The Ahtisaari Legacy: Resolve and Negotiate, ed. Nina Suomalainen and Jyrki Karvinen

Second paragraph of third chapter (“The Right to be Buried”, by Helena Ranta):

When we boarded the plane again, there were only four Finns left. The plane flew low and the devastation of the war could be seen clearly as we approached Sarajevo Airport.

This is a lovely collection of eleven short papers by Finns involved with peace-making in the Balkans, pulled together to commemorate the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari in 2008. I myself worked with Ahtisaari quite a lot in the 2002-2008 period, and the collection was given to me by co-editor Nina Suomalainen. He is ill now, but I am sure that he appreciated this collection at the time.

These are all very good papers. Contributors include Ahtisaari himself, three others who I know personally (Olli Rehn, Alpo Rusi and Kai Sauer), and also Elisabeth Rehn – who was defeated by Ahtisaari in the 1994 presidential election – and the late Harri Holkeri, who I knew by sight from both the Northern Ireland peace talks, where he was one of George Mitchell’s co-chairs, and his stint as head of the UN in Kosovo.

The Finns have a reputation for being somewhat silent (the joke is that you can tell an extrovert Finn, because they look at your shoes), but these are all eloquent accounts of personal experience in a region where the Finns felt needed and useful. Most of the details are about Kosovo at its different stages, with both Ahtisaari and Sauer giving their accounts of the diplomatic process that led to independence, and Holkeri trying to give his own side of the story to explain his disastrous tenure. (Ahtisaari pushed for his appointment, which was surely a mistake.)

But I learned most from two people I had not heard of; Arto Räty gives an account of what it is like to be a peacekeeper in a NATO mission at a time when Finland’s relationship with NATO was less comfortable than it is now, and Terhi Nieminen-Mäkynen tells us about being the unelected, UN-appointed mayor of the southern Kosovo town of Prizren.

The other thing I learned – though of course the authors are a self-selected and not necessarily representative sample – is that Finns feel quite strongly about the Balkans. Their own nation emerged from conflict and spent most of the twentieth century uneasily balance between two blocs; older Finns can recall when they and Tito’s Yugoslavia were the lynchpins of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Helsinki hosted the signing of the Final Act which laid the groundwork for the peaceful ending of the Cold War fifteen years later.

I should note that Finns feel equally strongly, if not more so, about Ukraine, having themselves emerged from a century of Russian dominance. The current war has pushed them directly to join NATO. It did not always look inevitable. I remember a lunch in Kyiv in 2005 where I was sitting between Martti Ahtisaari and Thorvald Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian foreign minister. Stoltenberg leaned across me to say, “Martti! Congratulations! I hear that you have tripled the support for NATO membership in Finland!” Ahtisaari replied, “Yes! From 5% to 15%!” That was then, this is now, and Stoltenberg’s son is now the NATO Secretary-General.

Unfortunately this book is out of print and there seem to be no second-hand copies available, so I can’t supply my usual “get it here” link, and I am all the more grateful to Nina for giving it to me in 2016. I’m ashamed to say however that this was the non-fiction book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Diary of a Witchcraft Shop 2 by Trevor Jones and Liz Williams.