The Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto spoke to the Lithuania Tribune just after meeting Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading contender at the Belarusian Presidential elections on August 9. We talked about this meeting, about the Finnish views on what is happening in Belarus now and its future, the Astravets nuclear station, the security situation in the Baltic Sea, and more.
What is the purpose of your visit to Lithuania?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: The purpose is meeting with the Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius here and discussing, of course, all the topics and issues on the Nordic-Baltic cooperation, European Union. We have so many issues on the table right now, whether it’s Belarus, Eastern Mediterranean or European other problems. I was here one year ago during the Finnish Presidency; I think it was a five hour stop that time in Vilnius. Now I have a little bit more time, and of course, I’ll use this opportunity then to meet with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya from the Belarus opposition candidate, it was very interesting as well.
What is your impression of Tsikhanouskaya? In Lithuania we’re discussing a lot about what is her next move going to be, when is she going to come back to Belarus? Is she going to take part in Belarusian Politics? What is your impression of her plans and what is she trying to achieve?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: Of course, our position on the Belarus election was the same as all the EU countries; we don’t think those were very fair elections, there should be new open elections observed by the international community. But we hear and see that international observers were not allowed to come to follow this election. Of course what happened after the elections, the repression against the opposition and even keeping political prisoners and other candidates, this was totally unacceptable.
Of course, we have protested this to the European Union. I have also been in direct contact with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vladimir Makei and expressed our views on the elections and asked dialogue to be stopped between the opposition and the government in this post-election situation.
This was of course also my message to Tsikhanouskaya that we are in support of this dialogue idea that the opposition has been raising up and we think that actually that the OSCE, would be the right body, I know that there is this proposal, but Albania was currently the chairman’s of the OSCE, the Albanian Prime Minister Rama and Swedish Prime Minister to visit Minsk. We are giving full support of this, and trying to enforce that Belarus is to accept the OSCE delegation.
The reason that the OSCE would be useful is that Belarus themselves are members of the OSCE, they have accepted all the principles of the OSCE. So its not an East-West issue, it’s a question of principles, on the election, freedom of expression, free and fair elections and so forth. The OSCE could be the best tool to help in this situation
Lithuania already said that Mr Lukashenka is a former president of Belarus, do you think that we are a little bit too hasty about this?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: Well, I can see that in this type of situation, it’s always difficult how to deal with a leader that has not got its mandate from the free and fair election. At the same time, of course, the leadership is in the hands of Lukashenka, the army, the police, the state apparatus and so forth.
We see that there is a need of dialogue between the current leadership and the opposition, for that reason I think we have appealed to Lukashenka on this issue, I don’t want to comment on different countries positions on this, but I think it’s most important that we have a common position on the EU and that we encourage now the leadership to receive the OSCE delegation to Minsk.
From the Finnish perspective, what is the most desirable outcome of the current Belarusian events?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: When I discussed with the Belarus Foreign Minister Makei, he told me that (and as we have seen on the news what is the current plans of the leaders) is to start the constitution approach, bring the referendum and after that time new elections.
For us it looks a very long way, certainly, maybe constitutional reform is also needed, but maybe more is the issue of dialogue between the opposition and the leadership now for somehow to solve the issue of the unfair elections that happened. That is because the mood probably remains in the population that this was not right, and this was not the true result of the elections that were published.
In that, of course, the international committee can offer help in the organization of good elections, but the solution of the situation has to start from the country itself. Belarus is a sovereign country, and in respect, everyone else has to respect the sovereign of the country. Still, there is now almost like a dead-end situation if the dialogue does not start between the countries.
Last Thursday (August 27), President Putin announced that Russia had gathered a law enforcement force, according to him Lukashenka asked him to assemble such a force, and Russia is ready to intervene into Belarus if there is going to be some turbulences happening according to the Russian view. What is the Finnish position on it?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: Of course it is one of the most significant risks that we have seen in these types of demonstrations amount of people, that provocations can happen. We can see that these organized demonstrations have not had violence, that’s excellent, but of course, through some provocations, anything can happen in those situations.
I think the biggest risk is of course, that this kind of situation can lead to violence and bloodshed and a circle of violence that should be avoided by all means. The best way to avoid that to our understanding is to avoid the dialogue, and if needed ask the OSCE and the European Security Organisation for help in that dialogue that should be accepted by the government and by the opposition.
At the same time, I think it is very important that everyone respects the sovereign country. So far, the role of Russia in that sense has to be recognized, that yes Russian is the main economic partner to Belarus, long historical ties of course, and the union state agreement. Still, as far as I understand, the opposition has not raised their voices against Russia, or against the relationship. Instead, they have been raising their voice for their own constitution; I think that’s a fair request.
We have talked about solidarity and the common view from the EU and Western Europe towards Belarus. What about economic solidarity? President Lukashenka declared that he would punish Lithuania and Poland by directing their cargo away from Lithuania and Poland. For Lithuania, this could be a significant economic blow. Even though this cargo is not economically viable, it will be directed to Latvia or possibly some of it to Russia. When we’re talking about the solidarity of Western values, do you think that we should not give a reason for the dictators to play us against each over, and do you think that Latvia should not accept those cargos? What is your position? Values versus Business?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: We also discussed the EU ministers that we have been supporting Belarus in its fight against the COVID-19, that has been one of the triggering issues for the protest because the President has been undermining the virus but also the victims of the virus in a brutal way. At the same time, when we discussed the fight against COVID-19, we saw that we would not do anything that would lead to the population in Belarus to suffer more. So as long as we can really be sure that the money, funds and resources are used for the benefit of the people, we should continue that kind of progress with Belarus.
That leads us of course to the sanctions debate that we are now with the decision EU countries agreed, starting to prepare the list of the sanctions for Belarus. These are targeted against the individuals, against state travelling rights, their bank accounts and so forth, not against the population of Belarus. I think that’s a fundamental principle.
Now I also read the news that sanctions and reactions sometimes create these counter-reactions, and we are now facing some of those, I think its an issue of course that we should generally speaking have a strong European solidarity on those issues. Also look that countries like Lithuania who are helping now the opposition of Belarus, the neighbour has been hosting the opposition candidate, and so to make sure it doesn’t lead to a situation where you suffer too much for that, I think it’s very important that you have had the opportunity to help the opposition in this way, of course, people are escaping for their lives now from the country.
Again talking about the solidarity; obviously, you heard about Astravets the nuclear power station just 52 kilometres from Vilnius. Lithuania is seriously concerned about Astrevets’ safety; we were trying to convince our Western partners, our Baltic partners not to buy electricity from this plant because it is not safe. Finland has been a nuclear power nation for a long time, do you think that countries should be buying unsafe nuclear power from Belarusian Astravets, I’m talking about the solidarity, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: This will bed difficult for me since I am coming from the Green party, my party has been losing and losing the battles on the nuclear power in my country, we have been leaving the government two times because of the nuclear decisions, so as a green, of course, I don’t see nuclear energy as the energy of the future for Europe or any other regions, that’s my political standing on nuclear energy coming from my party background.
Secondly of course, whenever you build a nuclear power plant, then the security issues and the proper risk management issues are very important, I have always appreciated the independent nuclear safety authorities and their role. In Finland, for example, we have this STUK which is our nuclear safety organization that has been extremely critical on some of the building processes in our own country, so some of the building processes have been delayed due to some safety requirements put by our nuclear authority, so these authorities are extremely important.
I know one year ago I discussed with Mr Linas Linkevičius what about can we help in formulating some independent research under nuclear safety, even we proposed the trial term bases, it didn’t fly that idea. Still, now I know there has been this independent nuclear safety regulatory group, there’s also one Finnish expert in that team doing the review on the Astravets. This type of work I say is extremely important because it increases the confidence of the population that thinks that’s inappropriate. It’s the right way to work with Astravets in the independent nuclear safety authorities can give their recommendations and their views regularly.
Returning to the Baltic Sea area, this week Sweden sent some additional troops to Gotland because of the unseen military buildup and tension. It seems that the Baltic Sea area is heating up, is Finland also seeing some danger in the present situation?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: The Baltic Sea area is our closest waters, we have been investing in our own military, in recent years into the vessels, and currently, we discuss the new fighters and so forth. Our policy has been to keep our own military in good shape, and of course, we have the reserve army, we have 270,000 people in reserve.
Even on the European scale, it’s a big reserve, that has been our approach. We have also increased our military cooperation in recent years with Sweden, so it includes access to information but also joint exercises. As you know, we are both countries, not NATO members, so we have a particular position of course in that, but I think that the closer military cooperation with Sweden has been one of those phenomena that have been in the recent years developing.
Its also linked that we have such a sophisticated and even more expensive equipment that has to be used for the military and other cooperation, so that’s very good.
Talking about Transatlantic cooperation since you’re going to be speaking to Mr Linkevičius, we don’t know the outcome of the elections (I’m talking about the American elections), it is 50/50 from the tally I see. How do you see that if President Trump will win the 2nd term, how do you see the Transatlantic cooperation developing and in the context of European sovereignty, that Europe should become a sovereign and Trump is sceptical about alliances and the NATO.
Minister Pekka Haavisto: First on the European issue, of course, we have some of the control over the agreement, like the ‘Open Skies’ agreement, which we are of course very favourable for these agreements to continue, we always regret when for example when the US left the Open Skies, since its for our security very important.
I have been talking to the US Secretary of State Pompeo and Foreign Minister of Russia Lavrov particularly on the arms control issues and we encourage both US and Russia to continue their talks on these issues because they are very relevant for Europe as well.
Then when looking at the US, maybe more generally despite the fact of who will be on the winning side in the November elections, what we are may be concerned about and the overall interest in the US toward Europe has been diminishing or has not been at least growing. The new generations have been raising up of course without the History of the Second World War and US strong engagement at that time to Europe, we feel that there is probably a growing distance in the US and Europe.
My thinking is that sometimes the cooperation is very positive for Europe but also that the Atlantic Ocean has two shores, it’s the thing that the US is doing but also the thing that we as Europeans can do more, and I think all that is linked to strengthening our cooperation also in the EU context for us who are not NATO members are positive and Finland has been in favour of strengthening the security in the thinking of the European Union, to make us all stronger together.
Talking about another side of the world, China and let us say the ‘New Cold War’ as some think tankers and some politicians are already calling it. Mr Haavisto, it seems that two worlds might be emerging, the American half and Chinese half and Europe is going to be possibly somewhere in the middle. Europe, at some point will have to choose, Chinese influence or American, do you think that the Chinese factor will unite Europe and America more or it will divide them?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: It is an interesting question, of course, we see so many issues currently ongoing, it is true that China and its economy, political influences are growing and I can see I follow very much Africa, and African conflicts, I can see the Chinese role growing on the African continent its remarkable.
At the same time people who say that we are in a new political world and we look at everything through the Geopolitical side, I’m always saying that don’t forget that we also have the ideological battle when we compare the democracy to some of those democracies. Let us say democracies that are led from the top or more as like in China there is also a big ideological difference in the system of Europe or US where you have free and fair elections, with respect to the free media and so forth, we have also common values when you look to the cooperation I think that should not be forgotten.
Then the other issue, of course, is that China is also growing as a technological hub in many ways we look at Huawei, the 5G technology and others, we are in a competition and even in the cooperations we need those technologies, we have to develop the similar technologies and of course there is also in China the market for our products too, to a certain extent. In that way, of course, we have to balance our activities, but also be aware that we shouldn’t let, or give up on our key ideological issues, free and fair elections which we are discussing, democratic principles and citizens freedoms so these are extremely important.
President Minister spoke to Putin this week, and he encouraged him to let Mr Navalny to be transported to Germany, what the offer?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: I think the, sometimes we are asked as Fins, that despite the sanctions and despite the tensions between the EU and Russia on many issues, we have been asked, “Why do you still talk to Russia?” and we have been saying, “Well there are many issues that we need to talk about”.
I’m calling my colleague Lavrov who’s regularly talking to Mr Putin; I think it is not extensile services or trade, its actually expressing the views and sometimes the views are very different, I have also noticed it while talking to my colleague that there are many issues that we disagree. Still, at the same time, we can have a discussion, we can have a dialogue.
Then there are issues that I hope we could agree on with Russia, and these are the environmental concerns, the climate issues, the Arctic area which is close to us Fins, the arms control issues and others, we definitely have to have a dialogue on these issues also between the EU and Russia.
Mr Haavisto, what do you hope to say to Mr Lavrov next time you’re going to speak after your visit and your conversation with Linkevičius?
Minister Pekka Haavisto: Well, our last discussion was after the elections in Belarus, and of course, we sometimes have different viewpoints, this time we had deeply different viewpoints on many issues of the elections of Belarus.
Of course, I’m always encouraging also Russia to further engagement not to isolate themselves in these situations and of course, to maintain the political dialogue on all those key issues that we have in common.