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Finland’s new prime minister, the national coalition party’s Jyrki Katainen, made his first foreign trip to Sweden yesterday. In Stockholm he met with Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Reinfeldt and Katainen have known each other for many years as they were both active in their respective parties’ youth organisations at roughly the same time. Reinfeldt heads Sweden’s Moderate Party, our western neighbour’s ideological equivalent of Katainen’s party.
Following their meeting, the pair hosted a press conference at Rosenbad, the Swedish government’s press centre. These two prime ministers, both of countries which have Swedish as their official languages, conducted it in English. I think it is fair to guess that this was not at Reinfeldt’s insistence. There is something very strange about the Prime Minister of the bilingual Finland choosing to speak English at a press conference with a Scandinavian neighbour. Can you imagine the Canadian prime minister visiting Paris and not conducting matters in French? It would be simply unthinkable.
Speaking afterwards, Katainen explained that he likes the Swedish language but that in such a situation he preferred to speak English because he had not given Swedish the time he should have earlier in life. He stressed that no symbolism should be read into his choice of language in Stockholm. Yet, how can one not see any symbolism? The Prime Minister of a bilingual country can not even manage to speak one of its official languages in a press conference in a Nordic context? Embarrassing at the very least. The assembled journalists must have certainly thought it odd.
In fairness to Katainen, he has notably made an effort to communicate in Swedish during last months electoral campaigning and government negotiation process here in Finland. His Swedish is not particularly good, but he has improved it since taking the chairmanship of his party. So, it is difficult to really argue that he has an utterly negative attitude towards Swedish as a language or to the people that speak it in this country. That said, he has been absent in any loud criticism of his party’s youth wing which is increasingly anti-Swedish (and anti-immigrant) in its attitudes. Above all, it is a sad day when a Finnish prime minister can not communicate with our Nordic neighbours without having to resort to a foreign language.
Sweden’s largest selling daily newspaper, Stockholm’s Dagens Nyheter, has published a debate article by Gunnar Wetterberg in which he argues for the five Nordic countries uniting to form a federal state.
Wetterberg argues that together Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland would have a combined population of over 25 million and a GNP that would make the new nation the world’s tenth biggest economy, coming before both Brazil and Russia. With such might, a new ‘Kalmar Union’ could find itself included in the top tier of international decision making.
At the start, decisions would be made in a European Council style manner, i.e. unanimity or at least no objections between the national governments would be required. However, eventually there would be a bicameral parliament with a lower house elected proportionally (from pan-Nordic party lists) and a senate in which a constituent country’s size would not be as determining for the distribution of seats (i.e. in the style of the USA’s Senate where each state, regardless of population, has 2 members).
Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II would be the Queen of the federal state, the obvious choice for symbolic reasons according to Wetterberg. (Margrethe I reigned over the Kalmar Union and thus ensures that the contemporary Danish queen really would be the second Margrethe in all of the new state). Wetterberg suggests if this is too problematic, the head of state could rotate between the five lands in the style Malaysia’s seven sultans. I wonder what we Finns and the Icelanders would think to the reinstitution of a monarchy? Hardly democratic.
Wetterberg envisages that cooperation and common laws would be increased over time, but each state would continue to have considerable autonomy, along the model of the present Nordic autonomous territories (such as Åland and Greenland).
On the linguistic front, all school children would learn another language of the federal state from the first year of school. Official documents would all be published in two languages: Finnish and one of the Scandinavian languages. Wetterberg states that the Scandinavian languages would include Icelandic as an option, even if this would be difficult to understand for many from the beginning. This seems, at best, optimistic if not down right insane. As a Swedish-speaker, I certainly can not read Icelandic.
It is perhaps fair to comment that only a Swede could write such an article. Sweden has not had its existence called into question for centuries. The Swedes have not fought a war in 200 years (since they lost what is now Finland to Russia). They can therefore perhaps not understand that the Norwegians, the Icelanders and the Finns value our nationhood as something more special. It is something new. Something that has within living memory not been an automatic right. Finland fought for her survival in 1918 and the 1940s and spent most of the second half of the twentieth century under the constant shadow of the Soviet Union. One might say that Finland only achieved real and full freedom with the fall of the USSR, for only then could Finland truly control its entire destiny itself. To suggest that the Finns, Norwegians and Icelanders would give this up so soon is something I doubt would be sellable to the populations. Although, at least in a Nordic superstate, the Finnish-speaking Finns might see the value of the Swedish language and Swedish-speaking Finns might have it easier to maintain their rights.
Today marked exactly 200 years since Alexander I closed the Diet of Borgå (Porvoo). For four months in 1809, representatives from all over the new Russian Grand Duchy of Finland had assembled in Borgå.
To mark the occasion, the municipal authorities in Borgå organised a recreation of the festivities of two hundred years ago in the old town of the city. Borgå has an extensive and well preserved wooded old town and is Finland’s second oldest city, founded in 1346. Alexander I granted his newly captured Finland (which Sweden had lost to Russia) an autonomous entity in his Russian Empire, with the right to its own laws, culture and religion. As during the Swedish period, the territory of what is now Finland was an integral part of the Swedish realm, one can consider that 1809 is the point in which Finland becomes a distinct entity – and thus an important stepping stone on the road to independence in 1917.
The festivities of the anniversary day included Alexander I turning up to the main square in the Old Town to address his “new” subjects. Various other persons and exhibits in 1800s-clothing and style were also on display for the public. Music and theatre acts in 1809 themes were also presented.
Finland and Sweden are both celebrating a commemoratory year of activities to mark the 200th anniversary of the events of 1809. Borgå, being the location of the 1809 diet, has been a centre point of festivaties. Major events were held in March to mark the anniversary of the opening of the diet in 1809. Russian president Medvedev also visited the city this year as part of the anniversary events. The picture is of “Tsar Alexander I” at the opening celebrations in late March.
Comparing the Nordic countries: Part 1
The Scandinavian public service broadcasting companies’ main news programmes are currently running a joint theme looking at the relationship towards different aspects of life in the Nordic region. As part of this, they’ve carried out a wide-reaching opinion poll of people in each country.
The results of the first theme reported on by the broadcasters came out last week. This looked at how the Scandinavian countries see one and other. Reporting of this particularly focused on the results of the opinion poll’s question, “If you had to live in another Nordic country other than your own, which one would you move to?”. From this, it became clear that Finland was not at all popular as a destination for our neighbours in Sweden, Norway and Denmark; only 4, 2 and 1 per cent of people in each of these respective countries answered Finland. 41% of Finnish respondents said they’d live in Sweden, 30% Norway, 14% Denmark and 3% Iceland (10% answered “don’t know”).
The Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters’ reports on the poll results focused on just why Finland was so unpopular as a choice. Norwegian NRK’s evening TV news presented a row of brief “in the street” interviews with Norwegians in Oslo which bought out the usual stereotypes of Finland. Most Swedes and Norwegians asked, however, said it mainly came down to language, the perception that Finnish is nearly impossible to learn and that one can’t get by speaking a Scandinavian language in Finland. Of course, neither of these two things is actually true. Finnish is not impossible to learn and is not even particularly that hard, being such a logically structured language – it is however bewildering at the beginning or if one just glances at it, as to a Germanic language speaker, it’s just so different. And of course, the usual lack of knowledge that Finland is in fact a bilingual country and that one can survive in many places speaking a Scandinavian tongue and indeed get services in one, again showed through in the results.
Perhaps what the survey did show is that all of our education systems ought to focus more on the common aspects of our history so that we know more facts about one and other, rather than having to rely on stereotypes. In Finland, this would mean ensuring that the history of pre-1809 is once again included in the compulsory history curriculum in schools. That is is not there already now seems ridiculous, when one thinks of the roll of the Swedish period in shaping the form of our country. This 200th anniversary year of the Diet of Borgå, where the Russian tsar Alexander I, confirmed that the rule of law from the Swedish period would be followed as Russia took ownership of Finnish territory, would seem a good time to introduce such a reform.
Obviously, the news in the last few days has been heavily dominated by the events in Georgia. Finland is abnormally prominent in having a role in events as we happen to currently hold the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europa, OSCE. Foreign minister Alexander Stubb (Kokoomus national coaltion party) has, together with the French foreign minister (France holds the EU presidency just now) travelled to both Georgia and Moscow to mediate.
Yle’s online news service has published an interesting look at what the press is saying on the conflict. I’ll do my best to summarise it here.
The Centre party’s organ Suomenmaa has compared Georgia’s fate with Finland’s. South Ossetia is a small strip of land, smaller than the northern municipality of Kuusamo, and yet the region has now become the centre for a conflict, the paper analyses. Stalin installed a Soviet-friendly government, the Kuusinen Terijoki government in Finland, but Russia has not done something similar in Georgia… yet, the paper says.
´Our neighbour finds itself with a war, with another neighbour´ writes the highest circulated Swedish-speaking newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet (HBL). HBL warns against drawing close parallels despite the easy to make associations with the Winter War and a Finnish West Karelia and a Russian East Karelia. ´The truth is not so simple´, writes Björn Månson in HBL, ´despite spontaneous sympathies with Georgia. It’s not coincidence that the European Nato-member countries have persistently opposed Georgian Nato-membership due to it being seen as an open provocation against Russia.´
If Georgia’s leadership believed it could have counted on US, Nato or other allies turning their verbal support into material action, then they made a miscalculation – according to HBL.
Several of Sweden’s newspapers take the similar viewpoints and go further in stating that there are clear indications that is is oil and gas that ensures an cautious EU reaction to the conflict.
Stockholm’s Dagens Nyheter’s leader column notes that a Russia that can’t tolerate a neighbouring country that has ambitions to move nearer to the west is a failed state with a leadership that looks as if it acts in panic. Oil and gas pipelines mean there is a potential for energy-related political pressure in several directions – and an extremely short distance from the exchange of words to all out war.
History has not ended, writes Stockholm’s Svenska Dagbladet (SvD). ‘Now we see with what ease Russia finds excuses to take itself to war with a neighbouring country. Is it not time for a new debate on defence policy?´ ponders Claes Arwidsson in SvD. In his leader, he quotes Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt (Swedish moderate party) who is presently the chairman of the Council of Europe:
´With the possible exception of Cyprus in 1974, the Council of Europe has never had to deal with a situation where there is war between two of its member states´.
Picture: Georgian president Micheil Saakasjvili, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb meeting in Tbilisi on Monday 11.8. Taken from Alexander Stubb’s blog (www.alexstubb.com).
The film director Klaus Härö has been awarded with 2 prizes at the Italian ´Giffoni´ film festival. The Giffoni event is considered one of the most important film festival for younger audiences, according to the Finnish News Agency FNB’s report.
Härö was awarded for his work ´Den nya människan´ (´The new person´) which is a dark film set in Sweden during the 1950s in the period of Sweden´s forced sterilisation programme. From 1936 all the way up until 1976, Sweden practised this in what is a dark chapter in our neighbouring country’s history. The state targeted persons (mainly women) for sterilisation for several reasons, including racial purity motivations, heridatory disease transmission and social matters (e.g. individuals seen likely to be prone to criminality etc). An investigation by the Swedish government in the year 2000 estimated that between 20 000 and 30 000 people had been forcibly sterilised; most between the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.
I am pleased that Härö has again been recognised. He is one of the best and most promising Finnish directors, certainly of this generation, in my opinion. His previous film ´Den bästa av mödrar´(´The best of mothers´) was a very moving work telling the, again reality-based, story of a child evacuee sent from Finland to Sweden during the wartime. This film, quite rightly, collected several awards at the time.
Swedish-speaking Finn Klaus Härö has directed and been involved the making of productions in both national languages. He has previously received the Ingmar Bergman Prize, which is significant as winners were chosen by Bergman himself. Härö was born in Borgå (Porvoo) in 1971, and thus we can hopefully look forward to a lot more from him in the future.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to a trailer of Härö’s film ´Den bästa av mödrar´which is called ´Mother of Mine´in English. There is English subtitles which surely means the film is available to buy/rent with them. So, I doubly recommend it to those of you who are interested in seeing a good film which tells a lot about one aspect of Finland´s wartime history. http://www.aideistaparhain.com/large.html
Picture: Klaus Härö appearing on the talk show ´Bettina S’ (Finlands Svenska Television).
Finland beat Sweden 4-0 in the bronze medal match at the World Icehockey Championships in Canada last night. It’s great that Finland take away a medal from the tournament after widely being tipped to perform badly at this event. And I must admit, it always feels good to beat the Swedes!
Finland’s goal tender Niklas Bäckström played an exceptionally good game. The shots on goal statistics back that up. The Swedes had 36 shots on goal against our 13. However, Bäckström’s performance meant Sweden came away scoreless. Antti Pihlström (who played a great game) scored twice for Finland. Janne Niskala and Mikko Koivu were the other Finnish goal scorers.
The game was the last for Teemu Selänne in the Finnish national team after 124 appearances.
A Pirate Party has now been established in Finland, according to the newspaper Turun Sanomat. The party’s main policy is to loosen regulations surrounding copyright.
The group has modelled itself on Sweden’s longer-established Pirate Party which has the aim of legalising the sharing of materials such as films, music and games via file-sharing services on the internet. According to the law, such activity is at present illegal and a breach of copyright. It must be said, that the Swedish party has not received many votes in Swedish elections since its founding but has had some success in bringing debate on copyright law higher up the political agenda. The Swedish Left Party (which is represented in the Swedish parliament) has said that it now supports an easing of copyright restrictions, so long as file-sharing doesn’t become commercial.
None of the Nordic countries’ prime ministers are ready to boycott the summer Olympics in China.
“I’ll make my decision in the summer but I’m likely to take part in the opening ceremony” said Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen (centre) from Sweden.
None of his colleagues are planning to travel to Beijing but the Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen underlines that this shouldn’t be seen as a political position, “I didn’t take part in the opening ceremony in Greece either”
The Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg commented that one should never say never but was extremely doubtful that a boycott would have the desired effect, “Even the Dalai Lama isn’t calling for a boycott”.
The prime ministers are taking part in the Nordic Globalisation Forum in Riksgränsen in Sweden. The host is the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who also has firmly rejected the idea of a boycott, “Sweden shall not boycott the Olympic games, neither opening ceremony nor any other aspect”.
Reinfeldt has come under a lot of criticism during the last few weeks, particularly from the Swedish opposition Social Democrats, for his planned official visit to China this coming Saturday.