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Russia: Putin Pays Tribute To Finnish War Hero

  • Kathleen Moore

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a trip to Finland today, became the first Russian leader to honor a memorial to Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, who led the Finns against the Soviet Union during World War II. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox spoke to a Finnish political analyst about the significance of the act -- and of Putin's visit -- for Russian-Finnish relations.

Prague, 3 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Sometime in the early 1990s, the story goes, a team of amateur Finnish soccer players from the western coastal town of Turku squared up against a visiting Russian crew from Turku's twin town, St. Petersburg.

The Bishop's Boys -- led by a Finnish archbishop -- easily beat the visitors 2:1 in a game that left one of the Russian players badly bruised. At least that's how the story goes.

Last Sunday (2 September), that player came back to Turku in a more official capacity -- as Russia's president.

This is Vladimir Putin's first official visit to Finland as president, but he was a frequent visitor while deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, the time of the soccer match.

In remarks to Finnish television carried by AP he even said the country "is like home."

During his stay, Vladimir Putin met President Tarja Halonen and Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen in Helsinki. Talks covered European Union and NATO enlargement and economic issues, including a planned pipeline under the Baltic Sea.

Tuomas Forsberg is a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs in Helsinki.

He says the visit confirms that relations are good between the two countries after the chill of the Cold War period and despite worries that Finland's joining the EU would drive a wedge between them.

Finland was unaligned throughout the Cold War and trod an uneasy line between the Soviet Union and the West. Though still unaligned, Finland took a significant step Westward in 1995 when it joined the European Union. Forsberg says bilateral ties with Russia are still strong for reasons of geography and history, but that these days it's far easier and more normal to promote cooperation through the European Union.

"Within that integration, Finland wants to play a bridge, the role that Finland used to play in the Cold War. What has changed in Finnish-Russian relations is that [it] used to be bilateral. There was trust on the personal level between the presidents, there was lots of bilateral cooperation and the idea was that this relationship could be somehow isolated from the tensions of the European order. Now the case is the opposite, namely that Finland wants to draw Russia to the European structures and the Finnish-Russian relationship has been multilateralized."

President Halonen touched on Finland's special position in an interview with "Der Spiegel" earlier this year, when she stressed Russia's role in ensuring European security.

In comments that caused some outrage in the Baltic states, Halonen said Finland could not further their efforts to join NATO, a prospect that Russia frowns on.

Putin reiterated Russia's opposition to NATO enlargement at a news conference today with Halonen. "I repeat that there are no objective pre-conditions for NATO enlargement, for the Baltic states to become members."

While talks on issues such as NATO enlargement focused on the future, Putin's visit also touched on a significant period in the countries' shared past.

Earlier today he laid a wreath at the grave of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who led the Finns against the Soviet Union in two conflicts.

Mannerheim commanded Finnish forces against the Soviet invasion of 1939, and again after Finland allied itself with Germany in 1941. Finland was defeated and forced to cede part of its territory to the USSR.

Putin is the first Russian leader to pay such a tribute to Mannerheim.

Forsberg says it's a symbolic gesture to honor a man seen in Finland as a war hero. But he says Mannerheim is also a significant figure in Russian history -- he served in the Russian army before Finland gained its independence from Russia early last century.

"He was also respected by the Soviet leaders, but there was an ideological [split] because Mannerheim was an officer in the army of the tsar. In Russia, from the time when Finland was still part of Russia, he was a White Russian who was willing to fight a war against communist leaders during the Russian civil war. So for Putin, who now represents Russia, I think Mannerheim is no longer a problematic figure. By contrast, he is someone who represents Russian history."

Forsberg says he believes the gesture was made in the expectation that Finns would appreciate it.

"It's regarded more or less as a gesture that tells us that Putin follows the same Russian policy toward Finland that Yeltsin did, that he's no longer willing to regard World War II as a taboo issue in the Finnish-Russian relationship, but it is seen as a kind of common tragedy in Finnish-Russian relations."

That tragedy -- or the settlement ending the war between the countries -- is still raw for some Finns. While Putin and Halonen met in the presidential palace, demonstrators outside held placards in Russian and English demanding that Russia return the territory -- Karelia --- annexed by the Soviet Union.