikainen added that certain member states or groups of countries could continue to be allowed to proceed faster or slower in integration, but only on the condition that the bloc's "common decision-making and norm system" was not damaged.

"If however one is referring to a situation where the EU's current institutional makeup would crumble, in the name of realism one ought to sketch out the appearance of Europe after the tumult."

As examples of the current multi-speed system - presumably tolerable ones - Tiilikainen mentions the EMU, Schengen, and opt-outs for individual countries.

I'll note that Finland has opposed all sorts of multi-speed arrangements inside the EU and the government's thinking on the issue may be pretty close to the column. The argument of course cuts both ways: against laggards who want more opt-outs and against enthusiasts who'd like a nucleus to hurtle along the route to federalist nirvana.


For lovers of political mumbo jumbo

I recently noticed that the powers that be have translated the government program into English. Wonderful, I thought, now you all Finnish-challenged government program mavens in the audience can read the damned thing yourself. I did and lived to tell the tale, so it's only fair that you should suffer too.

To give you a flavor of what's in store, here's a snippet from the intro:

Climate change and globalisation reinforce the inter-dependence between nations and citizens. Global development issues, promotion of international security, forced human displacement and emigration, enlargement of the European Union, and the deepening of cooperation within the European community will affect Finland as well.



True Finns' Soini declines the offer

True Finn party chairman Timo Soini reacted (fi) to the merger proposal by the Centre Party's Jarmo Korhonen in a typically Soinian manner. Quoth Soini in today's papers:

"It's entirely clear that a merger is out of the question."

"If a girl at a dance is asked for a spin, no one can mind that. Another matter is whether she'll accept."

"When you fell a tree, you take the branch. I have no right to sell the Finnish people's lifeline or even to negotiate with it."

"Korhonen is the sort of siren that I bolt myself more tightly to the mast and let the siren sing."

"[Before the election] snot wasn't good enough for the devil. Now that our support is on the rise, there's a terrible interest in a merger."

"I'm dangerous, but only to the Centre's support, not to the people. When they can't say something bad about me, they say I'm one of theirs."

"This tells that our rise is even bigger than what the polls say."

"I myself have been a Vennamoist since age 16 and don't shy away from that connection at all. And I still am, in my ideological roots."

"The Centre hasn't changed since the times of Kekkonen, so the most important things are power and might. Now they want a copyright on this legend."

"When we can't be hit, must we be hugged?"

That'll be a no, then.

One thing this episode shows is that the other parties aren't all that hostile toward the True Finns. Their isolation is more self-inflicted than anything imposed on them; to stay true to their message, they can't compromise with the major parties. Their agenda in itself is not such an anathema that a mainstream politician like Korhonen can't speak of them in a positive tone.


Centre's Korhonen proposes merger with True Finns

In an interview with Helsingin Sanomat (fi), Centre Party secretary Jarmo Korhonen proposed a merger between his party and the True Finns. Korhonen thinks the united party could get a support of over 30 percent. Quoth Korhonen, "The True Finns and Centre should be able to look at their common history. Both are centrist parties that have the same ideological background and ideological father, Santeri Alkio." Of the current True Finns leader, Korhonen says, "I appreciate Timo Soini; he's a professional of rhetoric and politics. He speaks for the poor people." There's no set schedule. "I don't expect an answer from Soini at this stage. It's a longer development."

The proposal makes perfect sense from Korhonen's point of view. In intraparty disputes the True Finns would be natural allies to Korhonen's rural wing of the party against the now dominant more urban wing led by Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen. For example, Korhonen thinks the government should do more to defend Finnish interests inside the EU, citing France and Poland as models to follow. Also, under the current system being the biggest party is highly valuable as it gives the inside track in forming a government and capturing the office of Prime Minister. Even a three percent boost in support would increase the Centre's position in its competition against the National Coalition Party and the Social Democratic Party.

So why isn't it happening right now? For one thing, the True Finns have been denouncing the Centre, the Coalition, and the Social Democrats as "Huey, Dewey, and Louie", three sides of the same coin. They can't very well merge with one of the interchangeable big three without it looking like a betrayal of everything for which they've campaigned in recent years. By the same token, the Vanhanen wing of the Centre will not like the proposal very much. If the extreme Centrists - people like Korhonen, Foreign Trade Minister Paavo Väyrynen, etc - would gain control of the party and first take it to a more eurosceptic and economically populist direction, then it would become a possibility depending on how willing to sell out the leading True Finns would be at that point.

In my opinion Korhonen's evaluation of over 30 percent of support is much too big. The Centre/Agrarian League plus the True Finns/Rural Party have never gotten more than 30 percent of the vote. The closest they got was 29.7%, in 1991. In all other parliamentary elections since the split they've had between 21 percent and 28 percent of the vote. Going over 30 percent would require them to retain nearly all of their current support plus draw in several percentage points worth of new support. It's more likely that whatever gains they'd make would be offset by losses among current supporters. The Centre has voters who prefer Vanhanen's line to Korhonen's and a part of the True Finns' appeal is that they're outsiders.


Lavrov displeased with Ahtisaari

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has expressed displeasure over comments made by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari in the regional newspaper Länsi-Savo. Ahtisaari said that Russia's opposition to his Kosovo plan would weaken its international standing. Lavrov, a man known for his calmly analytical approach to every issue, responded, "Such statements lower someone else's status, but not Russia's." That of course doesn't address Ahtisaari's argument at all, which was about the effect of Russia's actions, not the effect of Ahtisaari's own words. Alas, winning the argument doesn't get Ahtisaari or his Kosovo proposal very far.


A slowly, sullenly rising nationality

I've come to the conclusion that this blog doesn't quote famous Russian anarchists enough. It's time to put that right.

In "Finland: A Rising Nationality" (1885), famous Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin considered the Finnish national character:

Exceedingly laborious they are all throughout the country: they could not lie otherwise in their Suomenmaa - the country of marshes - where the arable soil must be won from the forests, moors, and even lakes, which stretch over nine-tenths of the land. The perseverance and tenacity that characterise all Northern Finnish stems are the natural outcome of these conditions, together with a gravity and a kind of melancholy which are so striking in the features of the people and form one of the most marked peculiarities of their folklore. The disasters, the wars, the bad crops, the famines, from which the Finnish peasant has so often had to suffer, have created his capacity of grave and uncomplaining submission to fate; but the relative liberty he has always enjoyed has prevented him from developing that sad spirit of resignation, that deep sorrow which too often characterises his Russian brother. Never having been a personal serf, he is not servile; he always maintains his personal dignity and speaks with the same grave intonation and self-respect to a Russian Tsar as to his neighbour. A lymphatic temperament, slowness of movement and of thought, and sullen indifference have often been imputed to him. In fact, when I have entered on a Sunday a peasanthouse in Eastern Finland, and found several men sitting on the benches rental the wall, dropping only a few words at long intervals, plunged in a mute reverie as they enjoyed their inseparable pipes, I could not help remembering this reproach addressed to the Finnish peasant. But I soon perceived that though the Finn is always very deliberate in his movement, slowness of thought and indifference are peculiar only to those, unhappily too numerous, village paupers whom long-continued want and the struggle for life without hope of improvement have rendered callous. Still, a Finnish peasant family must be reduced to very great destitution before the wife loses her habits of cleanliness, which are not devoid of a certain aesthetical tint. The thrift of the Finn is striking; not only among those who have no choice, for they are compelled to live upon rye-bread, baked four times a year and containing an admixture 'of the bark of our black Pines,' as Runeberg says. Simplicity of life is the rule in all classes of society; the unhealthy luxury of the European cities is yet unknown to the Finns; and the Russian tchinovnik cannot but wonder how the Finnish official lives, without stealing, on the scanty allowance granted him by the State.

Kropotkin also discusses of Finnish politics of the period:

It is obvious that the more national consciousness is raised in Finland, and the more education is spread among its people, the more will it feel the weight of Russian sovereignty; and, while the Russian peasant is always welcomed by his Finnish brother, every Russian suspected of being an official finds only coolness, and often hatred, among the people. Finnish nobles in Russian service may protest their loyalty as much as they please; they are not the people. They may refer also to the gallant behaviour of Finnish troops in the last Balkan way: it proves nothing; the Finns were ever a gallant race, and it is not their habit to recoil before danger. But surely the last war has not increased their attachment to the Russian Empire; they have seen what Russian administration is, and the war is costing Finland too dear. True, there are plenty of men in Finland ready to say that their country is already quite independent, being only 'united' with Russia in the person of the Emperor; but the masses understand pretty well what a union means of which the weaker party is unprotected against the caprices of the stronger. If they should forget it, the Reactionists now in power in Russia do not fail to remember it in the most brutal way. These people do not understand how wise Speransky was when he pointed out the dangers of having a hostile population at the very doors of the Russian capital; they seem to have set their hearts on rendering it hostile. The small dose of liberty enjoyed by Finland irritates them. A country where people travel without passports, and the dvorniks (porters) do not listen at the doors of lodgers, appears to them a hotbed of revolution. Even the industrial development of this small country renders them uneasy. They would like to shut the doors of Russia against the little merchandise that enters therein.

Right on, Peter. Right on.


The people demand to be conscripted

According to a poll (fi) published in Ilta-Sanomat on Tuesday, 78 percent of Finns support general conscription. In practice the numbers haven't changed in two years, when the figure was 77 percent. (Insert your own "fall in line" pun here.) Thinking about the politics of it, the situation is even worse for the opponents of conscription than those numbers indicate, because they divide into two groups that are unlikely to cooperate on security policy: people who think an all-volunteer army would come prepackaged with a NATO membership and people who don't like NATO at all.

Before the parliamentary election Helsingin Sanomat asked the candidates (fi) how Finland's defense should be organized. Of the 188 current MPs who answered the questionnaire, a whopping dozen said they'd be willing to do away with general conscription. Ten of those opposed NATO membership, seven of whom are from the Green League. As a party the Greens advocate (fi) for selective conscription and the abolition of the civilian service system, which makes it strange that more of their candidates didn't pick that option in the HS survey.

Although the pro-NATO group is now considerably smaller, that position probably has more growth potential as it's easier to sell as a serious-minded and responsible alternative. Currently, however, its supporters in the Parliament consist of Sirpa Asko-Seljovaara (National Coalition Party) and Liisa Jaakonsaari (Social Democratic Party). The duo admirably show where the position's support would come from, were it to ever come: the Coalition and right-wing Social Democrats. I wouldn't wait for it to happen any time soon, though.

In other news, "Finland's Defence Forces is to further align its rank system with those used by the armies of other western countries, partly to cope with the demands of an increasing number of international operations". Oh, is "international operations" what they call it these days? Wink, nudge.


Mihkelson's wedge

Marko Mihkelson, a conservative Estonian parliamentarian, has commented on President Tarja Halonen's upcoming visit to a Finno-Ugric folklore festival in Russia.

"The fact that the Russian president has invited the Finnish head of state and Hungarian prime minister, but not the Estonian head of state, to a Finno-Ugric festival in the Mordovian republic next week should be a clear signal to our partners in the European Union to turn down the invitation," Mr Mihkelson wrote in his blog, according to [the Baltic News Service].

Mr Mihkelson feels the Finnish and Hungarian leaders would undermine EU solidarity if they attended without the Estonian president.

"The Russian president has of course purposely left the Estonian president out of the list of invitees to see whether a wedge could be driven between Finland and Hungary and Tallinn."

The blog article is here in its entirety (ee). I don't understand Estonian with any reliability, so I'll comment only on the translated bits and pieces.

Undoubtedly Russia treats Finnish leaders differently than Estonian leaders and this festival invite is yet another sign of it. Nevertheless, it's difficult to see how the visit hurts Estonia. Consider what will happen. Will Halonen and Putin put out a joint statement to the effect that Estonians should never have moved that damn statue? Hardly. Will Halonen promise to support Russia against Estonia's interests inside the EU? I consider it unlikely. Halonen and Putin will probably discuss some bilateral issues between Finland and Russia. Halonen will say something suitably considered to express her concern over the treatment of Finno-Ugric minorities in Russia and Putin will give a bland response. The only effect all of it will have is that maybe, if we're lucky, the Mordvins and Mari will feel like they have friends abroad - friends who can't do much of anything to help them, but friends nevertheless.

As for EU solidarity, my understanding of the concept is that it's supposed to mainly apply in EU decision making, not in the bilateral relations between members and non-members. It can't really mean that if one EU country has poor relations with some country outside the EU, everyone is supposed to follow suit. To pick a hypothetical example, let's say that some leftist foreign minister with a peace sign on his lapel and a scraggly beard offends the Americans so that they refuse to have high level meetings with said lefty's bosses. Does that mean that Estonian leaders should refrain from meeting with Americans? I don't think so. You might argue that this is different because in some sense the Estonians should have been invited to tag along, but as far as I can see, there isn't a practical difference between attending this festival and any old meeting.

Finns invent pill for heavy drinking

Before you get too excited, the pill doesn't help you to drink heavily; it's supposed to help you to cut down. Science Daily reports:

Problem drinkers who took a craving-curbing drug whenever they felt the desire to imbibe reported fewer heavy drinking days each month than drinkers who took a look-alike placebo pill, but both groups reported marked reductions in heavy drinking days.

These findings come from a study of 403 heavy drinkers in Finland, who took either a placebo or the drug nalmefene on an "as needed basis."

The pill is manufactured by BioTie Therapies, a company based in Turku, and the study was conducted by physician and researcher Sakari Karhuvaara. (Disclaimer: "Karhuvaara is a physician and health researcher who was once an employee of Biotie Therapies Corp., the manufacturer of nalmefene. The drug maker supported the new study.")

Via Andrew Sullivan.


You call that a wonder?

Have you seen the list of the seven wonders of the world? It's an atrocity. Clearly the selection process was far from democratic, the results have more to do with boosterism than objective merit, and several significant contenders were not even considered. I see very little to recommend in the results.

Ask yourself, what's the purpose of the list? It's all about scamming money from travellers, if you ask me. Will the buildings last a millennia? Two millennia? I don't think so. If they do, it's no thanks to the people behind the list, who have made no effort to conserve any of the "wonders" they picked.

Where on earth is the Great Sphinx of Giza? It's the Great bloody Sphinx, people - it should be on the list. Instead we have the Colossus of Rhodes, a far less striking design that only got in by being really tall. And no, it didn't stand astride the harbour mouth. That would have actually made it wondrous.

Further, is it any coincidence that all of the "wonders" happen to be either Greek or near Greece? Might that have something to do with Greek people doing the picking? Where's the geographic balance? Yeah, there's the Hanging Gardens, but that's a terrible choice. Even its existence is questionable. They might as well have put yet another big Greek statue on the list.

While I'm at it, the Mausoleum of Mausollos - what a clunky name, by the way - is a bit underwhelming. It's just a great big marble cube with fancy sculptures slapped on the side. You may appreciate its artistic merit, but are you really in wonder of it? "Wow, there are lots of fancy sculptures slapped on the side of this great big marble cube! I'm in awe!" I don't think so.

Next time around, let's do this right. Let's introduce some objectivity to the proceedings, so it's not just a few Greek self-appointed experts in charge. Let's get some input from India and China, for goodness' sake. And let's take steps to protect the real wonders of the world, instead of just hyping them to make a buck.

PS: In a project with a huge amount of potential for embarrassment, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) is asking for nominations (fi) for the seven wonders of Finland. Several unusually tall buildings will be in the running, I'm sure.


The word is not enough

The Finnish word for 'world' is 'maailma', which comes from the words 'maa' as in 'earth' and 'ilma' as in 'air'. One wonders how they came up with it.

"So, what are we going to call this?"


"This. [points around]"

"It's a swamp, isn't it? A frozen swamp. Do we need a special word for it?"

"No, no. I mean... everything. This. [points around]"

"Oh. I see."


[long pause]



[another long pause]

"Okay, I think I got it. What's everything?"


"It's simple. There's earth, right?"


"And there's air."


"I give you... earth-air!"

"Earth-air! Brilliant!"

"Now that we have that sorted, let's go hunt some squirrels."

"Mmm, squirrel."


How to interpret a state treaty

The state treaty (fi) between Russia and Finland has been in the news lately. First constitutional scholars, Professors Ilkka Saraviita and Lauri Hannikainen, said (fi) that it might stand in the way Finland from joining NATO. Russian expert Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center opined (fi) that Russia would interpret a move to join NATO as being in violation of the letter and the spirit of the treaty. Trenin believes that the treaty will be renegotiated at some point. The root of the trouble is the treaty's fourth article, which states that "the contracting parties will not use and will not allow their territories to be used in an armed attack against the other contracting party" (my translation).

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen disagrees and so does Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva. I think they are correct in practice when they argue that the treaty wouldn't stop Finland from joining NATO. Nevertheless, I wouldn't bet against them wanting to renegotiate the treaty when it's up for renewal in 2012, like Trenin suggests will happen.


Presidential popularity

Inspired by this poll on the popularity of US Presidents, I thought about what the results of such a poll in Finland would be. Since I was able to guess the top six in the US poll (see how many you get right), it stands to reason that I should be able to predict what the Finnish ranking would look like. I can guess, and will proceed to do so shortly, but curiously I'm a lot less sure about Finnish Presidents than US ones. It seems to me that opinions on Finnish Presidents haven't coalesced into an easily identifiable orthodox ranking.

I would imagine that the group of broadly popular presidents would consist of Kyösti Kallio (Agrarian League), Gustaf Mannerheim (independent), K.J. Ståhlberg (National Progressive Party), J.K. Paasikivi (National Coalition Party), Mauno Koivisto (Social Democratic Party), and, based on her actual poll ratings, Tarja Halonen (Social Democrat). Obviously Mannerheim would win, simply because he's Mannerheim, but the order of the rest of the top six is difficult to guess. Ståhlberg should be near the top; he was on the right side of history on most questions of his day, played a central role in drafting the constitution, and generally acted as President with modesty and restraint. Paasikivi kept the Communists at bay during a difficult time and was an entertainingly grouchy figure besides.

Then we have the controversial Presidents, who are mostly viewed positively, but engender some disapproval too. I'm thinking of P.E. Svinhufvud (Coalition), Urho Kekkonen (Agrarian/Centre Party), and Risto Ryti (Progressive). These guys would probably beat the likes of Koivisto and Halonen in a poll asking about greatness, as opposed to one measuring popularity, but they've also come under heated criticism from at least some political quarters. It's entirely possible that Ryti and Kekkonen would break into the top six, possibly even the top three. Both are noted for doing what (they thought) had to be done, but Ryti would perhaps win due to being a lot less selfish about it. Svinhufvud was a courageous and ideologically consistent figure, but his greatest accomplishments came before his presidency and he has his detractors on the left.

The third group consists of Presidents who are very difficult to rank: Lauri Relander (Agrarian) and Martti Ahtisaari (Social Democrat). Relander is probably the least known President and gets lackluster reviews from historians. It's not that he didn't anything bad; it's just that he didn't do much. About Ahtisaari's ranking I have no idea. People don't seem to have strong opinions about him one way or the other. EU membership is the cornerstone of his legacy, but it seems to me Esko Aho gets far more credit and blame for that.

A fun game is to find the US equivalents for Finnish Presidents. For example, Ståhlberg is obviously a Thomas Jefferson/James Madison type of figure, a constitution-drafting statesman ahead of his time. Svinhufvud is somewhere between John Adams and Andrew Jackson, a founding father and a tough son of a bitch. Ryti is vaguely reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, although without a hint of putting ideological considerations above national interests. Mannerheim's presidency is difficult to compare to any US President, but as a national figure he's George Washington with a touch of Abraham Lincoln thrown in for good measure. Kekkonen compares to Franklin D. Roosevelt on longevity and Richard Nixon on trickiness.

Halonen? Chester A. Arthur with a touch of Bill Clinton, of course.


Responsible competitiveness competition

Because everyone loves arbitrary rankings: AccountAbility, a thinktank "promoting accountability for sustainable development", has released a report on the state of responsible competitiviness, complete with a responsible competitiveness index. Here are the top five:

1. Sweden 81.5
2. Denmark 81.0
3. Finland 78.8
4. Iceland 76.7
5. United Kingdom 75.8

You're not so smug now, are you, Icelanders? "Ooh, wje fjish hjerrings! Ooh, wje swjim in hjot sprjings!" Well, you better work on your responsible competitiveness! Suomi! Suomi! Suomi!

PS: There's also a foreword from Al Gore.


Oligarchy rules OK

Tim Besley at Vox has a theory about successful autocracies: the ones in which there is a "selectorate", a group of people who may depose the leader without risking the collapse of the regime, exhibit better economic growth rates than autocracies in which all the power is concentrated on a single individual.

In the absence of elections, it is important to focus on what incentive this group has to support leaders that foster good policies. As citizens, this group will tend to benefit from economic prosperity. But, equally they are likely to enjoy some trappings of power by having allied themselves with the leader. If deposing the leader threatens these benefits, they may be reluctant to do so. This leads us to predict that secure selectorates will tend to create performance-related incentives for their leaders and would be willing to remove the leader from office if he does not perform well. Selectorates whose own hold on power is closely tied to a specific leader are willing to preside over bad policy.

It makes sense to me that the ability to get rid of poorly performing leaders improves performance. Also, if there's no way for a peaceful transition of power, repeated power struggles can hurt a country's economic prospects.

Extension of this logic also reveals why democracy is not always able to achieve the best policy outcome. Effective democratic accountability requires that the salient issues on which elections are fought are those that promote general interests. Democratic accountability may founder when factional rather than general interests influence election outcomes.

Based on this theory I'd conclude that democracies should outperform autocracies. Electorates may be factional but they still have a more acute interest in a country's economic development than selectorates made up of oligarchs who can generally live in priviledge as long as they maintain their positions. However, when Beasley compares autocracies with democracies, he observes, "Successful autocracies outperform democracies at the top of the distribution. However, they perform worse at the bottom."

The problem here may be that countries aren't divided into autocracies and democracies randomly. That is, if you look at a list of the richest countries on earth, you'll notice a disproportionate number of democracies. If you look at a list of the poorest countries, you'll see a heck of a lot more autocracies. I would expect such differences to also affect growth rates. If we compared equally rich autocracies and democracies, would the differences become disappear or become more pronounced?


Opinion congruence on EU

I came across an interesting article titled "Cautious Voters - Supportive Parties: Opinion Congruence between Voters and Parties on the EU Dimension" (2006) by Mikko Mattila and Tapio Raunio. That parties in most EU countries are generally more pro-EU than voters shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but it's still useful to have a study to cite on the phenomenon. The authors conclude:

In line with previous research, we first showed that parties are closer to their voters on the left/right dimension than on the EU dimension. Then we confirmed that parties are more supportive of European integration than are their voters. We expected party system characteristics (number of parties, ideological range) to have an effect on opinion congruence, but this was clearly refuted by our analysis. The responsiveness analysis at the party level produced several findings: government parties were less responsive than opposition parties; party size was related to responsiveness, with opinion congruence higher in smaller parties; and responsiveness was lower among centrist parties. Our study also confirms that European parties, at least in the old member states, fail to offer enough competing alternatives to voters over European integration.

The article also contains a rather interesting by-country breakdown of the distances between parties and voters on the EU dimension and the left-right dimension, as measured in an international study after the previous European Parliament election. Finnish parties did a comparatively poor job of representing public opinion on EU; they were the fourth furthest from the voting public. British parties were the furthest from their supporters on this count, not including Northern Irish parties which were the closest. In two countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, parties were generally less pro-EU than the public. Finnish parties came fourth in being more pro-EU than their voters - with British parties winning again.

On the left/right dimension, where parties were generally closer to voters, Finnish parties were slightly better than average, tied at ninth place with Irish, Estonian, and Cypriot parties. Northern Irish and Dutch parties did the best, Portuguese the worst.


AK-47 is the tool

Former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (Social Democratic Party) and current Defense Minister Jyri Häkämies (National Coalition Party) are having a bit of a row over giving about 100'000 surplus AK-47s to the Afghanistani military. On his recent visit to that country, Häkämies met with President Hamid Karzai, who asked for the assault rifles. Häkämies said that the matter could be taken into consideration. Tuomioja, during whose term as Foreign Minister Finland had declined a previous request for the rifles, bounced on the answer. Writing on his website (fi), he accused Häkämies of going at it alone and thus showing a severe lack of foreign policy judgment.

Finland's foreign and security policy is based on lines drawn jointly by the president and the government as well as on Parliament's wide support. It has not been standard practice in these parts for individual ministers to break ranks by opening matters on which decisions have already been made and where nothing new that would warrant a change has happened.

[...] But the assault rifle is not the item in which the country has the shortest supply and which Finland should be sprinkling about in a theatre of military operations.
Häkämies defended himself by noting that he hadn't promised anything more than an answer, which is fair enough, and attributes Tuomioja's comments to "bad will".

It's difficult to tell how much of his procedural case Tuomioja believes, but his main motivation for speaking out isn't impossible to figure out: he thinks Finland shouldn't donate rifles to Afghanistan and thus doesn't want to see the previous decision reconsidered. His argument, put forth in Helsingin Sanomat, is that "guns may end up in anyone's hands over there." He advanced the same theme when he described donating the rifles to the Afghanistani government as "sprinkling" them about a war zone. Assuming that the Afghanistani military currently has weaponry, it would be interesting to know how often their weapons have ended up in the wrong hands.

When the previous decision was made, it was reported that Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) and then Defense Minister Seppo Kääriäinen (Centre) were in favour of sending the rifles to Afghanistan. Tuomioja and President Tarja Halonen (Social Democrat) were opposed and Halonen's position naturally won. Any reconsideration will probably end in the same result as before unless Halonen has reconsidered her position, which I consider to be unlikely. I'd evaluate that the odds of the previous decision being overturned are small.

Everybody loves Tarja

According to a recent Suomen Gallup poll, 84 percent of Finns give (fi) President Tarja Halonen (Social Democratic Party) a very good or a quite good grade. The main difference in the past six months is that National Coalition Party supporters have grown less happy with the way she handles foreign policy.

I wonder, to what extent are Halonen's ratings and the high ratings of Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen about their performance in office. If we replaced Halonen with the corpse of Lauri Kristian Relander, would the ratings remain as high? While the support for Halonen and Vanhanen is broad, election results suggest that it isn't very deep. When given alternatives, many of the people who say Halonen and Vanhanen are doing their jobs well voted for someone else. Before the election people expressed confidence in the centre-left government and hoped that the next government was based on the Centre Party and the Social Democratic Party. After the election, they expressed confidence in the centre-right government and considerd a coalition of the Centre and the National Coalition Party to offer the best basis for a government. Approval and support are two different things.

In other polling news, the latest Taloustutkimus poll (fi) is out. There aren't any big changes in it. The Centre and the Coalition gain a little; the Social Democrats lose some support; but it's all within the margin of error. Here's the table:

CP   NCP  SDP  LA  GL   CD  SPP TF  gov  source
23.1 22.3 21.4 8.8 8.5 4.9 4.6 4.1 58.5 PE 3/18
23.0 24.1 20.7 8.2 9.4 4.5 4.4 4.5 60.9 TT 4/5
22.8 23.3 21.1 8.4 8.9 4.5 4.3 4.9 59.3 SG 5/20
23.4 23.3 20.8 9.0 9.6 5.0 4.1 4.4 60.4 RI 5/25
22.4 23.4 21.7 8.4 10.1 4.7 4.1 4.3 60.0 TT 6/9
23.0 23.2 21.5 8.3 9.0 4.3 4.2 5.0 59.4 SG 6/26
22.8 23.9 21.2 8.5 9.3 4.7 4.4 4.3 60.4 TT 7/2
CP = Centre Party
NCP = National Coalition Party
SDP = Social Democratic Party
LA = Left Alliance
GL = Green League
CD = Christian Democrats
SPP = Swedish People's Party
TF = True Finns
gov = government parties
PE = parliamentary election
TT = Taloustutkimus / YLE
SG = Suomen Gallup (TNS-Gallup) / Helsingin Sanomat
RI = Research International Finland / MTV3


Spies do the darndest things

The recent mention of historian Kimmo Rentola reminded me of his 1997 book "Niin kylmää että polttaa - Kommunistit, Kekkonen ja Kreml 1947-1958" ("So Cold That It Burns - Communists, Kekkonen, and the Kreml 1947-1958"). Aside from giving a good overview of said triangle drama, the book contains numerous funny Cold War spy stories. A reader can't help but to get the impression that the main requirement for a Cold War era spy was a marked inability to keep one's mouth shut, whereas spy hunters were mainly chosen based on the fertility of their imaginations. (Admittedly, a part of it comes from the understandable fact that sources are best available in those cases were a spy got caught.)

Consider the story of Erkki Tynkkynen, a plumber and a spy. Tynkkynen was a Red orphan from Viipuri, who had spent his childhood in residential care, in jail, in a mental hospital, and in war. In the war he had seen "strange clay", a fact he reported to the Allied Control Commission on the advice of a comrade in the Finland-Soviet Union Society (SNS). One thing led to another and Tynkkynen found himself in Soviet Union receiving training in operating a radio. He was sent back to Finland to recruit civilian helpers, preferably doctors or clergymen. He found one possible contact, a carpenter. After operating for a year, things went wrong.

One time after he had sent a radio message, two men turned up at his house asking about problems with electricity. Tynkkynen got scared. He packed his radio equipment in two suitcases and buried them near the cemetery. Shortly afterwards he and the carpenter travelled to Helsinki to meet Tynkkynen's employers, who didn't show up. Tynkkynen got scared. He crossed the border to Sweden, where he was arrested. He confessed everything. The Swedes didn't tell the Finnish security police, however, as this happened during the time it was infested with Communists. When Tynkkynen was returned to Finland, no one asked him anything. He went to see his radio equipment, but it was gone. It had been found by a couple looking for a quiet place to do what couples do. The authorities had been informed, but the investigation went nowhere as the local police wasn't eager to cooperate with a Communist security police detective.

Later, when the security police was again in the hands of non-Communists, Tynkkynen popped in to its Tampere office to ask whether they knew about his activities. They eventually got around to asking their Swedish colleagues about him and now the Swedes were willing to share his confession. As the matter was sensitive, the police didn't arrest him - and in any case he was already in jail for theft. When Tynkkynen got out, he received a letter from his old employers inviting him back to Soviet Union. On his first try he was caught stealing near the border and sent back to jail. On his second try he succeeded in crossing over. The Soviets asked him some pointed questions. He confessed everything, for the second time. After four years in Siberia, he was returned to Finland. Upon his return the security police picked him up for questioning. He confessed everything, for the third time, and was rewarded with a four year prison stint.

Even when the Soviets picked someone better qualified to spy than Tynkkynen, loyalty was a problem. Tractor driver Leo Kellinsalmi, a Finnish-speaker from Murmansk, made a few successful postal runs into Finland and was picked for a bigger mission. He was given instructions on how to conduct himself in Finland: He should learn to eat with his left hand; luckily he already knew how to peel a potato. When in restaurants, he should either booze or eat, but not both. Finally he was sent to Vaasa to give a message to an operative whose radio had malfunctioned and to do some low-level surveillance himself. While carrying out his mission with less than perfect zeal - he never contacted the operative - he made friends, got a job, and even found a fiancee, a widow who didn't ask too many questions. In short, he quickly came to the conclusion that a worker in Finland lived much better than a farmer in the Kola Peninsula, so he decided to stay. Five years into his new life, he was arrested because his papers weren't in order and eventually confessed. He got two and a half years in prison, after which he stayed in Finland.

If the Soviet intelligence didn't always succeed, the Finnish security police sometimes also had trouble getting things right. For years they didn't know much about what the Communists were doing and what they knew could fit any number of theories. For example, a leading Communist in Ahlaiset travelled somewhere with a package and when he came back he no longer had the package. A detective deduced that the Communist was in fact running a secret post link to the Soviet Union. It was said that the Communist had written "a complete character study" of the municipal secretary. In Kemi a detective suspected that the fire department didn't arrive as quickly as it could and should in cases where the burning building belonged to a member of the bourgeoisie. The report elicited a laconic remark from the detective's supervisor: "Imagination may be involved."

Reports from low-level Communist informants could be hair-raising. In a Vuoksenniska railway construction site, a Communist had claimed that eight electric chairs had been sent from the United States to Greece "for executing workers". Apparently five of the damned machines had been ordered to Finland, too. In western Uusimaa it was rumoured that an old Red had raised volunteers for the North Korean military and that the son of a Communist family had found mysterious wealth - in other words, a peace address had been circulated and a young Communist had gotten a job in the Finland Soviet Union Society (SNS).

Regular police did valuable investigative work, too. In Kemi in 1959 a plan for conquering Northern Finland authored by none other than Hertta Kuusinen surfaced. On the other hand, a confidential police report carried the information that Kuusinen "is thought to be a member of the Communist Party party council". The report's confidentiality suggests that the information didn't come from the Communist newspaper in which such things were printed regularly. Poor Yrjö Leino, long after he had been ejected from the Communist inner circle, was reported to often visit Hyvinkää to booze with an old lady friend. One time the woman threw Leino out from her apartment, at which point he telephoned the Hyvinkää police department, announced that he was a former Minister of the Interior, and requested the police to go get his hat back, which they then did.


Government priorities and ratings

Earlier this week Helsingin Sanomat published a poll (fi) asking what are the most important goals for the new government. Below are the percentages of respondents who found the goal either the most important or the second most important.

  1. securing welfare services 49 (most important 31 + second most important 18)
  2. reducing poverty and social inequality 38 (22 + 16)
  3. restraining climate change and environmental protection 28 (12 + 18)
  4. preparing for the population's aging 28 (11 + 17)
  5. fighting unemployment 25 (11 + 14)
  6. lowering taxes 15 (7 + 8)
  7. taking care of national defense capability 6 (2 + 4)
  8. fighting crime and terrorism 5 (1 + 4)
  9. can't say 4 (2 + 2)
  10. something else 3 (2 + 1)

I've written this before, but it bears repeating: the election result should not be taken as a green light from the electorate to dismantle the welfare state. Such moves would not be received well, in all likelihood. (On that note, Jacob Christensen wrote a series of posts on the "instant failure" of the centre-right government in Sweden that can serve as a warning example: part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

So far the public seems reasonably pleased with what they're getting. In the same poll respondents were asked to grade parties and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party). Here are the percentages of respondents who thought the entity had succeeded either quite well or very well in its tasks.

  1. Matti Vanhanen 82 (very well 18 + quite well 64)
  2. government 69 (5 + 64)
  3. Centre Party 64 (5 + 59)
  4. National Coalition Party 61 (7 + 54)
  5. Green League 48 (3 + 45)
  6. Swedish People's Party 46 (2 + 44)
  7. True Finns 43 (6 + 37)
  8. Social Democratic Party 37 (3 + 34)
  9. Christian Democrats 35 (2 + 33)
  10. Left Alliance 27 (1 + 26)

Conclusion: while Vanhanen is significantly more popular than the government he leads, the government is popular enough that opposition parties consistently rank below government parties in approval.