Even in Finland, nationalists haunt Gorbachev: Karelians want homeland Leaflet on territory turns up at summit

September 10, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

HELSINKI, Finland -- Even here, they want a piece of his

empire.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev is coping with so many separatist movements at home that people joke about his winding up as president of the Garden Ring, ruling only the territory within Moscow's inner ring road.

So, as he took a break from innumerable domestic crises for the pomp of a summit in neighboring Finland, Mr. Gorbachev might have expected to get away from all that. But it was not to be.

"Return Kuwait to the Kuwaitians -- and Karelia and Other Territories to Finland!" was the eye-catching slogan on a Russian-language leafletaddressed to Mr. Gorbachev by a Finnish group called the Movement for the Tartu Peace.

That is the treaty V.I. Lenin signed with the Finns in 1920. It was breached in 1939 when Josef V. Stalin invaded Finland in the Winter War, which ended with the Finns losing Karelia and other land making up about 12 percent of their territory.

Now, some of them want it back.

"Both Karelia and Kuwait were seized by force. That's why it's a fair comparison," said Martti Talsi, one of the activists who signed the appeal to Mr. Gorbachev.

Mr. Talsi, 60, was born in Finnish Karelia before the Winter War. His family fled along with nearly all 420,000 Finnish Karelians at the time of the Soviet occupation.

He now runs a private accounting business in the city of Hamina in southern Finland. He also is the proprietor of the Palonvara InsuranceCo., which was formerly located in the city of Vyborg, in the territory seized a half-century ago by the Soviet Union.

The movement's leaflets were inadvertently allowed to lie alongside official announcements at the press center in Finlandia Hall. Finnish officials were chagrined when asked about the movement, because Finland has never demanded the return of Karelia and says today that the matter is closed.

Not so, Mr. Talsi said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"I think the Soviet Union will grow more and more democratic and will want to resolve this question," he said. "History shows that areas taken by force sooner or later are given back."

For the vast majority of Finns, the question of Karelia's return ranks low on the political agenda, said Matti Laitinen, political reporter for the Finnish newspaper Uusi Suomi.

Finland has no shortage of territory. The former residents of the territory occupied by Stalin almost all moved to Finland, so there has not been a strong reunification movement from the Finnish-speaking population in Soviet Karelia, an autonomous republic within the giant Russian federation.

Finns know that if they were given back the land they lost, they would have to make huge investments to raise it from Soviet backwardness to the high level of development in the rest of Finland.

"If someone asks me if I want Karelia back, I want to know how much it will cost me," Mr. Laitinen said.

The Movement for the Tartu Peace, mostly Karelians who fled after 1939 and their descendants, claim that a recent poll showed that 47 percent of respondents say Finland should raise the territorial question with Mr. Gorbachev.

The movement said that it wasforced to raise the question because the Finnish Foreign Ministry "in its extreme cautiousness has not done it."

If Mr. Gorbachev became aware of the Karelian appeal -- he was not asked about it publicly -- he may be at least grateful for the manner in which it was raised. No strikes, no hunger strikes, no ultimatum, no pogroms, no blockades, not even a demand.

"By no means is this a demand," said the group's leaflet. "This is rather an appeal, a most natural reaction and conclusion."

The Movement for the Tartu Peace, alas, may have directed its appeal to the wrong address. Since the Russian federation, the largest Soviet republic, declared its sovereignty in May, the former Karelians might be well advised to bypass Mr. Gorbachev and take their case directly to another president -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

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