International Herald Tribune


Paris, Friday, December 18, 1998

For the EU, the Focus Now Must Be on Russia

By Martti Ahtisaari International Herald Tribune.

HELSINKI - The writer is president of Finland.

As the leaders of the European Union met in Vienna last weekend, the crisis in Russia loomed large over the summit meeting. Developments in that country have shown that there are no quick solutions. Unhealthy structures cannot sustain a market economy, and democracy requires a civil society in which to grow on. Laying the foundations will take time, and sustainable solutions will need the support of the Duma and the people.

In its natural resources and its long tradition of research and education, Russia has the basic elements necessary for a takeoff. However, democracy and a genuine market economy can thrive only under the rule of law. Rampant crime is a clear and present danger, as the assassination of the reformer Galina Starovoitova shows.

It is clear that Russia will be able to extricate itself from its present crisis only through interaction and cooperation with the rest of the world, especially its European neighbors. In order to get on top of its difficult situation, Russia has to come to grips not only with its economy, but also with its geography and its history.

After Finland and Sweden joined the European Union, Russia became its next-door neighbor. The EU acquired a Northern dimension. Both the Union and Russia will gain from keeping the doors open. A natural interdependence exists in Europe. Take energy: In the coming decades, the European Union will be more and more dependent on imported energy, especially natural gas. In the north, Russia has huge gas deposits, for which the only feasible market is the European Union.

With its economy more and more dependent on foreign trade, Russia needs export harbors on the Baltic. Transit traffic will generate income for states on the coast of the sea and bring stability to the entire region.

Borders do not stop pollution, nor do they bar epidemics, drugs and crime. Cooperation is the key to success in fighting them, as experience has shown on the 1,300-kilometer Finnish-Russian border, now an EU-Russian frontier as well.

All these elements of interdependence are included in the European Commission report ''A Northern Dimension for European Union Policies,'' which was presented to the EU meeting in Vienna.

Even shorn of its Soviet empire, Russia remains the largest country on Earth. The Soviet Union - nominally a federal state - tried, and failed, to keep its huge territory in the iron grip of a central command. By contrast, Russia is now on a course toward true federalism.

Russia's constituent parts - republics and regions - are called ''subjects'' of the federation, and the record shows that they have come a long way from their Soviet-era status as mere objects of central power.

The regions' governors are now elected directly by popular vote and are responsible to the electorate for their actions. Accordingly, the regions wield more real power than they have ever done in the past. The elements for building a functioning federation with genuine devolution of power are now in place. Turning what was once a monolithic unitary state into a federal one is a historic achievement.

Finland is in favor of the EU strongly supporting the development of regional and local administration and strengthening grassroots democracy and civil society in Russia. Decentralization by design will prevent disintegration by default.

There are very few nations that can face their history - all of its periods - with equanimity. Yet, that is what they have to do in order to be at ease both with themselves and with their neighbors.

Finns were impressed when President Boris Yeltsin came to Helsinki in 1992 and laid a wreath at the monument to Finland's war heroes, acknowledging that the Soviet Union had acted wrongfully in attacking our country in 1939. His admission sealed the reconciliation between Finland and the new Russia. There are still sensitive events in our history, but they no longer burden our relationship. The fact that Finland was never occupied and that its independence and constitutional continuity were never encroached upon made reconciliation easier.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will join the European Union in the coming decade. They were occupied in World War II and lost their independence for fifty years. The role of the new Russia was crucial in the restoration of their sovereignty. Now it must be possible to move on toward well-functioning relations in the European spirit.