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News, 1/4/2016

Why was 1991 such a major turning point?

Very rarely do so many political events take place during a single year as did in 1991. Unto Hämäläinen, a writer for the Helsingin Sanomat Kuukausiliite monthly supplement, have compiled a checklist in this article to make it possible to review the things that happened a quarter of a century ago. In the text, he will follow a chronological order, with Finland’s domestic policy and foreign policy alternating. According to Hämäläinen, separating them would not only be laborious but also unnecessary: domestic and foreign policy were interconnected in 1991, if they have ever even been far from each other.

Finland’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council ended at the beginning of 1991. Finland was involved in the European Free Trade Association, negotiating on the establishment of the European Economic Area (EEA) with the European Communities. The situation of the Soviet Union worried Finland’s leaders.

President Mauno Koivisto expressed his public support for the reform policy of president Mikhail Gorbachev on several occasions, but the foundation of Gorbachev’s politics – as that of the Soviet Union as a whole – was falling apart all the time. Finns were afraid of conservative communists returning to power. The Finnish government was cautious of the efforts of the Baltic countries to gain independence. The Balts were advised to seek a solution by negotiating with the “central power”, i.e. the Soviet administrations. The Balts paid no heed to the advice of the Finnish government.

Finland’s relations with Sweden were burdened by the surprising decision of Ingvar Carlsson (October 1990) to apply for EC membership. Finland had not been told about the decision beforehand, even though that had been promised.

However, the tectonic plates began to move in 1991. The pressure to apply for EC membership increased continuously both in Finland and within the EC. One party after the other began to support membership, while both the Commission and the major member states of the EC gave the impression that they were expecting Finland’s application. It was hinted that Finland had a unique opportunity to join the expanding and deepening European Union, but that the “window of possibilities” would open only years or decades later for the next time.

As Western Europe made its cooperation tighter, the development went in the opposite direction in Eastern Europe. The cooperative organisations of the socialist countries (The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance COMECON and the Warsaw Pact) ceased to exist. Countries that were released from the burden of socialism, such as Poland and Hungary, looked to the west and took distance from the Soviet Union, which was also coming apart at its seams and finally collapsed during the last days of 1991.

Russia became a successor state around which a loose union of former Soviet republics was being developed. The Baltic countries that had become independent in 1991 did not want to join the new community, but announced from day one that they wanted to join the Western European communities as soon as possible.

January 1991

The internal situation in the Soviet Union escalated. Mikhail Gorbachev had been forced to appoint Gennady Yanayev as the Vice President. Yanayev was a conservative communist who wanted to return to the old, strong, central communist federal state. On the other side of Gorbachev were Boris Yeltsin, who had promoted the independent position of Russia, and the Baltic countries that wanted to become independent.

The troops of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs engaged in violence in the Baltic capitals to suppress the independence movement. This was a major surprise to the Finnish government as well, as President Mauno Koivisto had assumed that no violence would be used.

There was turmoil around the world. The US-led coalition commenced aerial bombing of Iraq. The Gulf War began.

1991 tammikuu Vilna
A Soviet tank crushing a protestor defending the radio and television station during the attack by the Soviet Union in Vilnius. Photo: Lehtikuva / AFP / Andre Durand

February 1991

The Finnish parliamentary election campaign began. The most important question was whether Finland should apply for EC membership during the new parliamentary term – as the Swedish government had announced that Sweden would do in October 1990.

The parties did not reveal their cards during the election campaign. The economy was another major question: would the Finnish markka be devalued or would the economic policy of Prime Minister Harri Holkeri’s government of a stable markka be continued.

Also with regard to questions, parties aimed to avoid stating their opinions directly.

Negotiations on the establishment of the European Economic Area continued but were not easy. Brussels, however, was becoming a familiar city for Finnish civil servants and politicians. A ceasefire was declared in the Gulf War at the end of February. The US-led coalition had already won the war. The dominating position of the United States as the world’s leading military power was acknowledged after the Gulf War at the latest.

March 1991

The Finnish Centre Party became the biggest party under its new Chair Esko Aho in the parliamentary elections. Suffering a defeat in the elections, the Finnish Social Democratic Party stepped aside from the government negotiations, so there was only a bourgeois base left; the Centre Party, the National Coalition Party, the Swedish People's Party of Finland and the Finnish Christian League commenced negotiations on government formation under Aho.

Gorbachev achieved a victory when the federal state model proposed by him was approved by a referendum. However, the federal state only had weak support within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Six Soviet republics, among them the Baltic countries, boycotted the referendum.

April 1991

Esko Aho’s government rose to power. In its government policy, it mentioned the European Community in a positive tone and the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance in an increasingly minor sense. Pertti Paasio, Chair of the Finnish Social Democratic Party that had moved to the opposition, announced that he was in favour of applying for EC membership.

The new government asserted that it would continue the former policy and aim to reach an agreement on the establishment of the European Economic Area.

President Mauno Koivisto and President George Bush held a press conference in the garden of the White House on May 7, 1991. Photo:
President Mauno Koivisto and President George Bush held a press conference in the garden of the White House on May 7, 1991. Photo: Lehtikuva / Markku Ulander

May 1991

President Mauno Koivisto made a state visit to the United States and met president George Bush. Speculations concerning Finland’s possible EC membership application grew continuously, both in Finland and abroad. Koivisto, however, asserted that Finland would continue its former policy. There was speculation about devaluation in Finland.

June 1991

The Finnish government decided to link the markka to the European Currency Unit ECU. Contrary to expectations, the decision did not involve devaluing the markka. Finland’s economic situation deteriorated rapidly, which could be seen particularly as increasing interest rates.

Koivisto made a state visit to the Soviet Union. In connection with the visit, Koivisto met Boris Yeltsin, who had recently been elected as the president of Russia. The party congresses of the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People's Party of Finland decided that these ruling parties were in favour of EC membership.

July 1991

The Swedish Diet decided that Sweden will apply for EC membership. Negotiations on the EEC continued, but progress was slow. It was decided to take a break of a couple of months in the negotiations. An official decision on the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was made. Russia announced that it would recognise the independence of Latvia.

The internal situation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia worsened with Croatia and Slovenia deciding to declare themselves independent. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the START Treaty.

August 1991

August 1991 was a dramatic turning point in European and global politics. A junta led by Vice President Gennady Yanayev attempted to displace president Mikhail Gorbachev, who was on vacation at the time. The coup only lasted for three days and ended with the complete defeat of Yanayev, but it had major consequences. After Gorbachev had returned to Moscow, it became apparent that the most powerful man was in fact Russian president Boris Yeltsin, the actual defeater of Yanayev’s coup.

The Baltic countries declared themselves independent immediately after the coup had been defeated, and Finland restored its diplomatic relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on 25 August. Russia, too, recognised the independence of the Baltic countries. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was outlawed. The Yugoslav Wars expanded.

Celebration of Estonia's independence in Tallinn, September 1991. Photo: Lehtikuva / Petri Puromies
Celebration of Estonia's independence in Tallinn, September 1991. Photo: Lehtikuva / Petri Puromies

September 1991

The Finnish government announced that work to investigate Finland’s possible EC membership would begin. Martti Ahtisaari, who had recently begun his work as State Secretary in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland was appointed as the head of the investigation. The main opposition party announced that it was in favour of applying for EC membership.

Speculation over Finland’s possible membership application increased further with Esko Aho making the first official visit of a Prime Minister of Finland to the European Community.

Finland proposed to the Soviet Union that discussions on renewing the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance would be commenced. The Soviet Union accepted the proposal.

In Sweden, a new government rose to power after parliamentary elections. Ingvar Carlsson, head of the Social Democratic Party, resigned from the post of Prime Minister, and Carl Bildt, head of the Moderate Party, became the new Prime Minister. Finland strengthened its relations with the Baltic countries; ambassadors were appointed and temporary embassies were opened in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.

October 1991

The European Free Trade Association EFTA and the European Community EC finally reached an agreement on the establishment of the European Economic Area. However, the ratification of the agreement was postponed to 1992. The economic situation in Finland escalated. The unemployment rate increased rapidly. The banks’ situation deteriorated and interest rates rose. Talk of devaluation became stronger.

November 1991

he Finnish markka was devalued by 14 per cent. The decision was made inevitably when it was no longer possible to defend the markka. The decision marked the end of the policy of a stable markka, which had been followed for almost a decade. However, the government of Prime Minister Esko Aho decided to continue even though the dismissal of the government seemed probable following the devaluation.

Boris Yeltsin’s position in the Soviet Union strengthened. Finland and the Soviet Union reached an understanding on renewing the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. The aim was to process the agreement in the parliaments of both countries and make it effective as of the beginning of 1992.

December 1991

Aho visited London and expressed his desire of Finland’s possible EC membership application being processed together with the applications of Austria and Sweden. They had already submitted their applications. The EC arranged a European Summit in Maastricht and decided to commence membership negotiations with the new candidates during 1992. The original motion prepared by the Netherlands, which held the Presidency, mentioned Sweden and Austria by name, but the names of the states were omitted from the final resolution.

The EC also reached an agreement on integration, i.e. making internal cooperation closer. The aim was set to establish a joint currency and central bank during the 1990s.

In Finland, the debate on the European Community accelerated. Applying for membership began to be considered a given, but President Koivisto and Prime Minister Aho did not reveal their cards. Possibly they were still waiting for Ahtisaari’s report on the benefits and disadvantages of membership. After the devaluation, the poor reputation of Finland’s economy spread throughout Finland – and the economic situation deteriorated further.

The president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and the president of Russia Boris Yeltsin argueing in the Russian parliament in August 23rd 1991. Photo: Lehtikuva / AP / Boris Yurchenko
The president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and the president of Russia Boris Yeltsin argueing in the Russian parliament in August 23rd 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. Photo: Lehtikuva / AP / Boris Yurchenko

A severe internal crisis emerged in the Soviet Union when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus made a decision on forming the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev attempted to undermine the project led by Yeltsin, but this dispute finally sealed the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of December.Gorbachev resigned from his duties.

The United States and the European Community recognised Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union. At the same time, it was stated that Russia would inherit the Soviet Union’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council.

Finland also recognised Russia’s independence and position as the successor state of the Soviet Union. It was generally found that the agreement with the Soviet Union in the making would expire and negotiations on a new agreement would be commenced.

The author is a writer for the Helsingin Sanomat Kuukausiliite monthly supplement, who worked as a the deputy supervisor of the HS politics editorial staff and particularly monitored Finland’s relations to the European Community and the Soviet Union.

This document

Updated 1/4/2016

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