TALLINN - The Riga NATO summit should have Finland reconsidering why it's not a member of the security alliance, a leading international relations expert said. Despite its close connections with the West, its position as an EU member, and its involvement in several NATO peacekeeping operations, Finland has resisted joining the alliance.
Dr. Tomas Ries, the director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and a leading expert on Finnish-NATO interaction, said the summit could help illustrate to Finland its potential isolation.
"The summit should get people thinking about these issues again," Ries told The Baltic Times. "There is no immediate threat, but if things really go wrong with Russia, then one would have a much stronger deterrent and defense if one is a member of NATO."
Estonia has attempted to gently persuade its northern neighbor to join the treaty using subtle diplomatic pressure.
At his first meeting with Finnish President Tarja Halonen in Oct. 2006, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said it "would be useful from a security policy perspective for the whole Baltic Sea region to be part of NATO."
However, he stopped short of pressuring Finland on the issue, saying he "respects Finland's decision to stay out of NATO."
"Every country will decide itself what the best security solution is. We will support Finland's choice, whatever it may be," Ilves said.
Ries said that Estonia's NATO membership had made it more unlikely that Finland would feel the need to join.
"Paradoxically, the fact that the three Baltic states joined NATO has made Finland's military defenses much better. As long as Estonia is independent and supportive of Finland, then Finland really doesn't need to worry about its southern coast."
Similarly, plans to establish a NATO airbase in Estonia made Finland's security position stronger.
Many in Finland see no need to join NATO, given the nation's strong alliances with many of the member countries and its EU membership, Ries said.
"It could be argued that in today's world, it is unlikely that NATO would ignore a situation if there was major pressure against Finland. But that assumes that everything else in Europe is quiet, and that Finland is the only nation being picked on. But if we had a larger crisis in Europe, where several countries were under pressure at once, then NATO may have to be more selective about its resources, and its member nations would come first."
The reason Finland has not joined NATO was entirely related to its domestic politics, he said.
The current Prime Minister, Centrist Matti Vanhanen, and Foreign Affairs Minister, Social Democrat Erkki Tuomioja, were both against joining NATO. Their reasons may be populist as well as political 's recent public opinion polls show that up to 54 percent of Finns are against joining the alliance, and only 21 percent are in favor.
However, Finnish Defense Minister Seppo Kaariainen recently broke ranks with his coalition colleagues, suggesting that Finland faced a choice between increasing its own defense budget or joining NATO.
Ries said a change of government may be the only thing that pushes Finland toward NATO.
The country's general election, scheduled for spring 2007, has been viewed by some as a referendum on the NATO question.
"The only thing that could change the situation is if the conservatives become the leading party and get hold of the prime minister's position. It's a real chance, but even if that occurs, there is no guarantee they will apply for NATO. I am skeptical about the possibility of such an event occurring in the near future," Ries said.
"Finland needs a leading political figure or the government to take a serious issue in this. As long as the key figures maintain their positions, the situation will not change."
The upcoming NATO summit, where Baltic leaders will enjoy discussions with major world leaders and build stronger diplomatic bridges, may help demonstrate how Finland was out in the cold as long as it remained outside of NATO, he said.