New Finnish identity

 
 

As Finland hits the headlines for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Alanna O’ Malley examines why their international profile has been cast in the shadow by their recent domestic turbulence.

The announcement on 10th October last, that former-Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was apparently greeted with some surprise in international circles.

Though he had been a previous nominee several times, Ahtisaari was the outsider to win against favourites such as Vietnamese Buddhist leader, Thich Quang Dota and the Human Rights Watch organisation. Ahtisaari has had a string of successful high-profile diplomatic positions, from working as the UN’s special envoy to Kosovo, to independent arms inspector for Northern Ireland in 2000 and overseeing Namibia’s independence in 1989.

Despite these accomplishments however, this is the first awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Nordic country, and many will hope that it distracts from Finland’s recent domestic turbulence.

Last September saw the shooting of eleven people in a school in the town of Kauhajoki. Matti Juhani Saari, aged 22, shot nine fellow students and a teacher, before turning his gun on himself. This followed a similar attack in another college in November 2007, in which nine people were killed. The net result of these atrocities has been widespread condemnation and tougher gun laws in Finland, which has the third-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, after the United States and Yemen.

The recent case of Kauhajoki has been especially shocking for Finns as, several days before the events took place, Saari posted a video of himself on youtube shooting at figures. The 20-30 second long video clips show a man dressed in dark colours, firing a handgun in rapid succession at an apparent shooting range.

It also reflects the stark interface of Finland’s impressive humanitarian record in international affairs, against her liberal attitude towards the issue of firearms ownership.

The day before the shootings took place, the police had interviewed Saari, but were unable to revoke his gun license due to insufficient evidence. This has caused outrage among the public, despite Finland’s propensity for firearms which means that it is not illegal for a 15-year-old to own a gun. The two cases share similar traits such as prior warnings on the Internet, videos posted of the killers threatening to “eliminate the weak”, and a shared fascination with the Columbine school shooting in 1999.

However no causal link has been established between the two. It does, howeverm point to a deeper, sociological issue about the propensity towards gun-related activities among Finnish youth and the posting of messages such as these on the Internet. It also reflects the stark interface of Finland’s impressive humanitarian record in international affairs, against her liberal social attitude towards the issue of firearms ownership.

Finland and Sweden in particular have a long established positive record of humanitarian effort, especially in the field of peacekeeping. Finland has contributed significantly to successive UN peacekeeping forces, which has helped the normally peaceful county establish a certain amount of international prestige.
However this is the first time the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a Finn and coincidentally, it comes when the country is grappling with increasing domestic instability with regard to security issues.

This not only refers to the recent violent gun crimes, but also to growing tensions with its powerful neighbour Russia.

Unlike their more powerful neighbours,Sweden, andespecially Norway, Finland is often viewed as more vulnerable given its proximity and shared border with Russia. It does not have the mineral wealth, and economic strength of Norway, nor does it have the international prestige of Sweden, which has long occupied a position of importance in world affairs.

However, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the nation, should go some way towards redressing the apparent imbalance, and helping Finland establish itself more firmly on the international stage, in comparison to its Nordic neighbours.

This is especially important considering the energy crisis facing Europe and the increasing friction with Russia over the supply of oil and gas. Finland could be viewed as the stronghold of the EU in the Nordic territory given that they are the only country in the region to use the euro as their unit of national currency. In addition, their strongly competitive economy is closely linked to the EU trading bloc, granting further prominence to their reliance on Europe.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize may effectively prove to be very limited in its actual power but as a gesture it is a firm nod to the political accomplishments of one of this nation’s pre-eminent statesmen. The question remains however, if it can significantly alter the negative shadow, which has been cast over the state by their liberal gun laws, and the devastating consequences they have proved to have for Finnish society. It is one thing being a peace-loving state, but unless Finland becomes a peace-making state, it may retain its position on the margins of international affairs for many years to come.

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