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Independence Day – Finland 99 years as an independent state! – Part Four: The post-war decades of independence

December 6th, 2016 by Pekka Kamarainen

In my three previous posts I have been writing a series of blogs to celebrate the 99th Independence Day of Finland. The first post gave a brief overview of the time before independence and the second one discussed the process of nation-building. In the third post I discussed the struggle for independence and on the first decades of independence – including the many wars during the World War II. In this final post I will discuss the post-war decades of the Finnish experience.

The years of post-war reconstruction, tensions, and recovery (1946 – 1956)

The first years after the interim peace have recently been characterised as a period of ‘uneasy peace’ (rauhaton rauha), since the return to the new normality was not merely in the hands of the Finns. The allies had set a Control Commission (led by a leading Soviet politician A. Zhdanov) to monitor that Finland is properly implementing the terms of the peace treaty – such as abolishing the ‘fascist’ and and similar parties and voluntary organisations, taking the pre-war leading politicians to a court that will judge them as guilty of war etc. And at the same time the political, economic and cultural life was to be given a new start. These were years of change – the radical right-wing party was abolished and the traditional conservative party landed to opposition, The government was relying on centre and left wing parties. Yet, the political leadership was handed over to the veteran politician J.K: Paasikivi, who served firstly as the prime minister and then as a president of republic 1946 – 1956. (Paasikivi had already been prime minister in 1918 and he had led the Finnish delegations in the peace treaty negotiations in 1920 and during the World War II.)

Paasikivi was able to work together with different post-war government coalitions and with his firm conviction to rebuild the relations with the Soviet Union on the basis of trust between the neighbours he tried to educate the Finnish people understand the new realities and take bitter pills if needed. In this way the transition period from the interim peace to the peace treaty of Paris passed without major complications. The special trial of the pre-war politicians sentenced some of them to 2-6 years in jail – but no more than that (and their reputation was not ruined – they just had to suffer the punishment of the country being on the wrong side in the war). Yet, after this chapter was put behind, the Paris treaty came into force and the Control Commission was abolished.

In addition to political tensions (and fears of possible Soviet intervention) there was a great economic pressure on Finland. The peace treaty required Finland to pay major sums of compensation in industrial products to Soviet Union for the damage caused in the war. This, however, helped the country to start new industries and to support the development of different regions by allocating industrial plants to different parts of the country. A major role in this development was played by state-own industries in mining, steel production, machinery and chemical products. These compensation payments were completed by 1952. Two years later – after the death of Stalin – the Soviet government gave up the military base in Porkkala and ended the ‘tenant’ contract. Thus, by the end of his second term of presidency, Paasikivi had ‘schippered’ the country through the uneasy post-war years to new stability.

The era of president Kekkonen (1956 – 1981): Peaceful co-existence, welfare state and CSCE

When Urho Kekkonen started his term as president, he was a controversial politician from the agrarian (centre) party – very experienced but ambitious. Also, the political life in the country was disturbed by internal splits in several parties and in the trade union movement. This had triggered a tariff conflict and a general strike in 1956. Also, during the first term of Kekkonen several government coalitions were fragile and short-lived. Whilst the governments may have not been so successful, Kekkonen’s authority due to his success in foreign policies – in particular in creating personal relations with the Soviet leader Nikita Hruštšev. This became apparent during the period of the Cuban crisis, when some of the fringes of that tension reached the Finnish-Soviet relations.

After being re-elected for the second term Kekkonen together with a newer generation of political leaders and social partners was forging new patterns of national consensus. The newer broad-based centre-left government coalitions (led by social democrats) and the tripartite framework agreements on trades and tariffs paved the way for major social reforms (comprehensive education, public health services, social insurance, national pensions, children’s daycare). All these created systems of social welfare state that enabled a massive transition from traditional agriculture to industries and services. And if the employment opportunities were not available in Finland, then in Sweden – and the unified Nordic labour markets were already at place. At the same time the bilateral trade with Soviet Union was upgraded with major projects – such as building new industrial town complexes on the Soviet side by Finnish companies and by building the first Finnish nuclear plant by a Soviet company.

In this way Finland, led by Kekkonen, was in the position to host the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the US and Soviet governments in the early 1970s. And shortly afterwards Finland took the initiative to host the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that took place between 1973 (foreign ministers’ conference in Helsinki), 1973-1975 (expert commissions in Geneva) and 1975 (concluding summit in Helsinki). This conference stabilised the intergovernmental relations in Europe, eased the tensions between the military blocks and set new standards infree movement people and ideas. After this success the whole nation and all major political parties were supporting Kekkonen for yet another term of presidency in 1978. However, due to health reasons he had to give up in 1981.

(In the light of recent experiences with the armed conflict in East Ukraina, it is worthwhile to note the work of the CSCE was continued by Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) – and it appears to be the body that maintains communication channels that give some hope for solutions in the said conflict.)

The years of unchallenged neutrality and the end of Cold War (1981 – 1995)

During the first term of presidency of Kekkonen’s successor, Mauno Koivisto the old bilateral agreements with the Soviet Union were renewed to ensure further bilateral trade projects and mutual trust. However, the shift of emphasis in foreign trade was moving to increasingly towards Western economic integration. Yet, the old centre-left governments, supported by smaller parties (including the agrarian populist party) were keeping a rather traditional course. But during his second presidency a new coalition emerged between the conservatives and social democrats (leaving the centre in the opposition). This new coalition took major steps liberalise the financial markets and opened the access of wider circles to obtain loans in foreign currencies – which was good when the economy was growing but when the growth of the late 1980s ceased, the recession of the early 1990s hit badly the Finnish economy – the bank crisis, the crisis of major ‘rustbelt’ industries and a rapid growth of unemployment.

In the meantime there had been major changes in the leadership of the Soviet Union. Mihail Gorbatshov had declared perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) as the new guiding principles. That was taken positively in Finland but the economic erosion in the Eastern block brought new problems – people were losing confidence and the old regimes started to lose power. And this led to a chain reaction. Critical situations were experiences when the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were ready to take the decisive steps to  re-establish their independence. The coup d’`état of the traditionalists of Soviet Union raised once again worries but ended with the collapse of Soviet regime and in the dissolution of the Union into set of independent states. This, for Finland caused economic problems because the bilateral trade ceased and several industrial sectors (reliant on Soviet trade) collapsed, when global competition took over their domestic markets.

The years of prosperity and European integration (1994 to present date)

Already Koivisto had expressed a priority to shift the emphsis from president-led policies to stronger parliamentarism. After his presidency the successor, Martti Ahtisaari, was a former UN-diplomat and civil servant with less involvement in Finnish  politics. In the beginning of his period the centre-right coalition was struggling with the recession and with the challenge to negotiate the terms of membership for Finland to join in the European Union. In the next phase a new government coalition was led by Paavo Lipponen with top politicians of the social democrats and conservatives – involving the whole spectrum of parties in the ‘rainbow coalition’. This coalition had the challenge to pull Finland out of recession but at the same time it had the parliamentary support to bring Finland to the Euro-zone and to the inner circles of the EU with maximum involvement. At the same time the Nokia boom helped the national economy to overcome the crisis.

In 2000 Tarja Halonen, the social democratic foreign minister of the rainbow coalition became the first female president of republic. Lipponen continued as prime minister with his second rainbow coalition government. In the next elections in 2003 the centre party came into power and formed a coalition with social democrats. By that time all parties had already been in coalition with all possible counterparts. Finland was deeply involved in the EU but kept itself outside NATO – except for the partnership of peace program. After Halonen’s two terms as president the former minister of finance of the rainbow coalitions, Sauli Niinistö was elected as the first conservative president after Paasikivi. During his presidency the government coalitions have been led by younger conservative or centre-party politicians. Yet, as president, Niinistö has emphasised continuity in Finnish neutrality – even if the ministers have been favouring membership in NATO. Yet, as the crisis in Ukraina aggravated, Niinistö was the head of state to maintain communication channels between EU and Russia.

– – –

I think this is enough of the developments during the post-war decades. During this perod Finland made its way through from post-war reconstruction to stability, prosperity and and into European integration. This was reflected in the self-esteem of Finnish people and Finnish popular culture. This will be reflected in the way in which the pop-star Juice Leskinen celebrates his rural home municipality – which in terms celebrates its own celebrity. See the video “Juankoski here I come”:

With this celebration of Finnish (rural) identity I conclude this series of blogs.

More blogs to come …

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