Home - Tuesday 18.7.2000

The never-ending Karelia question

Link to a larger image
By Ilkka Ahtiainen

Mathematician Markku Ryynänen, who is an expert on demographics, was intrigued by a question recently put to him: how many Finns have at least one parent from the ceded territory of Karelia? As a descendant of Karelian evacuees himself, this professional calculator could hardly have imagined a more pleasant assignment.
In his calculations Ryynänen took into account the 407,000 people who were absorbed into the rest of Finland when their home region was ceded to the Soviet Union, the two generations that had been born since then, and the prevailing birth rate. He also considered the number of marriages between the Karelians and other Finns. Ryynänen (54) himself married a girl from Häme, making his daughter half-Karelian.
Ryynänen’s rough calculations concluded that there are at least 600,000 people in Finland who are at least half Karelian, comprising 11.5% of the population. This partially explains why Karelia continues to be a favourite topic of discussion in Finland, making headlines this summer as well.
This time around, it began when the Finnish and Russian presidents met in Moscow at the beginning of June. The Finnish journalists were allowed to ask President Vladimir Putin one question.
It hardly came as a surprise to anyone that the question that the Finnish reporters areed to ask concerned the possible return of the ceded areas of Karelia to Finland. Putin’s brusque response was that even talking about the subject endangers relations between the two countries. Nevertheless, the discussion continued when the Internet publication ProKarelia released a calculation of the price of a possible return of Karelia.

Finns wanted to ask Putin
about Karelia because the question had been asked the previous time that there was a power change in Russia. President Boris Yeltsin said in Moscow in 1992 that Karelia is a part of Russia and will remain a part of Russia.
It could be that the question was more important for the Finns than the answer. "The reporters knew that it would generate headlines." says Raimo Salokangas, a professor of journalism.
On the other hand, it was not until after the breakup of the Soviet Union that anyone has dared ask questions about Karelia. Professor Salokangas recalls that Finnish decision makers, helped by a subservient media, kept silent about Karelia until the 1990s.
In the view of Raimo Salokangas, the public attention focused on the Karelian question is greater than the actual significance of the issue in Finnish society. But can he be right, if there really are so many Finns with family roots in Karelia. According to opinion polls taken in recent yeras, at least one fifth of Finns are in favour of the return of Karelia.
However, mere blood ties are not enough to keep the Karelian question in the public eye. To do so requires a well organised and informed vanguard.

Established soon after
the Winter War, The Finnish Karelian League is one of Finland’s largest civic organisations. It has 50,000 members, and its goals include the return of Karelia, although it keeps a somewhat low profile on the issue.
The Karelian League has sought to maintain an understanding with Finland’s foreign policy leadershp. This undrestanding is nurtured within the League by making sure that each of Finland’s largest political parties, the Centre Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the National Coalition Party, have a representative on the association’s presidium.
"We have a common line with the foreign policy leadership." the Karelian League’s present chairman, Centre Party MP Markkku Laukkanen says.
Other groups with a more radical agenda for the return of the ceded territories have stuck their wedges into this weak spot. Many of their members are also members of the Karelian League, although they are somewhat dissatisfied with the moderate stance taken by the League.
The others say that the Karelian League is too cosy with the State to be able to exert political pressure. The Peace of Tarto association, and ProKarelia, among others have a more direct and populist point of view, but are by no means extremist.

According to one expert,
political history professor Seppo Hentilä, there is simply no foundation in modern Finland for rabble-rousing populism. He says that if there were, Karelia would certainly be an appealing cause.
This is not to say that Karelia has no role in public debate. He divides those calling for the return of the ceded territories into two categories: those with an emotional attatchment to Karelia itself and those for whom the issue is a means to some other end.
"It can be used to nurture anti-Russian sentiment and to feel joy over the collapse of the Soviet Union. In plain language, it is a desire to show the Russkies that we were right." Seppo Hentilä says.
Hentilä himself has no Karelian roots, and he tries to examine the issue from as neutral a standpoint as possible. Karelia is an emotional issue for Finns, and there is no definitive fact-based logical reason for its return. Going against it is international law, in the form of the peace treaty that ended the war with the Soviet Union.
Hentilä also points out that the Continuation War (1941-1944) puts the Finns’ moral right to demand the return of Karelia on shaky ground.

"If the return had been demanded
in the situation that followed the Winter War, it would be more justified." Hentilä says. He notes that in 1941 Finland attacked, and took over Eastern Karelia, which was a part of the Soviet Union.
Although the Karelian League says that it has no conflict with Finland’s political leaders in foreign policy questions, the understanding is perhaps not quite as cosy as its rivals might suggest.
The league has a separate core group known as the Karelia Club of about 150 key figures in society: politicians, military officers, journalists, municipal leaders, and educators.
The list of members is not a public document, but the members are known to include Parliamentary speaker Riitta Uosukainen, Defence Ministry chief of staff Pertti Nykänen, veteran Centre Party politician Johannes Virolainen, and National Coalition Party MP Hanna Markkula-Kivisilta.
Kari Hietanen, the commander of the Kymi military district, is not a member of the Karelian League, but like Virolainen and Uosukainen he has been in the public eye with his statements calling for the restoration of the ceded territories.

Hietanen gave a speech
two years ago in which he called for the restoration of Karelia in full uniform. Uosukainen spoke on behalf of restoration shortly before this year’s presidential elections, where she was the candidate of the National Coalition Party. In the campaign itself, the Karelia question was left in the background because it was calculated that making too much noise about it would do more harm than good politically.
Not all Finnish politicians with Karelian roots want to take part in the public debate. For instance, Matti Vanhanen, vice chairman of the Centre Party feels that a parliamentarian, who has the final say over war and peace, is not in a good position to make demands on the issue.
The celebrities of both the Karelian League and the smaller groups are influential enough to keep the issue in the forefront, but the people are aging fast. Many of the members of the Karelian league are in their fifties, while young people are few and far between.
In fact, there are only two well-known young Karelia activists: Hanna Markkula-Kivisilta (35) and Centre Party MP Katri Komi (32).
Another calculation for the Karelian mathematician Markku Ryynänen might be: how many pure, or half-Karelians will be alive in 2060 when another 60 years will have passed from the loss of Karelia?

According to demographic forecasts,
one in ten Finns who are now over the age of 20 will be alive at that time. There will be around 60,000 "half-Karelians" then, and they will be quite old.
To secure its future, the Karelian League will have to get Finns of the 30-something generation, including those without a Karelian family background, interested in the organisation’s activities. But before that, those who want the restoration of Karelia need to clarify what they really want from the land of their fathers.
Karelian League chairman Markku Laukkanen concedes that the debate has not reached this level yet.
"The debate has been mainly based on emotion. But it is an emotional experience to stand on the spot where one’s family has lived for hundreds of years." Laukkanen says. A week earlier, he had taken part in the celebrations of his home region, Jaakkima, which is now part of Russia. Laukkanen had stood at the ruins of Jaakkima church along with 700 former residents and their descendants.
Professor Hentilä feels that it is already too late for a return of Karelia to Finland. "The best time for a return would have been the end of the period of Gorbachev, but Finland was too careful in its foreign policy at that time."
Hentilä points out that Finland recognised the independence of the Balitc Republics nine years ago. Lithuania became independent in February 1991. Estonia and Latvia became independent in August of that same year, but the Finnish discussion on the Karelia question was just beginning.
Meanwhile, Russia’s political leaders have taken a tougher line.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published 16.7.2000

Previously in HS International Edition:
 Putin rejects return of Karelia (8.6.2000)

 Karelian Association
 Karelian page of Funet
 Pro Karelia
 Karelian database

ILKKA AHTIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat

Back to homepage