Article 546 – Finnish officers under pressure

There is something missing in the Finnish defence and national security discussion since a week ago.

The new YlPalvOhj 2017 (general statutes of service for the Finnish Defence Forces) entered into service on the 1 January, and included an updated article on the participation of soldiers in public discussions (own translation).

546. Professional soldiers and the students in training by defence forces for military duties should also otherwise abstain from interfering in issues related to party politics and be wary of connecting the defence forces to these.

How this sweeping statement is to be interpreted is open to question, but the fact is that a number of active-duty officers have decided to publicly freeze their accounts, and it is unclear how many others have decided to keep a lower profile to avoid overstepping the blurry line. Clear is that both the Finnish Officers’ Union well as MP’s from different parties have reacted, and asked for clarity. An official clarifying letter has been issued, but it doesn’t really seem to clarify things.

Instead of sorting out what “party politics” mean in a country with a multi-party parliamentary system, the answer has been to try and distinguish between statutes (which bear legal implications) and recommendations (the breaking of which does not cause any consequences, neither “officially nor unofficially”). Article 546. should apparently be treated as one of the later, and as such it is purely a recommendation. This is in all fairness about as ridiculous as the explanation that the recommendation stems from a wish to maintain the internal cohesion by keeping the officers outside the increased polarisation of general society.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this is anything but an attempt to silence the budding tendency of more officers to participate in discussions on social media, something which has been openly encouraged by the current chief of defence, general Lindberg. I firmly belive this to be contrary to the interests of the defence forces as a whole, since open discussion benefits the defence forces through developing the public understanding on questions related to national security, and most likely increases the internal cohesion of the forces by creating public forums where professionals from different parts of the organisation can meet and discuss. This is something of a new phenomenon in Finland, where traditionally soldiers have kept a very low profile in any public discussion. If you are kind you might say that this comes due to traditions rooted in the experiences from other countries where the defence forces have become political factors. If not, you might say it is another example of the long shadows finlandisation still casts.

1973_-_yya25_anniversary_stamp
Stamp from a time when it wasn’t suitable to mention NATO. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Posti- ja telelaitos

A number of high-ranking politicians, including former FM Tuomioja and current MoD Niinistö, have publicly called out statements by officers as being out of line. It does seem that this political pressure have finally made its way into the written instructions of the defence forces, and into a document which generations of officers have grown up seeing as, regardless of what the clarifying letter says, a written order and the leading scripture for proper behaviour.

This is worrying to say the least, and not only a question about our soldiers enjoying freedom of speech like the rest of us. The wider implications are also apparent. It would seem strange that the gray eminence behind this would have simply wished for the removal of the officers from the public discussions, as this would remove those with insight into the practical aspects of ‘hard’ national security (and foreign politics through international missions for that matter). Rather probably, there is a more general wish to silence the discussion as a whole. National security is an important topic, and one which has become even more so following the recent developments in Europe and further abroad. It is also a major cost when it comes to our tax money, and it feels strange that a fact-based and well-mannered discussion on the related issues, large and small, would be a problem to our politicians. To ban professionals, either directly or through recommendations (i.e. chilling effects, as major Mashiri bluntly described it), from participating in a discussion because they might voice opinions differing from the current political leadership is not in public interest. And in all honesty: if you can’t stand someone arguing for a viewpoint opposite of yours, might it be that it isn’t them arguing that is the problem?

Someone should be ashamed of themselves.

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