Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Finlandisation is back

Finlandisation is back. During the cold war the term described those states which had a formal independence but existed in barely disguised servitude to Moscow. Finland, noted Jean-Francois Revel in his 1983 book How Democracies Perish, ‘preserved the inviolability of its territory, what was left of it, and the right to live privately in a non-totalitarian society’ but was forbidden to accept Marshall Plan aid, join the EEC or sign trade agreements with Europe. It took its orders from Moscow in foreign policy.

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Finlandisation is back. During the cold war the term described those states which had a formal independence but existed in barely disguised servitude to Moscow. Finland, noted Jean-Francois Revel in his 1983 book How Democracies Perish, ‘preserved the inviolability of its territory, what was left of it, and the right to live privately in a non-totalitarian society’ but was forbidden to accept Marshall Plan aid, join the EEC or sign trade agreements with Europe. It took its orders from Moscow in foreign policy.

This is the fate Putin (and some in the west) now seek to impose on Georgia. And now, as then, Russia hopes to impose Finlandisation by a mix of hard and soft power.

The hard power takes the form of tanks and taps. The tanks we saw rolling into Gori and taking control of the road to Tbilisi shortly after the signing of the deal brokered by President Sarkozy. The (energy) taps can be turned on and off according to whether a country pleases Russia. The gas tap was used by the Kremlin against Ukraine. German foreign policy towards Russia is now conducted in fear of the tap. (Indeed, Germany increasingly acts as an agent of Finlandisation within the EU and within NATO).

The soft power establishes a Finlandised state of mind in the west: Finlandisation is rightful because peaceful. During the cold war the French Communist party would lead the attack against any link between Finland and the democratic west as ‘militaristic’ and a ‘threat to peace’. When trade links were proposed the PCF thundered that ‘any commercial agreement or association with the EEC was a threat to Finland’s peaceful foreign policy’.

Today the soft power is deployed by the reactionary anti-American left. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne laid down the line. The conflict in Georgia ‘is not a story of Russian aggression, but of US imperial expansion’. Georgia is no fledgling democracy to be defended but a ‘fully fledged US satellite’. Its government came to power in a ‘western-backed coup’ don’t you know, and western support for Georgia meant ‘conflict was only a matter of time’. And after all, ‘unipolar domination of the world has squeezed the space for genuine self-determination and the return of some counterweight has to be welcome.’

Milne here manages something quite extraordinary: he ‘forgets’ the mass escape from the prison house of nations that was only made possible by the collapse of Communism, while supporting the resurgence of an authoritarian Russia as the very means to open up ‘genuine space for self-determination’. Astonishing.

Milne finishes by making Georgia an offer it can’t refuse: ‘neutrality’. He uses the tones of a Mafia enforcer – a soft-spoken one, for sure, like Tom Hagen from The Godfather (other people can put the horses head in the bed).

Then, as now, hard and soft power work together to paralyse the military resistance of the country being Finlandised and the political will of the allies who should come to its aid.

In 1958, when Fagerholm, the Finnish socialist leader won parliamentary elections and seemed set to form a government without Communists, the president of Finland, Kekkonen, was summoned to Moscow and harangued by Khrushchev. ‘Without wishing to intrude in Finland’s internal affairs’, Khrushchev insisted that Finland ‘have a well-disposed government’. Fagerholm withdrew his candidacy.

Milne wants a government in Georgia (Georgia first, the others will follow) that is ‘well-disposed’ to Russia. Soon enough he, and others, will echo Putin’s calls for Georgia’s pro-democratic, pro-western president to be removed. Putin has cleverly laid the ground for this. The ceasefire terms dictate that all future arrangements on troops, territory and borders must be agreed by Georgia and Russia. But Russia also says it will not talk to Saakashvili. Charles Krauthammer has predicted what must logically follow: ‘Regime change becomes the first requirement for any movement on any front. This will be Putin’s refrain in the coming days. He is counting on Europe to pressure Saakashvili to resign and/or flee to “give peace a chance.”‘

And there is the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins right on cue: ‘non-interference, coupled with a realpolitik acceptance of “great power” spheres of influence, is still a roughly stable basis for international relations’. Saakashvili, sneers Jenkins, is a ‘poor advert for a Harvard education’.

Europe is institutionally predisposed to Finlandisation. For example, Russia murders its own citizens who bring cases against it at the European Court of Human Rights, but gets to stay in the Council of Europe with full voting rights. Where is the outrage? Well, come on, ‘No country is a perfect democracy’ Terry Davies, the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe told BBC Parliament. (Back in the day, Jean-Francois Revel nailed this kind of mindset: ‘the democracies are making their usual mistakes: ignoring even recent history, interpreting the facts in the way most favourable to Moscow, the way the Kremlin wants them to choose’).

But today, given the balance of forces, the imposition of Finlandisation will depend on the irresolution and foreign policy blundering of the democracies. Sadly, as Ron Asmus set out in an excellent article in The New Republic (‘How the West Botched Georgia’) blunders there are aplenty.

First, maintaining the fiction that the Russian troops in South Ossetia were ‘peacekeepers’ was risky under Yeltsin but quite insane under Putin. ‘What started out as a neutral role became a front for pursuing neo-imperial Russian objectives … Had we pushed for real neutral peacekeeping forces, we might have prevented this war.’

Second, after Kosovan independence it was obvious Russia would seek payback. ‘In spite of this, the West never had a plan to shield Georgia from the possible fall out.’

Third, in March NATO, with Germany in the lead (Beware Germans Bearing Diplomacy) cold-shouldered Georgia by dropping the Membership Action Plan (MAP). This ‘probably accelerated the path to war’, says Asmus, by giving a green light to Russia.

Fourth, it is rumoured ‘President Bush has on several key occasions failed to raise our commitment to Georgia in meetings with Putin – including right after the NATO summit.’

Fifth, the EU has ‘been weak both in terms of form and substance’. Indeed, ‘some EU leaders profess the need to stay neutral in the conflict while Georgia is being destroyed.’

Sixth, the west missed every signal of Russia’s military intent (the most obvious of which was probably the Russian military exercise for an invasion). Asmus notes that when a European friend told a senior Russian official in late July that he was planning to visit Georgia in September, ‘the response was that he might want to go sooner and that September might be too late’.

The Finlandisation of Georgia would have momentous consequences. Russia would gain control of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and use it to strangle Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, and push Germany and Europe further down the road of appeasement.

The democracies red line should not be drawn around South Ossetia. If the South Ossetians want to become part of Russia they should be allowed to be so. Blocking the self-determination of peoples is no part of progressive internationalism. The red line should be this: a concert of democracies will unite to ensure that any attempt to Finlandise the newer members of our family will not stand.

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Alan Johnson

is editor of Democratiya.com

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