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finland

Independence Day in Finland 2019, Will a Prime Minster Attend the Presidential Party?

Finland’s Independence Day (itsenäisyyspäivä) is on Friday – December 6. It’ll be one of my first Finnish Independence Days in Finland for over a decade. In recent years, I’ve celebrated at Finnish consulates and embassies in places like Istanbul and Abu Dhabi. Now back from living abroad, I admit Independence Day feels especially good. Finland has come far in its 102 years as an independent country.

When did Finland become Independent?

Finland became independent on December 6, 1917 in what could only be described as an anticlimactic political saga full of bureaucratic hurdles. It was a result of good timing and strategic planning by the political elite in Finland, such as Prime Minister Pehr Evind Svinhufvud and Finnish Minister–Secretary of State Carl Enckell. They saw an opportunity when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government in November 1917. Finland had been part of Russia since 1809. Previously, it had been part of Sweden.  

The Finnish senate decided to use the chaos in Russia to their advantage and declared Finland as an independent country. The Finnish government approved the declaration on December 6, 1917. Afterwards, the Chief General Manager of the Kansallis-Osake-Pankki (KOP) bank Juho Kusti Paasikivi travelled to Sweden, Denmark and Norway to request the countries to accept the declaration. He was unsuccessful. The other Nordic countries were unwilling to recognize Finland as an independent nation until Finland had discussed the matter with Russia directly. 

Finland sent a delegation to Russia and Lenin accepted the request for independence. However, the verbal agreement was not followed by action. Finland needed to do some additional convincing by writing letters and sending another delegation to St. Petersburg in late December 1917. This delegation consisted of Enckell and Helsinki University Professor of International Law K. G. Idman. They met with Lenin on December 28 and he requested the Finnish government write yet (you guessed it!) another official letter that would be responded to immediately.

Svinhufvud, Enckell and Idman travelled back to St Petersburg with the new official letters requesting independence on December 30. More bureaucratic issues arose while they handed over the letters: the Secretary-General of the Russian Council of People’s Commissars complained that the letter given to them had been addressed to the Russian government and not to Council of People’s Commissars directly. Therefore, they couldn’t open it. Despite a request by Enckell to just change the address, the Finnish delegates were requested to write a whole new letter with the correct address. 

With yet another new letter and after some more waiting, the Finnish delegation got what they came to Russia for: a letter signed by the Russian Council of People’s Commissars accepting Finland’s request for independence. The Official confirmation for Finland’s independence came on January 4, 1918.

How is Independence Day celebrated in Finland?

Finland’s independence is a quiet celebration unless you get invited to the presidential palace, which organises an exclusive party for the Finnish elite. Good luck with that! Many people stay at home and make Finnish food like karjalanpaisti, light up white and blue candles and watch on TV as the presidential palace celebrates. Some Finns may go out to celebrate dressed in their finest clothing.

Needless to say, the celebrations are usually pretty formal if you go out, and pretty casual if you are at home. Pick your poison.

The Independence Day party at the presidential palace is controversial since it is financed by taxpayers and invitations are mainly sent to those who are rich and powerful. This year 1,700 people have been invited. Usually, the budget for the celebration is between EUR200,000 – 300,000.  

Why is Finland’s independence important?

Many Finns think independence shouldn’t be taken for granted. The older generation still remember the times when Finland’s independence felt like it was under a threat from Russia. Even if Finland initially gained independence without bloodshed, there was plenty of blood spilt later on during the Winter War and Continuation War. Finland lost a lot of its territory-such as Karelia- to Russia as a result of the war. 

Even though losing Karelia was a very bitter pill to swallow, the country managed to keep its independence. Finns learned to appreciate the value of being a sovereign nation from looking to other countries that were less unfortunate at the time, such as the Baltic nations.

Today, Russia is Finland’s Frenemy. You probably know that Finland’s Prime Minister was forced to resign earlier this week. He’s currently a caretaker PM. Many are wondering if he’ll dare show up at the presidential palace independence day party. We shall see.

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finland Politics

Hold onto your horses, Putin is coming!

Photo: A woman at the Russian Orthodox Pokrovskaia Association in Helsinki, Finland.

Stop the traffic. Stop the music. Stop whatever you are doing. Putin is coming to town!

The big man of Russia will be in Finland on August 21 to meet with President Sauli Niinistö.

The two have a tight relationship, and Putin visits Finland annually. 

Niinistö last met with Putin in April at the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg. Putin expressed that relations between Russia and Finland are developing in a good direction. Thanks for the love, Vlad!

The meeting next week takes place at the Finnish president’s summer residence in Naantali and comes at a time when relations between Russia and the West are, frankly, in a dreadful state. Niinistö has sought to reassure the Finnish media by saying that no conversations topic will be taboo. However, he refused to disclose the talking points.

We expect Niinistö to continue acting as a bridge between Moscow and Western countries and to carefully tend to what is an uneasy, but important partnership. Many Finnish companies want the sanctions currently imposed on Moscow to be lifted and for Russia to return to buying a wider assortment of products from Finland . Don’t forget, Russia remains an important market and is located right on Finland’s eastern border. Even notoriously quiet Finns talk to their neighbours.

An abusive relationship?

A digression to dig a little deeper into Russian-Finnish relations…

Innocent and inexperienced small town girl meets mysterious, unattainable bad boy. It is an old story that rarely has a happy ending.

Falling in love with such a character can bring your exhilarating excitement. Yet one day you wake up and realise that you are in an abusive relationship with a narcissistic lunatic and there are very few ways out.

Perhaps I am exaggerating a bit (just a bit) by seeming to compare such a dynamic to the Russia-Finland relationship. Yet, like that unattainable new love interest, Russia remains a mystery to Finland, and just about everyone else.

That doesn’t stop Finns from pursuing it of course….there are all those people, all that land, so many resources…

 Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev famous poem says it all: 

”You cannot grasp Russia with your mind 

Or judge her by any common measure, 

Russia is one of a special kind –

You can only believe in her. ”

Another Cold War?

Yes, Russia is Finland’s main longterm external security threat.

In March, the Finnish Defence Ministry released a critical report of Russia entitled “Voiman Venäjä” (eng. Russia of Power). The report was a continuation of two previous reports “Haasteiden Venäjä” (Russia of Challenges, 2008) and Muutosten Venäjä (Russia of Changes, 2012).

“Voiman Venäjä” paints a grim picture of Russia-Finland relations and even mentions being on the edge of another Cold War. An unstable Russia could have a huge impact on Finland’s security. Meanwhile, the increased Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea makes Finland nervous. Russia sees Finland as part of its larger geopolitical goals, according to the report. For example, the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church (not to be confused to Finnish Orthodox Church that is part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople) is controversial in Finland as it is seen as part of Moscow’s soft power strategy.

Helsinki views Russia as unpredictable and wishes to convey itself as a reliable partner, one who can talk it out, no matter the issues, without physical altercation, according to the report.  

For its part, Russia has criticised Finland’s closer defence co-operation with Sweden and the fact that Finland has taken part in NATO exercises. 

Friends, until we’re not

Hostility is unlikely to be seen during the meeting between Niinistö and Putin next week.

In official meetings Russia has always highlighted its good relations with Finland. This is despite occasional not so subtle hints about the horrible consequences should Finland do something disagreeable (such as making plans to join NATO).

In other news, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif will also meet with Niinistö next week, on August 19.

So it will be a busy week for Finnish foreign policy.