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Finland's hot potato

When we discuss Karelia, we are referring only to the part of eastern Finland that was ceded to the Soviet Union under duress at the end of the Second World War. The Karelian people, however, are scattered over a much larger geographical area that straddles the border between Finland and Russia. On the Russian side, it extends from the Gulf of Finland to the White Sea. A considerable bit of the Karelian homeland remains within the present borders of Finland. Thanks to the strong influence of the people who live there and of their evacuee kith-and-kin scattered all over the rest of the country, the essence of what it is to be Finnish has a very visible Karelian component. The Karelian League is by far the biggest and most active of the lobbies representing the various Finnish regional identities.

Public debate on Karelia has assumed increasingly conspicuous forms, but one gains the impression that people have grown used to its failure to lead to results. The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between Finland and the Soviet Union was rescinded only a month after the latter disintegrated, but its shadow still seems to loom over a lot of thinking. "The period during which we were not able to talk freely lasted too long: from 1944 to 1991," says Finland's most influential Karelian Johannes Virolainen. A bearer of the prestigious title Counsellor of State, he is a former Prime Minister and served for many years as the Speaker of Parliament.

Observers of political life in Finland in the post-war decades that the Soviet Union still existed have coined the phrase "foreign-policy liturgy" to describe the practice of talking only in ways that would not get anyone's back up in Moscow. Neither journalistic criticism nor factual information - even if it existed at all - fitted into that pattern. Now the USSR is history, but it seems that changing attitudes to bring them more into line with the new situation is not easy. That fact is reflected in the whole Karelia question - what kind of state ought Finland to be talking to about the issue?

Things are, however, changing and matters are being discussed very openly indeed. Writing in Helsingin Sanomat on 4.9.1998, Dr. Pekka Sutela (who works at the Bank of Finland) had this to say about Russia: "They are pretending to be a great power, although their economy is about the size of the Netherlands' and their share of the global economy is negligible. They maintain a space programme, even though they have difficulty keeping their domestic air traffic going." Many older people read truths like these in much the same way that little boys secretly read naughty magazines, blushing and sniggering. On the other hand, as Nykypäivä editor Jarmo Virmavirta has pointed out (29.12.1998): "Russia is no longer a superpower, but yet remains a great power in the Baltic Sea region, both politically and economically and in the military sense."

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The most significant statements against the return of Karelia have come from the present Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, General Gustav Hägglund. In March 1992, at which time he was the Chief of the Defence Staff, he gave an interview to the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter and what he said in it was immediately taken up by the Finnish media. "Looking at the matter purely from the perspective of military policy, it would not make sense to move the border back to the suburbs of St. Petersburg. That could lead in the future to demands for buffer zones similar to those made just before the Winter War. It would also bring the border to paradise right to the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Now a poor forest region separates the St. Petersburg area from Finland. It would be stupid to take Karelia back even if it were handed to us on a golden platter." (quoted in Ilta-Sanomat on 7.3.1992). The General's "golden platter" quote has lived a life of its own ever since, continually popping up whenever the Karelian issue is discussed. The most recent example was in a major TV debate in autumn 1998.

To drive his point home after the Dagens Nyheter interview, Hägglund gave another to the provincial daily Keskisuomalainen on 29.3.1992, saying: "It was a great wrong and complete banditry that Karelia was taken from Finland. But not all wrongs can be righted. The Finns moved out of the area and there are now nearly 300,000 Russians living there. Therein lies the central reason why it is not in our interests to return the area to Finland." At the end of 1998 it was estimated that the population of Karelia had fallen to just over 200,000 Russians, a large part of whom were military and government officials.

General Hägglund feels no need to change the statements he made seven years ago. Welcome to Finland offered him the opportunity to do so, but the Defence Staff announced on 13.1.1999 that he had nothing to add.

The dams burst

Plans to solve the Karelian question managed to cross the news threshold in Finland several times in 1998. Although the matter had not been forgotten in the course of the decades, one gained the impression that only now were the dams bursting.

Image size 11 Kb In July 1998 Brigadier-General Kari Hietanen made a speech in which he unequivocally called for the return of Karelia. His thinking was that "the Russians living in a Karelia that would be returned would move elsewhere. Relocating a quarter of a million people can not be an insurmountable task for a great power." (Helsingin Sanomat 23.7). He was immediately given a telling off by the Defence Staff for having spoken in such an ill-considered manner. The top brass reminded him that, under the law, the duties of the Defence Forces do not include sketching the outlines of foreign policy. Hietanen expressed regret over the situation that he had caused.

In November 1998, a Finnish businessman living in Florida, Jorma Hellevaara, sent President Yeltsin a letter offering to buy the ceded territory for $500 million! He has had no reply so far.

The political scientist Dr. Jukka Seppinen has demanded in an extensive scholarly report entitled "Towards Karelia - Forcibly-Ceded Karelia Today and Tomorrow" that "the President of the Republic and the Government formulate their words in a way that will strengthen a base of opinion fundamentally positive towards the return of Karelia." (Finnish News Agency 10.11) He has further proposed that the Government of Finland request that the other signatories to the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty issue a declaration that would include calling for this injustice to be rectified.

Means of opening the knot have been sought everywhere. Europarliamentarian Marjo Matikainen-Källström, herself of Karelian extraction, said in a speech on 30.8 that the European Commission has said this bilateral matter does not concern the Union. All Brussels has to offer is sympathy.

The return of Karelia is a matter that bothers more than just those who long for the home from which they were expelled. Writing in the large-circulation newspaper City, which is aimed at a young readership, a student named Juha-Matti Aronen expressed the sentiments of his generation in April 1998: "The Karelia question is taboo, the last stronghold of Finlandisation in this the promised land of cop-out chickens."

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Three generations of the Knuuttila family on the steps of the house for the last time in Antrea on 18.6. 1944. The old lady of the house Eeva, her daughter-in-law Helvi (back) and Martta's daughter Marjatta are leaving and their home will be handled over to the Russians. "Girls, don't cry. Tears have to be spared for a really bad spot," Eeva tells the younger ladies.

Two presidents tried

That walking encyclopaedia of history Johannes Virolainen (1914-2001) recalled that President Paasikivi had been active in the matter from the beginning. "When the Porkkala area had been returned [the Porkkala peninsula west of Helsinki was leased to the Soviet Union as a base area in 1944 and returned in 1956], Paasikivi gave Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen permission to talk to the Russians about Karelia again. Without results. As President, Kekkonen continually returned to the matter. He put it to Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin during a state visit in 1957. After that he again spoke to Molotov, who said the area had been won with the blood of Red Army soldiers. Only a new war could change the border. Fortunately, the situation now is completely different," sighs Virolainen.

There is an amusing anecdote about Bulganin's visit. With the Prime Minister due to see a paper mill in Valkeakoski, the owner Juuso Waldén arrived the previous evening to make a tour of inspection of the important guest's route. Washing was hanging out to dry on a line in the yard of a family that had been evacuated from Karelia. Waldén asked the woman of the house to remove the washing because important Soviet guests were coming. The woman shook her head and replied: "Since they've taken our home and everything else, it's all the same if they take our old clothes as well."

The Karelians are renowned in Finland for their ready wit and jolly nature. They are also unshakeably optimistic. When they were evacuated and resettled all over Finland, they brought a new joy and lightness to the life of the nation. Typical of their way of thinking - and also of the ongoing discourse on Karelia - is the saying "Let joy come to the surface even if the heart is festering!"

How Karelia was lost ...

When the Winter War broke out in November 1939 and the Karelian Isthmus became a battlefield, the people were quick to move out. Under the terms of the armistice that ended the fighting three months later, Karelia had to be handed over to the Soviet Union. Then followed a brief interbellum period. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in summer 1941, Finland joined in and began re-taking the lost territory. During the so-called Continuation War (1941-44) some 300,000 of the more than 400,000 Karelians who had fled returned and worked night and day to rebuild their homeland. In 1943 the fields of Karelia were again under cultivation. Then the fortunes of war turned and the Soviet Union dictated the terms of the peace settlement, which meant the region was lost again.

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Johannes Virolainen (right) visited his native village in Karelia in autumn 1998. "The few old people left here would like the Finns to come back and put things right," her said.

The resettlement of the Karelians was an astounding feat, probably without parallel anywhere. The first miracle was that no one remained at home under a new master - with the exception of a few old people and others overlooked in remote villages. "If Karelia were to be returned now, 200,000 Karelians would go back at once," believes Virolainen. "I'd go the same evening."

There is nothing remarkable about that decision when one has listened to Virolainen's description of the lost Karelia's splendour. "It's one of the best places not only in Finland, but in the whole of Europe. The climate between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland is so favourable that there's nothing like it anywhere else in this country. Karelia has Finland's biggest river rapids. This country won't need any nuclear power if we get the Rouhela Rapids and the River Vuoksi back. The area contains nearly two million hectares of untended forests and 300,000 hectares of arable land where nothing grows now but scrub."

... will it be regained?

"The only way is to get the Russian leadership to understand that it also lies in their interest to stimulate development in Karelia," says Virolainen. "The first place to benefit would be St. Petersburg. The agricultural production that the Karelians would quickly get under way would be matched by an enormous market in a region where people are now going hungry. Ambassador Yuri Deryabin said before he left Helsinki that Russia would not be able to invest a single rouble north of St. Petersburg, i.e. in Karelia. The money just isn't there. The return of Karelia would bring nothing but benefits for both countries."

The German songwriter/singer Wolf Biermann made this quip in a recent newspaper interview (WELT 25.6.2000): "One of the beer brands in Finland is called 'Karelia', which prompts patriotic boozers there to slobber: 'We'll take Karelia back - bottle by bottle'." With a name like Biermann (German for "beer man"), the good troubadour certainly knows what he's talking about!

A lot of instances have been busy calculating how much it would cost to put the dilapidated region back into shape and the sums mentioned have run as high as $10 billion. "Rubbish" is the single word with which Virolainen dismisses talk of the expensiveness of refurbishing Karelia. "We have hundreds of thousands of unemployed, so there'd be work for them there. The money that would have to be put into the place would be recouped in a few years. If anyone had calculated how expensive the Winter War would be, we'd never have resisted the aggressor. We'd only have said 'welcome!' It is so expensive to defend a country. These things can't be counted in money. It is not tax money, but people's work that will put Karelia back on its feet. And that work won't be done unless the area is Finnish territory. But that decision will be made in Moscow."

Moscow began 1999 with an effort to end discussion of the Karelia question. On a visit to Finland, the Duma's communist Speaker Gennady Seleznov had this to say: "Those who would like to raise territorial questions are, in my view, hoping to create discord in Russo-Finnish relations. As far as I understand, Finland's official policy is that she has no territorial demands." (Helsingin Sanomat 28.1.1999)

Putin put out over talk about Karelia

Finland's new President Tarja Halonen made her first official visit to Russia in June 2000. When the question of Karelia arose during a press conference, her host President Vladimir Putin declared: "For us this issue has been resolved and the matter is closed." To drive home the point he issued a clear warning: "In my view, it would be very dangerous to continue with a discourse of this kind."

See also:
WTF-O Drawing borders with swords and scimitars
HS: The never-ending Karelia question