Ambassador Kirsti NARINEN: "Finland is a constructive and flexible partner, a peace-contributing international actor"

25.11.2021 (
Caucasian Journal). The majority of Georgians are aspiring to fully join the European family of nations, but how is this process viewed from the Europe’s side? We discuss this and other questions with Her Excellency Kirsti NARINEN, the new Roving Ambassador of Finland for the South Caucasus. We are delighted to add that today Caucasian Journal is launching our Armenian language version,  and this interview is the first one translated to two South Caucasian languages - Georgian and Armenian. 

▶ ქართულად: Read the Georgian version here.

▶ Հայերեն: 
Read the Armenian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Dear Kirsti, welcome to the Caucasus and to Caucasian Journal! Though just several weeks ago you had a chance to officially present your credentials in Georgia, you were involved in South Caucasian affairs as a Roving Ambassador for a long time; and now you are back from Rustavi where you observed the elections. So, we have a lot to discuss. But let’s start with explaining your position to our readers. What does it mean to be a Roving Ambassador?

Kirsti NARINEN: I would like to start with warm thanks to Caucasian Journal and you, Alexander, for keeping Nordic-Baltic themes high on your agenda! Nordic-Baltic countries have strong societies, even stronger civil societies and share many societal processes - which you have reported on. Those themes could act as well-working examples to other small European countries, within and outside the European Union. I feel honored to be able to continue your sequence and have this conversation with you.

Roving Ambassador means that I live at home in Helsinki and travel to the region often. I have now been in Georgia twice in September, so the trips are actually quite frequent. With intense program of meetings here and with a lot of webinars, on-line-meetings, podcasts, phonecalls, media coverage and reading, I am actually quite well aware of the events in the region. Covid actually pushed us to take a leap in digital diplomacy. In my case this has meant opportunity to participate also in meetings held in and on the region. Obviously dividing time for the three states with a lot going on, can sometimes be a bit challenging… 

AK:  After a long period of remote involvement in South Caucasian affairs, you suddenly get a deep immersion into the very “thick” of Georgian internal situation, in the capacity of an election observer. How did it feel? How different is your real life experience from the months of “virtual ambassadorship”?

KN:  This was actually my third visit to Georgia and fifth to South Caucasus – and had already had a possibility to see some landscape outside the capitals. But in Rustavi where we observed the elections I was for the first time. It was interesting to step out of the Ambassador’s role and become a “normal” OSCE/ODIHR representative. Having observed also the Armenian elections in June, I had the privilege to compare. As professional diplomat, I prefer to see things myself, rather than rely on second-hand information – this is why I wanted to do the ODIHR observation.

Yes, the experience offered a new perspective to elections and democracy. Elections are always important – they give the people the chance to express their opinion and in local elections the themes are – or at least are expected to be – closer to the people, such as schools, infrastructure, jobs, culture etc. We had local elections in June in Finland, and these were the themes discussed. The Georgian elections had of course also another angle – the polarized power struggle and its reflections to the campaigning – this was felt in Rustavi, too. Intriguing new experience.

AK:  And, of course, what’s your impression from the elections?

KN: Sharing the international observation missions’ view, the elections were technically processed like any other election. But free and fair elections is not just about administering the voting. It’s also about political freedoms and fair processes leading up to the vote and acceptance of election results. The spirit of campaigning, format of advertising (i.e. the “blood-stained billboards”) were somewhat unusual to a Nordic eye. Tension, public or private pressure, any “motivating” resources do not belong to elections where only the political views should count. These notions were also mentioned in the EU statement on the elections. On the other hand, the political culture needs to develop and all parties should take part in developing it. A democracy is a compromise by its nature and it’s imperative to all parties to come to terms with this “unpleasant” fact – otherwise there is no end to polarization. It seems that politics in Georgia is still rather personality-driven than program-driven – we remain awaiting when people start demanding more content and less abusive language.

AK:  The ambassador’s work has many dimensions; how do you set your own priorities?  And what are the current goals of Finland’s foreign policy – generally and regarding our region in particular?

KN: The fundamental building blocks of the Finnish foreign policy can be found in the recently published Government Report on Foreign and Security. This is my “bible” and that of my colleagues. It defines the predictable and sustainable Finnish angle to old and new challenges. Finland’s goal is more stable and safer world, and this aim is particularly vocal in this region. Finland believes in global responsibility sharing but also thinks that even smallest input matters. We need to take shared responsibility on global warming, pandemics and safeguarding sustainable use of natural resources. And this needs to happen by the rule-based multilateral system. Human rights, social inclusion, particular respect of minorities and vulnerable groups are in special focus. This means girls and women, not only in crisis areas, and people with disabilities as well as other groups in need of protection, eg. sexual, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. Finland feels that small countries cannot miss any human resource available and thus social inclusion is vital.

This might sound high level politics but actually it is not. Finland in Georgia has projects with disabled people and gender equality issues, we fully support EU statements on minorities’ rights and were following with great concern the shocking events in Tbilisi in July. Within the EU and OSCE frame Finland supports Georgia’s territorial integrity as well as contribute substantially to the EU Monitoring Mission.

Finland is a constructive and, if needed, flexible partner, a peace-contributing and peace-promoting international actor – a lot bigger than our size would provide.

Small countries should always look far beyond its borders in search for partners and allies. Sometimes your domestic agenda seems to overwhelm the scope, but without partners and friends our voice is too weak when we really are in need of support. This is why Finland is a constructive and, if needed, flexible partner, a peace-contributing and peace-promoting international actor – a lot bigger than our size would provide. 

Our President Niinistö is particularly concerned over the general tone of international communication and he has proposed to wake up the Spirit of Helsinki, the language that brought East and West together under the umbrella of the OSCE – then Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe – in the years of the deepest Cold War in 1970’s. Finland would like to have the world jointly focusing on the real challenges we have, such as the climate change and the future of our globe – the only one we have. Instead of focusing on nationalism, or economic and political rivalry.

It is extremely easy for me to promote and defend this kind of foreign and security policy.

AK: Speaking about this region, let’s not forget that your responsibility area covers all the three countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia.  That’s a lot of workload, I suppose. But do you find anything that’s similar between these very different countries, that perhaps makes your work easier?

KN: To be honest, very little similarities if we consider the three individually. All have different security policy solutions, different cultural heritage, economic base, linkages to the outer world etc. but when I look into the region, there is shared political history and the geopolitical pressure of the three big powers on them, both historically and now. South Caucasus has been and shall remain in the cross-roads of Soviet/Russian, Persian/Iranian and Ottoman/Turkish influence. Its impact can be seen vividly again, albeit with changing focus. Turkish influence has increased, Russia desires to remain the main actor and Iran is shaken by the new geopolitical situation after the Karabakh war. This is why I find my work extremely interesting as it contains both the bilateral diverse content with the three countries and the wider international power politics. EU has a balancing role as a reliable partner compared with the more volatile ones and US is in the process of defining its priorities. A fascinating political landscape.

AK: You have a lot of professional experience in dealing with post-Soviet countries, including Estonia and Russia. Do you find this experience useful during your current work?
KN: Yes, I find it extremely useful. Firstly, I speak Russian, which enables me to communicate directly with many more than just in English. Estonia in the 1990’s gave me the understanding what reforms and state-building means and how challenging re-shaping of structures and people’s minds can be. It also showed how determined the leadership must be to make the change and help people to believe in a better future when circumstances tell otherwise. But it also gave me the understanding that fundamental reforms, rule of law, democracy and human values are the only way to success and that success is achievable, when the national interest comes first. Estonian aim at strong partnerships paid off – “Never again alone” was their guiding phrase, this works also for Finland.

AK:  Speaking about your vast experience, I cannot help mentioning that interesting incident I found in an Estonian newspaper, regarding the “walk” with the assistant to mayor of St. Petersburg. That assistant later became the president of Russia. Would you like to share this memory with us? Or maybe there are other incidents you would like to recall?

KN (with a smile): Yes, actually I did not go for that walk, which I have a bit regretted. Then Advisor of international relations, gospodin Putin visited Finland in summer 1993 escorting then Mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak. I had met both many times when working 1990-1992 as Deputy Consul General in St. Petersburg. Finland wanted to facilitate the Estonian-Russian dialogue and guided the Mayor to meet then president of Estonia Lennart Meri who commonly spent his summer vacation in Finland. I was the MIFA liaison of the project. We sailed to the island, gentlemen had their talks, went to sauna and, against the original plan, decided to stay overnight – apparently the talks went smoothly. After dinner they requested me to join in, which I gladly did – later reporting to the Finnish president Mauno Koivisto on the talks – handwritten report faxed to the MFA to be typed and sent to the President with whom we were to have lunch the following day. At the end of the evening, gospodin Putin asked if I would like to go for a walk – I refused, too tired, long day, I remember saying. Would have more to tell, had I gone.

Also shaking hands with President Yeltsin, introduced to him by president of Lithuania Landsbergis, grandfather of the present MFA of Lithuania, as I was the liaison diplomat of the Lithuanian delegation at the OSCE summit in Helsinki 1992, was a memorable moment. Those days Russian Federation was still in good terms with the Baltic states. Experiencing the fall of the Soviet Union and the August 1991’s “revolution-putsch” from inside, as well as the liberation of the Baltic states, to be a part of fundamental political history of Europe is something exquisitely unique. And many more – Tallinn and St. Petersburg were stormy landscapes for a young Finnish diplomat between 1990-1998. I am proud of those memories.

EU is like a golf club, the entry requirements are non-negotiable.

AK:  Going back to nowadays, can we talk about the relationship between our region’s countries and the EU, seen from a Western perspective? There was a lot of controversy about Georgia’s chances to join. For example, former Estonian president addressed Georgia earlier this year by saying “You don’t need to put up the EU flags all over the place if you really don’t share the values of the European Union”. I know that diplomats must be diplomatic, but anyway I thought this is an important question to ask. What are the needed steps to move forward?

KN: The EU integration is about adjusting your society to EU rules and regulations. All member states have done so. EU is like a golf club, the entry requirements are non-negotiable. The only negotiable part is the financing and the timetables of the reforms. This means that all states hoping to join in must have a particularly strong commitment to join and make the reforms, values being the fundamental building block.

Not because the EU says so, but because EU offers a societal, economic and legal format of society and economic build-up that has proven its power and perhaps not supremacy, but compared with many, also that. EU is about legislation and regulation, but first and foremost about values, the same values that we all have agreed with when joining the UN, OSCE or Council of Europe. So EU is not requiring more than we are already committed to in our respective national legislation and international commitments. But EU requires them to be implemented. So joining the EU needs to stem from self-interest – the joining state must see that the reforms, rule of law, market economy rules, transparency and non-political judicial system are for the good of the country for their own merits. 

Georgia has the Association Agreement (AA), visa freedom, Free Trade Agreement, so the path is paved. But it seems that the final commitment still needs work, homework - both in concrete terms like e.g. judiciary reforms, but equally in terms of mentally embracing the idea of EU being, not merely a legal framework of institutional construction, but based on shared values – I think this is what president Kaljulaid referred to. Finland is a strong supporter of EU enlargement, not all are. But our firm commitment is that enlargement must benefit the Union, and so-called Copenhagen criteria must be fully complied with. It is doable– when there is the will, there is the way.

AK:  Armenia and Azerbaijan are not as aspiring as the recently formed “Associated Trio” (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine), but still they are members of EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP).  Can you comment about your agenda regarding those countries?  

KN: Finland sees the Eastern Partnership as a means to bring prosperity and stability to the European neighborhood and forms the legal base to co-finance the process. Each country makes is own choices of the width, depth and speed of their EU engagement. Georgia is part of the AA Trio and obviously desires to make a clearer difference to those that are not. Finland considers that the AA, visa freedom and free trade as such give the trio a privileged position – more freedoms, better cooperation programs and trading opportunities. The AA status also puts the reform requirement target higher.

The agreement base with Azerbaijan has been negotiated for a long time and hopefully shall reach the goal soon. With Armenia, however, the CEPA (Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement) entered into force earlier this year and their reform path seems promising. EU support shall increase as reforms and business opportunities grow. Naturally the Karabakh war last year was a shock to many sectors of society, with the Covid coefficient, but there are many good signs of recovery, EU projects supporting them. Belarus is of course the story of its own. There is a clear link between democracy and EU integration – without one there cannot be the other.

We shall have the EaP Summit mid-December – we shall assess the situation again after that. 

AK: If there is anything else that you want to share with our readers, the floor is yours. Maybe a specific project that you are planning, or just an interesting (or funny) experience that you would like to talk about?

This is what I would like to promote: Bring Finland to the maps and minds in the South Caucasus as a contributor of peace, stability and prosperity with good Team Europe spirit and solid partnerships. And to bring South Caucasus to maps and minds in Finland as a partner, not as a crisis zone.

KN: Two things: I visited Georgia in the capacity of the EU-NATO Hybrid Center of Excellence representative in February 2019, my first visit to Tbilisi – then not knowing that I would come back as an ambassador. And when I did, suddenly I had networks ready waiting for me: those that I had met in 2019, like our wonderful honorary consul Eka Metreveli from GFSIS and ladies at the NATO Liaison Office, but also others whom I knew – minister Akhvlediani (ambassador colleague from Tallinn), Head of EUMM, Finns at the EUMM, Estonian ambassador, MEPs, EUSR Klaar, Finns that had had a visible role in connection with GID, OSCE, and many others – people that I could turn to without introduction when needed. A luxury for a diplomat.

And the other story, evacuation of Finns and Finland related Afghans from Kabul last August. The hub of the Finnish state organized evacuation was established at Tbilisi Airport. That week of intense communication with Georgian, EU, diplomatic colleagues, later Finnish military and of course the irreplaceable Eka Metreveli shall not be forgotten. We were building political history while saving lives of women, children and men – youngest was just 18 days old, and Georgia was the focal point of this all. The Georgian authorities played an instrumental role in making the evacuation as smooth as possible and this effort brought Georgia to the maps in Finland.

This is what I would like to promote: Bring Finland to the maps and minds in the South Caucasus as a contributor of peace, stability and prosperity with good Team Europe spirit and solid partnerships. And to bring South Caucasus to maps and minds in Finland as a partner, not as a crisis zone. The potential is there – now we need more good news to convey. And a glass of Saperavi, of course.
AK: Thank you very much for answers! This echoes very much with Caucasian Journal’s mission. We would be happy to support, and to see you anytime, whenever you wish to reach out with your views. 

Read the Georgian language version here.  Read the Armenian language version here

Caucasian Journal appreciates kind support of Estonian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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