For Finnish leader, a long history of diplomacy

Ahtisaari's staying power serves well in tough talks

War In Yugoslavia


LONDON -- Geography, history and some stubborn Nordic patience gave Martti Ahtisaari, 61, the president of Finland, a reasoning power with Slobodan Milosevic and his Russian advocates that no other European leader could match.

A European Union member whose very survival as a nation long depended on its ability not to antagonize its mammoth Soviet neighbor, neutral Finland has found itself in the pivotal position of providing the services of an honest broker between Moscow, Belgrade and Brussels.

And Ahtisaari, who helped persuade Milosevic to accept the peace plan for Kosovo worked out by Russia, the United States and the Europeans, is a man of proven staying power. He spent 13 years heading up the United Nations effort leading to a peaceful resolution of the struggle that resulted in the independence of Namibia in southern Africa.

Now it is Ahtisaari's purpose to help Finland, the one Nordic country to adopt the euro as its future currency, overcome its location on the continent's northeastern fringe and become a central player in Brussels, Belgium, the seat of the European Union, as well as a bridge between Russia and the Europeans.

Ahtisaari was a vigorous supporter of his country's decision to enter the European Union in 1995 and the European monetary union last year, and he has argued repeatedly that the European Union's primary responsibility is to be patient with Russia and help it achieve democratic stability. Finland holds the European Union's rotating presidency starting in July.

A diplomat for 30 years and a politician only since his election as president in 1994, Ahtisaari occupies an office that under the Finnish Constitution has the responsibility for shaping foreign policy.

In recent years, Finland has become the most wired nation in the world, symbolized by the international success of its Nokia telecommunications products, and it has taken on the leadership of a new Baltic area of influence opened up by the end of the Cold War.

The new presidential residence where Ahtisaari lives in is a fitting testament to the self-confidence of the nation and the comfort it takes in its frost-bound maritime location. Granite solid outside and minimalist and unadorned inside, it is a modernistic building designed to symbolize ice, snow and light and is set into an outcrop overlooking the sea near Helsinki.

As if to dramatize his country's prominence as a technological innovator, Ahtisaari delights in entertaining the growing number of foreign guests to the mansion by flicking on the single button that floods the acoustically tuned spaces with classical music.

Ahtisaari was born June 23, 1937, in the city of Viipuri, which is now on the Russian side of the border in territory ceded to the Soviet Union after World War II. His father, a naturalized Finn born in Norway, was a noncommissioned army officer.

The son went to school in Oulu in the north of Finland, graduating in 1959 from a teachers college and pondering life as an educator. But eager to see the world, he worked on a school project in Pakistan for the Swedish Agency for Industrial Development, and his career as an internationalist was set.

He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1965 and went abroad in 1973 as Finland's ambassador to four African countries: Tanzania, Mozambique, Somalia and Zambia.

The contacts he developed throughout Africa served him in good stead in 1977 when Javier Perez de Cuellar, the secretary-general of the United Nations, was looking for someone to serve as commissioner and special representative to Namibia, where a guerrilla war for independence from South Africa was under way.

He kept at it even after returning to Helsinki in 1984 as Finland's undersecretary of state for developing countries.

Three years later he became the U.N. undersecretary-general for administration and management and retained his Namibia position. The new nation named him an honorary citizen in 1990, and many Namibians have since named their own children Martti.

In 1991, Ahtisaari became head of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and a year later was appointed chairman of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Working Group of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia.

In the only political contest of his life, he became Finland's first directly elected president in 1994. His six-year term ends next year, and, though he is permitted to run for re-election, he announced last weekend that he would step down as the Social Democratic Party's candidate in favor of Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen.

Ahtisaari is married to the former Eeva Hyvarinen, a secondary-school teacher. The couple have a son who studied philosophy in the United States and now plays in a rock band in Finland.

Ahtisaari is a lover of the country's frigid countryside and such a devotee of the nation's most famous relaxation activity that he has been known to take his counselors into his sauna and continue discussions there.

He has had a lifelong problem controlling his weight, which has led to a degeneration of his knees and altered his walk. He has had several operations to correct the problem, but still moves in a labored fashion.

When he was reported to have stumbled or fallen at receptions, the local press suspected something other than his weak knees, speculating that he instead had been living up to the Finns' reputation for being hearty vodka drinkers. The president went on television to complain that these reports were intrusions on his personal life.

"I think the nation can differentiate between events of a private nature and official work," he said.

The press respected his wishes and reported no more rumors. But one newspaper took note of a report that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin had appeared unsteady on a visit to Germany. Its headline read: "Yeltsin Stumbles Too."

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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