The Traveler to St. Petersburg


          On 15 February Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in St. Petersburg. The foreign ministers of the two countries meet annually, but this was anything but a routine meeting. It occurred against the backdrop of a new round of arrests of dissidents in Russia. The most notable among the arrested was Alexei Navalny.

          In traveling to St. Petersburg the Finnish foreign minister carried with him the history of Finnish-Russian relations. Finland’s history is loaded with Finnish leaders making high-stakes trips to Russia. After Finland declared its independence on 6 December 1917, the country’s leaders found themselves in St. Petersburg before the end of the month asking the new Bolshevik government to recognize Finland’s independence. Without Russian recognition few foreign powers were ready to recognize Finland as an independent country. In the fall of 1939 J. K. Paasikivi led three delegations to Moscow to discuss Russian demands for territory from Finland. The negotiations went nowhere and war erupted on the last day of November 1939. In 1948, Finnish negotiators went to Moscow to discuss Stalin’s demand for a military alliance. A less binding arrangement known as the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA or FCMA Treaty) was signed, a topic of a previous blog post. During the Cold War, Finnish presidents visited the Soviet Union annually to affirm the “trust” between the two countries. The best-known of these visits was in November 1961, when President Kekkonen, after a successful three-week visit to the United States and Canada that included some vacation time in Hawaii. While in Hawaii, the Soviets issued a diplomatic note to Finland asking it to engage in discussions based on the YYA treaty. The note shook the Finns: accepting the Soviet request could end Finland’s claims to neutrality in the Cold War. Refusing the Soviet request could end Finland’s independence. Kekkonen completed his North American visit and then traveled to Siberia in November 1961 to discuss the note with Soviet leader Khrushchev. The Soviets ultimately decided to suspend their request for formal consultations in exchange for Kekkonen’s pledge to be on the watch for threats to Finnish-Soviet relations. The so-called “Note Crisis” had come to an end.

          Scholars have long debated the reasons for the Soviet action: were the Soviets motivated by growing tensions in Europe, or by fears of Kekkonen’s possible defeat in the presidential election scheduled for January 1962? The note served several Soviet goals in respect to Finland and Europe. The note signaled concerns about West German rearmament, as well as Danish and Norwegian military cooperation within the Western alliance. The note had its greatest effectiveness on the outcome of the 1962 presidential election. The crisis broke the unity of the opposition against Kekkonen, insuring Kekkonen’s reelection by a wide margin.

           Out of this historical context of high-stakes meetings with Russia, Foreign Minister Haavisto embarked on his trip to St. Petersburg. His visit was preceded by a visit by the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borell a few days before. Borell encountered criticism from EU member states for weakly and incompetently advocating the European Union’s position concerning Navalny and other dissidents. Would Haavisto follow a tradition of Finnish leaders cowering before their Russian counterparts?

          Haavisto’s meeting with Lavrov achieved no concrete successes for Finland and the European Union. Navalny and other dissidents are still in jail. In Finland the meeting was considered an unqualified success. The foreign minister expressly and openly called for Navalny’s release while in St. Petersburg. He clarified the EU’s position on relations with Russia. Moreover, he gave the Russians no opportunity to advance their long-term aim of breaking up the European Union by on the one hand attacking the EU while on the other hand appearing conciliatory toward individual member states.

          The foreign minister returned to Finland to a hero’s welcome. He needed one after the recently concluded investigation into his role in repatriating women and children from ISIS camps in Syria. The euphoria about the visit had little to do with Navalny or the European Union. It had to do with a Finnish leader going to Russia and holding his own against his Russian counterpart. The hero’s welcome was part relief, part revenge, part catharsis, and part joy that a Finnish government publicly stood for human rights outside of the country.

          When I teach about the European Union to my American students, they often wonder why countries would cede some of their sovereignty to an organization like the European Union. Smaller countries in the European Union are able to punch above their weight on the international stage. I tell them the story about the Bulgarian nurses working in Libya who were sentenced to death as scapegoats for the spread of HIV in Libyan hospitals in the early 2000s. Bulgaria alone could not get its citizens off death row, but the intervention of fellow member states of the EU forced Libya’s hand to release the nurses. As a member state of the European Union, Finland was not encountering Russia alone during Foreign Minister Haavisto’s visit. I highly doubt that if Finland were not an EU member, Foreign Minister Haavisto would have spent his country’s diplomatic capital in Russia defending human rights. Nothing in Finland’s policy to the eastern neighbor before EU membership in 1995 suggests that he would have.

          Haavisto’s trip to St. Petersburg will not be the last high-stakes visit by a Finnish leader. Russia is an existential issue to Finland. To paraphrase one of those Finnish travelers to Russia, President J. K. Paasikivi, Russia might not always be a great power in the world, but it is always one to Finland.