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The Finnish visionary who raised the alarm about Putin

Heidi Hautala, now vice-president of the European parliament, questioned Moscow’s democratic credentials in 2006, causing a storm at home. Now, as Finland prepares to apply for Nato membership, she assesses the security situation in Europe

European parliament vice-president Heidi Hautala (Photo by Christian Marquardt/Getty Images)

In 2006, Heidi Hautala, a Green MP in Finland’s parliament and a former environment minister, caused what was a storm in the country at the time: she spoke out about declining democratic standards in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The shock in Helsinki was, with hindsight, remarkable. Rebuked by former prime minister Paavo Lipponen and other establishment figures, the reaction was a throwback to the self-censorship of the Soviet era, when the term “Finlandisation” was coined to describe those countries that remained nominally independent while ensuring, quietly, that nothing upset Moscow.

Hautala was unrepentant. Russia’s power as an energy supplier, she said, presented a security threat. “They use it as a weapon. They are quite clear about this.”

Sixteen years later, Russia has launched an unprecedented invasion of a democratic neighbour, Europe is urgently reassessing a generation drunk on cheap Russian gas, and Finland is set to take the previously unthinkable step of applying for Nato membership. So I ask the now vice-president of the European parliament, speaking from Helsinki via Zoom: does she hate to say I told you so?

“This is not a time to say ‘I told you so’, but it’s a time to show that what happened with Russia was a kind of a prelude, it created the conditions for this military aggression and we all have to sort of learn lessons from that,” says the 66-year-old.

“But then, yes, indeed there was this sort of realpolitik, believing that the more we connect with each other across national borders in business and [the] economy, the more we have peace and security. And I think February 24 was the sort of last day when that belief could be upheld.

“We Finns used to think that Finland was a nation that was some sort of peacemaker with the Soviet Union to survive. It was over when the Soviet Union collapsed and turned into Russia with some democratic promises in the beginning of the 90s. But now we’re looking into the past 20 years [when] all the sort of economic ties and friendly business relations, investments in Russia by Finnish state-owned companies grew and grew and grew and it was all founded on this naive belief that there was no risk for this investment and this business. And the politicians are now saying ‘well, I have had to change my view on Russia completely’. So there is this debate going on and I think there is also something like that in other countries, especially Germany.”

The optimism of the 90s, when history was declared over and hopes were high that Russia could be drawn into the liberal, democratic world order is now dead, says Hautala, a vice-president of the European parliament since 2017.

“When I look at this total destruction that they are now causing in Ukraine and also these atrocities, war crimes against people, I think that a bit of a similar thing has happened in Russia’s mental state,” she says.

“Putin’s Russia has destroyed a lot of the, let’s say, institutions that should be the foundation of a liberal, democratic state, including media freedoms, the right of association, right of assembly, so I see this total destruction in that mental landscape in Russia. And it’s very difficult for me to see how that could be overcome, this sort of lethargy in people’s minds. This mental landscape is very, very sort of passive, inactive.

“How to overcome that in a generation I don’t know. I can’t see what’s coming after Putin’s Russia and when. I honestly can’t see it’s coming very soon.”

Four days after we speak, the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti reports that the leaders of Finland and Sweden could meet in the week of May 16 to announce their application for Nato membership, following a visit to Sweden earlier this month when the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, said “everything had changed” when Russia attacked Ukraine. She told reporters that Helsinki must be “prepared for all kinds of actions from Russia”.

When we speak, Hautala, also a former Finnish international development minister, speaks of a long period of “passive self-understanding” of Finland about its security situation.

“We always talked about the ‘option’ to join Nato, but nobody really thought, apart from perhaps a couple of political parties, that it should be activated,” she says.

“But now, after the invasion… all of a sudden, from 20% of Finns who used to support activating the Nato option, now it’s about 60%, and when we look at the debates in the Finnish parliament (about) whether to join Nato or not, we see that one by one the members of parliament say they believe this is the best option.

“I think that Finnish politics is now showing its resilience. Because there is no kind of opposition voice saying that the government has misunderstood the situation. Even the opposition leader from the centre-right Kokoomus party went with his Swedish counterpart to the United States to talk to Republican politicians and ask for their support for Swedish and Finnish membership of Nato.”

But what of the risks? A report to the Finnish parliament two weeks ago warned that “military force might be used solely against Finland”, and that the security situation in Europe and Finland was more serious and more difficult to predict than at any time since the cold war.

“I think we’re talking about an unknown, but what we can see is that this kind of ‘hybrid influence’ is probably on the rise,” says Hautala. “You know, the sort of fake videos on the internet where Russian military equipment is moving in surroundings defined as being very close to the Finnish border. It’s a part of this hybrid influence and we should be sort of immune to that.”

Another issue is Finland’s ownership of the Åland Islands, an autonomous, demilitarised region that lies at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. Finland joining Nato has raised the question of whether the Islands will keep their demilitarised status, particularly as Finland is obliged to defend the area.

“I think February 24 was a real wake-up call for those who had not thought that Putin’s Russia could develop this kind of aggression, and I must say that I was also surprised,” says Hautala.

“But I had been following the repression of civil society and media for years and years, at least for 20 years, so I now think that there’s a logic, that the country that suppresses freedoms and rights and distorts the media landscape and puts in place harsh censorship and criminalises those who want to speak the truth, I think there’s only a (short) step towards a military aggression towards an independent neighbouring country.

“So I think this has been a real change and I can see that what we call the West is pulling its forces together, there’s this huge unanimity between the UK, the EU, Canada, the US and others who have put in place the most severe sanctions against Russia… and I think these sanctions are biting, they are having an impact. We still have a way to go to stop imports of energy from Russia – as you know, the EU states have not completely agreed on this – but I think steps are being taken.”

One underexplored area following the invasion of Ukraine is that of EU expansion. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova all applied for membership of the bloc within three days, a week after Putin’s troops moved in, causing not a little disquiet among those – the likes of North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania – who feel as if they have been in the waiting room a long time.

“All these three countries [Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova] feel that they really belong to the European family and that is also the question of security,” says Hautala.

“Meanwhile they have also been in this waiting room for Nato. It’s possible they will stay in that waiting room for a very long time. So I think the EU countries are trying to find a balance between showing compassion and understanding for Ukraine and keeping to the rules-based order in which you apply and become a candidate country and then finally a member country.

“And it is true that in the Western Balkans this has caused some turmoil. I’m not an expert on the Western Balkans at all, but I can also see that there’s a lot of political turmoil and even military threats, which the EU also has to address, and there is this geopolitical competition between China, some Gulf countries, Russia, EU – all have been more or less present there and trying to have influence.

“I truly hope the membership negotiations will get started with those countries that already have candidate country status, because (otherwise) this could turn the population away from the EU.”

What about suggestions, I wonder, of a fast-track for Ukraine?

“I’m not sure what fast-track means, because we have seen, in the question of Poland, Hungary, Romania, even Bulgaria, quite a large number of central and east European countries that the so-called Copenhagen criteria – democratic institutions, rule of law – they were not taken that seriously during the negotiations, and when they became members it was all a bit too late,” says Hautala. “The EU’s real strength is the rule of law, and we have to care for it,” she says.

Speaking of which, we talk just after Hautala returns from a trip to Poland to oversee its handling of a large influx of Ukrainian refugees. On the frontline of the crisis, Poland seems to have parked its ongoing culture war with Brussels.

“Poland has received 2.8 million Ukrainians and I think they’re doing a good job,” she says.

“There are some concerns, like non-registration of unaccompanied children who go to Poland and then to other countries – there’s a great risk of trafficking and exploitation of children.

“But nevertheless Poland is doing a fantastic job. This was not the moment to discuss whether Poland believes Polish laws are above EU laws and how they should save the independence of the judiciary.”

Finally, what of the UK? The country is no longer in the EU but geographically, much as it pains some hardline Brexiteers, remains very much part of the continent. How does the UK, I ask, fit into the new Europe that is emerging in the wake of war in Ukraine?

“I think the invasion of Russia by Ukraine has brought us much more together again,” she says.

“Of course, I can see some of the tensions in the UK. Is it now that gradually these promises the British government gave to the British people on Brexit have been shown to be quite elusive, and even illusionary? That’s my impression. I don’t know if the British people by and large see Brexit showing real benefits. But on the other hand I see that there is perhaps no real wish to start the whole discussion again, because it was so tiring and it took so much energy from your society and your institutions.

“Perhaps later there will be a time when this relationship will be strengthened with the EU. But at the moment I see no energy from the UK side to improve the relationship with the EU.”

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