Hyvää Syntymäpäivää!* Finland’s Centenary and the Arctic

(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

6 December marked the hundredth anniversary of the independence of Finland (Suomi) from what was then the nascent Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Since that time the country has sought to carve out a distinct identity with, on one side, the Nordic region and on the other, greater Europe and the Soviet Union / Russian Federation. Since Finland is very much an Arctic state, it has endeavoured to make its own mark on far northern affairs, including as a founding member of the Arctic Council and chairing that organisation in 2000-02 and again from May 2017 until 2019.

Upon assuming the chair position in the Council, the Finnish government announced that its priorities [pdf] for the region would be furthering environmental protection in the region in a nod to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, promoting connectivity and the development of greater information-sharing in the far north via telecommunications and broadband. For example, in October talks began to potentially establish a communications network through the Arctic to Northeast Asia via Norway and Russia/Siberia, with the support of China and Japan [pdf].

Other priorities are improving educational opportunities in the Arctic, as well as a deeper study of the meteorological and oceanic changes in the region. During the first Arctic Council meeting led by Finland and held in Oulu, education along with pollution reduction in the region dominated much of the discussion. The follow-up event will take place in Kittilä in March of next year. The environmental situation in the Arctic and its connection with global climate issues was also a main theme of the Arctic Spirit Conference held in October in the northern Finnish city of Rovaniemi. During the keynote speech by Finnish Prime Minister Timo Soini, there was considerable emphasis on the intention to make the country an example of sustainable development and carbon neutrality while also promoting greater inclusiveness, including of Arctic peoples, in ongoing debates and policymaking.

As noted in the Finnish government’s 2013 white paper on Arctic policy, the country is in a distinct position to provide various areas of Arctic expertise, including in the areas of environmental affairs, climate study, sociology and development, Saami affairs, health and technology development. The country is also seeking to make its mark in Arctic engineering, as, for example in the area of the manufacture of icebreakers. China’s second icebreaker, and the first to be domestically built, is being constructed in conjunction with Finland’s Aker Technologies, and Finnish shipbuilding firms are also being considered by the United States to potentially build new icebreaking ships to replace their small and aging group of existing vessels.

Display at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, October 2017 (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

There has also been much discussion, in regards to developing greater connectivity in the Arctic, to establishing improved transportation networks which could better connect Arctic communities and adjacent regions. The Finnish government has commenced plans to build an Arctic railway stretching approximately 526 kilometres between the Norwegian city of Kirkenes and Rovaniemi as part of a greater ‘Arctic Corridor’ transport network under consideration. While a survey of the project was confirmed by Helsinki in October of this year, there were also concerns raised about the potential environmental effects of the link, including its potential routing through reindeer habitats crucial to Saami communities in northern Finland.

There were hopes that this link could provide the region with greater trade opportunities with other parts of Europe as well as potentially Russia and even China. In July 2017, Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipila met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to discuss areas of cooperation, including in Arctic joint ventures. There was also the possibility that new Arctic transportation networks could be linked with Russian rail lines which would stretch all the way to northern China, thus adding another potential element to the ‘Ice Silk Road’ which Beijing has been promoting with Russia in recent months.

Statue of Alexander II in front of the Tuomiokirkko, Helsinki (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

Other elements of Arctic diplomacy have been more problematic for Finland. Like the other Nordic states, Finland watched with great concern the Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in east Ukraine since 2014, and as a result the longstanding debate about NATO membership has again been revived in Finnish policy circles. Throughout the cold war, geographic realities, (Finland shares a 1340-kilometre border with Russia), meant that the Finnish government opted not to join NATO, unlike Nordic neighbours Iceland and Norway, Instead, the country pursued a balancing policy often referred to, (and not always fondly), as ‘Finlandisation’, aligning much of its foreign policy towards the interests of the then-USSR while stopping short of a formal alliance or joining the Moscow-dominated Warsaw Pact. Finland did however join the European Union in 1995 after a referendum the previous year, and entered the eurozone in 1999.

Moscow has been highly critical of any suggestion of Finnish NATO membership and public opinion in Finland remains generally against it. It was confirmed this October by President Sauli Niinisto that a referendum on NATO membership was a requirement before any decision to change the country’s current status could be made, but concerns about Russia’s military modernisation, including in the Arctic, have factored into the NATO debate, along similar lines as in Sweden, whose policy of neutrality has also been tested by Moscow’s military actions over the past few years.

Finland’s Arctic policies will continue to be unveiled over the next two years, and it is likely that as the country enters its second century, the Arctic will continue to dominate much political, economic and environmental debate.

(* Happy Birthday!)