The Embassy of Finland kicked off its own centennial events on January 19 by organizing a discussion about Finland’s history. The key note speaker was Mr. Esko Aho, Finland’s former Prime Minister. The other discussants were Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs Teija Tiilikainen and journalist Saska Saarikoski. Dr. Karen Donfried, President of the German Marshall Fund, moderated the discussion.
The aim of the conversation was to explore the success story of Finland and its relevance for today. Mr. Esko Aho opened the discussion with an 11-minute summary about Finland’s history. He made the audience laugh by quoting ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who famously stated that you should “skate to where the puck is going, not where it is.” Mr. Aho said that this is a good lesson for countries as well.
The participants agreed that Finland is a Nordic country in its core. The country inherited the legal system, rule of law and egalitarian values from being a part of Sweden for over 600 years. When Finland became a part of the Russian empire in 1809, the legal system and values were maintained and Finland kept its Nordic identity. Moreover, Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire and gained a separate national administration, parliament, money, and Central Bank. The Russian era provided also the framework in which the Finnish language could flourish. Ms. Tiilikainen added that having Russia as a neighbor has also had an impact on how Finns define their identity.
After talking about Finland’s history, the participants spoke about the current world order and how it has been challenged in recent years. All the discussants agreed that joining the European Union in 1995 was very important for Finland, and that Brexit has weakened the EU. Mr. Saarikoski pointed out that as a small nation Finland is dependent on the world and on free trade. He said that lot of people remember how Finland was in the 1950’s when the society was not very affluent. Ms. Tiilikainen highlighted that it is important for Europe and the United States to stay united and defend the liberal, rule-based world order they have created together.
The conclusion of the discussion was that Finland has indeed been a remarkable success story. Mr. Aho said that Finland is doing much better than anybody expected in 1917 when the country gained its independence. Mr. Saarikoski said that Finland has succeeded because it has a common understanding of where we come from and where we are going to. The panelists agreed that there are challenges ahead, and instead of looking back into history we should also have a vision for the future. In the end, the future looks bright since Finland has the energy of a young nation and it wants to keep on improving and strengthening itself.