Finnish Security Politics for Foreigners

To move the scope back to Finland, I believe it is appropriate to give my foreign readers a brief overview of the battle over the Finnish defence budget and the NATO-debate.

For a number of years, Finnish politics have had three major parties: the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Centre Party (Kesk, agrarian centrists) and the National Coalition Party (Kok, middle-right conservative liberals). For the last governments, the usual modus operandi has been that the largest party receives support from one of the other three major parties, with the third leading the opposition. Then some of the smaller parties join the government, with the rest joining the opposition. This way a stable majority government is formed.

In the last round of parliamentary elections held in 2011, the populist Finns Party (PS) gained ground, and rose to the position of third largest party, meaning that we suddenly had four major parties. Both the Centre Party and the Finns Party decided to go into opposition, but Jyrki Katainen (Kok) managed to the social democrats and all minor parties onboard, leading to a six-party government. Trying to please everybody made for quite a number of compromises, but the coalition has been surprisingly stable. This situation lasted until the beginning of 2014.

During this year, we have had a number of changes. First, the Left Alliance (Vas.) jumped over to the opposition. According to their own statement this was due to decision to cut social welfare programs, but cynics noted that the timing coincided with the running up to this spring’s European elections.

Down to five parties, and against the backdrop of an ever more unstable Europe, both the National Coalition Party and the Social Democratic Party changed leaders. In the case of the National Coalition Party, former Prime Minister Katainen stepped down, and in a three-way race Alexander Stubb beat his competition to become the new party leader and Prime Minister. Stubb maintains a people-friendly image, being an avid tweeter and sports enthusiast, to the point that he received criticism for being too “common”.

For the Social Democratic Party the shift was markedly different. Here, the outgoing Minister of Finance Jutta Urpilainen did not leave voluntarily, but was defeated by Antti Rinne at the party congress. SDP has bled voters both left and right, and the election of Urpilainen back in 2008 was seen as a move to modernize the party, as she was both the first female leader and the youngest in the history of the party. Six years later, this apparently was all forgotten, as Rinne is more of an archetypical social democrat, being a 51 year old male with a background as a labour union boss.

The fact that the two largest parties had changed leadership, as well as to resolve the issue about what to do with the portfolios left by the leftist, lead to a brief round of negotiations dubbed “mini-coalition formation”. The result was more or less that status quo continues, and a declaration that what is best for Finland is a stable political landscape up until the next parliamentary elections, to be held in 2015.

While this settled everything on paper, it was rather clear that Rinne would have to try something to make his impact felt, or else he would go into the coming elections with the image that he had only followed the trail created by Urpilainen four years earlier. The budget discussion of the coming autumn was mentioned as his best (and perhaps only) chance of making a real statement.

And right they were, as Rinne came out with a bang, having drafted a larger-than-agreed-upon budget proposal. This immediately drew fire from the other ministers, mainly defence minister Carl Haglund of the Swedish-speaking Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP/RKP) and Minister of Economic Affairs Jan Vapavuori (Kok). This quickly developed into a round of political battle-royale, with Rinne countering with the argument that all, including Haglund and Vapavuori, were free to make their own proposals. A senior MP from SDP was happy to further explain that of course Haglund and Vapavuori were free to make cuts in the pensions and benefits of the poorer parts of the population if they felt that was appropriate. Vapavuori in turn stated that the government is unable to function properly if agreed terms and conditions aren’t held. PM Stubb noted that “some” are more aroused by the coming elections than other, while Haglund critiqued Rinne for the way things had been handled, stating that changes of these magnitudes were not to be taken by a single minister.

The total sums involved are rather small, compared to the budget as a whole. Still, they are large enough to force the other coalition partners to protest, or leave it to Rinne to seemingly dictate how the country is lead. If they attack his proposal, the hope on the SDP-side is probably that the right will be seen as austerity fanatics who only care about money and not the elderly.

In this, Rinne’s further cuts in the defence budget has received relatively little attention, in spite of the fact that our new Chief of Defence, General Jarmo “Charles” Lindberg, has pushed for more money to the defence forces, or else, changes to the mission of the defence force (defending the whole country), our stance with regards to NATO, and/or general conscription has to be taken into consideration.

NATO has been something of a hot topic in Finnish politics since the end of the Cold War. It has usually been seen as something of a proverbial third rail: touch it and die (politically). This has radically changed since the Crimean crises this spring, with both Stubb and Haglund now openly supporting Finland joining the alliance. Of perhaps greater interest is the fact that first vice-chairman (and docent of military history) Jussi Niinistö of the usually stubbornly independent Finns Party in late July demanded an investigation about the pros and cons of a Finnish NATO-membership. The SDP on the other hand seems to try and steer away from the whole issue, with foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja immediately shooting down Niinistö’s proposal, and Rinne stating that the rise in support for NATO-membership amongst the Finnish public “doesn’t change anything”.

Finnish support for a membership has risen during the war in Ukraine, but it is still at only 26% (up from 17% last November). However, polls have also shown that a majority of Finns would support a membership, if the political leadership was in favor. This is something that Stubb has taken up, saying that what is needed is strong political leadership to guide Finland into NATO. Currently, Stubb seems to be the next prime minister, meaning that the program of our next government will be a key document to watch.

For a more detailed analysis on the legal aspects (ie. who can decide if Finland should pursue a NATO-membership), read James Mashiri’s “NATO-medlemskap kräver folkomröstning”. However, while his argumentation might be technically correct, I believe two things strongly points to another path. First and foremostly, Finland has a strong tradition of relying on indirect democracy as opposed to direct elections. This is also seen in the polls about NATO quoted above. Secondly, if the abovementioned provides the will, the way might be provided by the fact that Finland lacks a constitutional court, meaning that political decision that are of dubious legality can be passed as long as the Constitutional Law Committee, made up of MP’s, are in agreement with the government. Do note that I am NOT saying that the Finnish government has a free card to pass whatever laws they want, but the burden of proof certainly feels lower as the laws are only judged by the ones who created them (this is completely my own interpretation of how the political/juridical system works, it might be that I have misunderstood it, as I am by no means a law expert).

As an ending note, the notion that Finn’s does not feel threatened by Russia has been raised in the Swedish debate. This is not correct, as a poll by state broadcasting company YLE showed this month, with 56% saying that the developments in Russia creates a threat towards Finland, see Swedish article on YLE here: Putins Ryssland skrämmer finländarna.

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Puheloinen and NATO

The Finnish Chief of Defence*, General Ari Puheloinen, held the opening speech at the 208th National Defence Courset his week (20.1). The speech was widely reported in Swedish media with the headline: “Finnish C-in-C says no to NATO”. To put this statement into context, a recent study (14.01) showed that a majority of the Finnish officers supported the idea of Finland joining the alliance, with the higher-ranking officers (Colonels and above) being more in favor than the lower ranks.

The speech is found in its entirety on the Finnish Defence Forces home page in the form it was given (mostly in Finnish, with a brief ending paragraph in Swedish).

Puheloinen begins by talking about the defence cuts that are taking place, and the consequences they have had to date. He praises “his” personnel, and talks about the need to reform the defence forces as the organization changes. He also takes care to point out that the number of Generals is being lowered correspondingly, and that Finland has a rather low ratio of higher officers compared to other countries.

After this more or less expected introduction, he restates his point from a national defence course held back in 2012: If the defence budget is not raised by 2015, Finland will no longer have a credible defence by 2020. This is where he mentions NATO, once in the whole speech. “Being a member of NATO would not solve this challenge.” (fi. “Naton jäsenyys ei ratkaisisi tätä haastetta.”), after which he moves on and continues to note that neither will collaboration amongst the Nordic countries. However, Puheloinen states, we should still cooperate even if we didn’t experience financial troubles, as it has several benefits. The Finnish-Swedish relationship has received much attention recently, and is brought up as a prime example of this kind of work. In Puheloinen’s view, it is important that it is based on common needs and interests, and that both the contribution and benefits are shared equally by both participants. In spite of our differences, he strongly believes that fitting areas of collaboration will be found.

However, he also warns against expecting that all joint projects will bring financial savings, and cautions that although joint procurements are often brought forward as possible examples of collaboration, they are in fact amongst the hardest to coordinate (for an excellent summary of recent joint procurements by the Swedish armed forces, read this excellent post by Skipper).

To sum it all up, he ends by noting that “Through collaboration between Finland and Sweden it is possible to achieve good results, but it will require time, patience, being ready to move forward one small step at a time, and being prepared to make compromises.”

I noted with delight that he also brings up the importance of reservists, and that the training of these will again be brought up to the “appropriate” level.

I believe that interpreting Puheloinen’s statement as being a no to NATO is to read too much into the single sentence. Rather, I believe it is a reminder to our politicians that joining NATO will not make the need for defence spendings go away. I personally think it is a good speech. Puheloinen manages to take up several current issues in a short time, and he continues his custom of honestly and clearly speaking about the needs of the defence forces, in spite of the no doubt considerable political pressure to accept further cuts.

*Contrary to what some Swedish sources stated, Gen Puheloinen is in fact not the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, a position held by the President of Finland.