Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

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