Ambassadors Archive 1

Finland: Ambassador Jaakko Laajava

A Country with a Strong Sense of Self

By Hugh S. Galford and Patricia Keegan

'My theme is Finnish independence,' says Mr. Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s Ambassador to the US, in his expansive office. Surrounded by trees, with natural light pouring through a wall of windows, the embassy of Finland on Massachusetts Avenue is a true reflection of Finland’s renowned talent in design. The ambassador’s conversation is likewise both savvy and reflective.

Thanks to its history and its relations to both Sweden and Russia, Finland has enjoyed great latitude in formulating its own policies and outlook. A leader in many spheres, social, artistic and technological, the country’s admirable position is largely of its own making. Having suffered from a serious recession at the beginning of the 1990s, Finland’s economy is now expected to out-perform other EU economies by at least one percent through 2003. Finland’s accounts are sound, its GDP is set to rise, and its debt is declining. Inflation is under control, its unemployment rate is improving, and output — especially in the high-tech sector — is rising.

Finland’s history has contributed greatly to its unique situation. In 1323, the border between the Kingdom of Sweden and Novgorod (later Russia) was established, with the majority of modern-day Finland under Swedish rule. For the next 600 years, Finland shared in Sweden’s progress. The Finnish territories gained a vote in the election of the Swedish king but were never burdened with a local aristocracy; however, the Scandinavian ideal of equality became deeply engrained in Finland.

Sweden lost Finland to the Russians in 1809. For the next century, the region was known as the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Russian Czar himself the Duke. The Czars of the early 19th century were deeply influenced by the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the ideas of nationalism. In such circumstances, the Czars urged Finns to develop their own culture and national identity and, because the Czar himself was Duke of Finland, Russian nationalists spared the region. In the Ambassador’s words, this was the 'Golden Age of Finnish nationalism.'

However, a change of fortune came towards the end of the century, when the Russian nationalistic movement gained strength and influence with the Czar and his administration. This led to a policy of Russification of Finland, stirring a determined Finnish reaction. Finland’s long traditions of equality and independent action thus paved the way, under the force of Russification, for the quest for formal independence. This independence was achieved in 1917 following the fall of the Romanovs.

The Evolution of Equality

For Ambassador Laajava, equality is the defining characteristic of the Finns. The point when equality of the sexes was recognized is lost in time: life in northern Europe is harsh, women were left in charge of daily life for extended periods of time while men were away hunting. Until recently a predominantly agrarian society, Finland’s economy depended on men and women both working the fields. In addition to having to work the land, women were forced to take charge of the Finnish economy when Finland was attacked by the Soviets in 1939 and the men were defending their country.

A country of only five million, women’s participation was crucial, 'the key to our survival,' the Ambassador says, 'was the ability to continue a normal life, even in time of war.' The contributions of Finnish women were recognized and appreciated. In 1906, with the Czar forced to establish a system of popular representation in Russia, Finland’s old Four-Estates Diet was replaced by a unicameral Parliament. At the same time, Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women suffrage and eligibility. Women played important roles in both industry and the military during WWII, and today more than 70% of Finnish women work full-time outside the home, with another 10% working part-time.

In politics, women have played equally large roles. In the first election in which they could stand, women won 10 percent of the seats. Since then, women have continued to win seats in the parliament, the high point being in 1991, when women won 39 percent of the seats. The number of women in parliament since then has dropped slightly, but is still above 35 percent. Women have also held various ministerial posts, including health, education and defense. Finland’s representative at the Central European Bank is a woman, as are a number of Finland’s representatives in the European parliament. And last year, for the first time, a woman was chosen to occupy the highest executive office of the country, when Tarja Halonen, a well-known human rights activist and former Foreign Minister was popularly elected to be the 11th President of the Republic.

In addition to sexual equality, social equality is a mainstay of Finnish society. While many in the West view 'the welfare state' with trepidation, the Finns — like other Scandinavians — see the well-being of all citizens not only as a cornerstone of a just and democratic society, but also as an advantage in global competition. In addition to the safety net of social security, Finland offers its citizens the means to provide for themselves. Chief among these is a strong educational system. Following the Reformation, the Lutheran Church became strong in Finland, with the vast majority of the population members of the Church. The Church greatly contributed to the ideal of universal education: couples were not allowed to marry unless both knew how to read and write — skills needed to know their Bible. Finland’s literacy rates have therefore always been high.

Finland’s goal has long been to provide the opportunity for a quality education for everyone, with very good results. 'In today’s global marketplace,' the Ambassador says, 'Finns must be globally competitive in business from hour one. Therefore we must rely on knowledge, and build on the basis of our educational system.' While the Ambassador admits that Finland cannot compete with the likes of the US and Germany in mass-production, in the area of value-added goods and in research and development, Finland can, thanks to its schools, strive for excellence in all its endeavors.

In the realm of the arts, Finnish independence also comes to the fore. Renowned for their design skills — think of Finnair’s simple logo that imparts the ideas of movement and speed, or the Finnish embassy here in Washington — the Finns have internalized their surroundings and given them solid form. Discussing utilitarian items, Ambassador Laajava notes that 'whatever was made for use had to be something that would last. Once you had decades of use in front of you, you wanted to simplify its form to conserve resources, and to make it beautiful — you’re going to see it for years.'

The Finns have also taken an independent course in the creative arts. For Finland, which has never had an aristocracy, 'our culture is deeply rooted in the people — making use of the resources you have. Thus opera and theater are really original, not a celebration of the nobility.' Proof of the Finns’ productivity is that in 2000, 16 new operas were composed, with themes ranging from the beginnings of agrarian society to the difficult times fighting to maintain Finnish independence. A visit to the Savonlinna Opera Festival in the summer time is a must for opera lovers. Together with Salzburg and Bayreuth, the Savonlinna Opera Festival is one of the oldest in Europe and displays the brightest of Finnish and international stars year after year.

Europe and U.S. Complementing Each Other

Despite all this, both Finland, and its Ambassador to Washington, recognize the interdependent nature of international relations. Ambassador Laajava, born in 1947, was appointed Ambassador to the US in April 1996. He has served the Finnish Government since 1971, working at the Finnish Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from 1973 to 1975. He has held posts in Yugoslavia, Spain and Poland, and after a year’s sabbatical at Harvard in 1985 ('the best year of my life'), he served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington from 1986 to 1990.

In Helsinki, Mr. Laajava has held senior positions in arms control, security policy and multilateral affairs. He was closely involved in formulating Finland’s foreign policy after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was also instrumental in advancing Finland’s negotiations for EU membership, which took effect in 1995.

Given this background, the Ambassador is well equipped to promote cooperation between Finland and Europe, the US and Russia. Russia especially looms large to Finland, given the two countries’ history. 'We all want to see the transformation of Russia into a modern democratic, capitalist society,' he says. 'There are many policy tools to try to help.' Finland, he notes, was instrumental in helping the EU develop a methodology to deal with questions pertaining to Russia.

The Ambassador stresses Russia’s importance to Europe: 'Russia has tremendous resources, both human and material, is a large trading partner with the EU, and has important energy resources.' Yet Russia also has many problems, from health care provision to tax policy and collection, from the judicial system to the general rule of law. 'These problems, in our global world, are everyone’s problems,' he says. 'Instability there would affect its neighbors…. It is a question of integrating Russia [into the system of global interdependence] in a realistic fashion.'

While stating that change in Russia is needed, the Ambassador stresses that a generational perspective is needed—change will not be achieved quickly. Finland, he says, 'has great respect for the Clinton administration’s handling of Russian issues, especially in the realm of the nuclear threat reduction under the so called Nunn-Lugar program.' He notes that there may be some change in resource allocation under the Bush administration, but doesn’t think the fundamental idea of helping Russia will go away.

Finland, the Ambassador says, 'would like to see ourselves as part of this broad endeavor.' Working with the US, he says, 'we try to complement each other, and coordinate for the mutually-wanted ends. We want to preserve the identity of our respective European and American programs, but at the same time we want the end result, that is the impact on Russia, to be the best possible.'

With regard to the US, Ambassador Laajava is largely undisturbed by the change of administration. Having spent time here in the late 1980s, he says, 'I’ve been here before,' in reference to the hand-over of power. He said that there is a certain amount of gear-shifting involved, as colleagues change, but the reality of the situation is that most of the people he and other ambassadors deal with have had high positions in earlier administrations.

As for the change in foreign policy under a new administration, the Ambassador says that there may be individual questions — problem areas — which will be dealt with differently. More broadly speaking, though, 'the changes are not that tremendously important. All in all, there is a body of knowledge and established ways to act; the administration does not start from scratch.' There are also changes occurring abroad, he notes, and the new government must act and react to these changes accordingly.

With natural beauty, artistic achievements, a sound infrastructure and a promising economy, Finland’s future looks bright. The Ambassador is upbeat that Finland’s independent streak will help the country both domestically, in the European Union, and in the world at large.