New Era for Finland

October 19, 1994

For centuries, Finns have been vexed by uncertainty about their geopolitical position. Were they a Western outpost in the East or an Eastern beachhead in the West?

In an extraordinary referendum Sunday, Finland's voters rendered their verdict. By a convincing margin, they told the government they want their country to join the European Union.

This was supposed to have been a consultative vote. But President Martti Ahtisaari wasted no time in declaring the outcome "morally and politically binding" on Finland's decision makers.

"For the first time ever, the Finns as a nation have decided for themselves which road the country should follow at this crucial stage in the history of our continent," he said. He spoke of the European Union as a vehicle offering "new ways at strengthening our own well-being and security."

Neither the referendum nor the president's comments would have been possible just a few years ago, when Finland's geographically awkward position was complicated by the sensitivities of the red czars in the Kremlin.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a major relaxation in Finland's internal atmosphere, too. The country could consider such previously unthinkable matters as a membership in the European trade and political central organization as well as in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's "Partnership for Peace."

Finland's membership in the European Union come January was a highly contested, emotional issue. Vast changes are in store. ,, Much of the country's free-enterprise economic system has been controlled by cartels; it has to be opened up to full competition. That means the erosion of power of some influential interest groups, including heavily subsidized farmers.

In the end, events in Russia -- as so often before -- resolved the dilemma for the five million Finns. The unexpectedly heavy vote garnered by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's extremists last year reminded the Finns of the possibility that once again a government might take over in Moscow that would want to reverse Finland's hard-won 1917 independence from Russia.

After that, Finns increasingly realized they had a rare window of opportunity and had better use it.

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