Mauno Koivisto, who has died aged 93, was Finland’s last Cold War president, serving two six-year terms from 1982 to 1994 and cautiously steering the country out of isolation and into the European Union.
Popularly known as “Manu”, he was once described in the New York Times as a “self-made man who regularly wears darned socks and who conveys the impression of sturdy self-reliance, without the slightest vestige of pomp or show”. He was a great favourite with Finnish voters.
“Finlandisation” was the derogatory term used in the West to describe the country’s Cold War policy of remaining neutral but in reality being highly compliant with the Soviet Union. As a veteran of both the bitter 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviets and the so-called Continuation War of 1941-44, Koivisto understood as well as any the need for Finland to establish a modus vivendi with her huge, volatile neighbour.
He had had his knuckles rapped in 1968 when, as Finland’s prime minister under the long presidency of Urho Kekkonen, his government had condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, earning a thinly veiled piece of sabre-rattling in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia calling for the establishment of Soviet military bases in Finland against a supposed West German threat. The situation only calmed down after a meeting between Kekkonen and the Soviet statesman Alexei Kosygin, followed by a “vacation” trip to Moscow by Koivisto two weeks later.
Under Kekkonen, who had served as Finland’s president from 1956 to 1981, there had been considerable media censorship and limitations on freedom of expression, to the extent that many questioned whether the country could be regarded as a democracy.
Books deemed critical of the Soviets had been banned, along with numerous films including The Manchurian Candidate. Soviet defectors were sent back as a matter of policy; Soviet atrocities were not reported and Finnish nationalist groups were heavily restricted.
A lanky man with a long, craggy face, in his early years as President Koivisto continued the policy of “active neutrality”, including the practice of returning Soviet defectors to the Soviet Union. But at the same time he introduced modest measures of democratisation, refraining from using some of the more authoritarian powers assumed by his predecessor and encouraging parliamentary institutions.
Above all, he charted a new course in foreign policy by cultivating good relations with both East and West, a task made easier by the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin in 1985. The two men became close and Koivisto, who was fluent in Russian, helped to broker improved relations between the USSR and the US; in 1990 he hosted a summit meeting between President George HW Bush and the Soviet leader.
The early 1980s were a period of free-market prosperity in Finland, buoyed up by relatively cheap supplies of Soviet energy and the market in eastern Europe for Finnish consumer and industrial goods that would have been difficult to sell in the West.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, created huge structural and political problems. In the early 1990s Finnish unemployment soared to about 14 per cent, the economy plunged into recession and the delicate political balancing act with Moscow began to look shaky as the three neighbouring Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, sought to establish their independence and looked to Finland for support. Suddenly caution seemed to be a luxury Finland could ill afford.
Koivisto worked hard to persuade the West of the urgent need of the Soviet Union (and subsequently of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States), for external economic support. While he avoided any public support of the Baltic independence movement, its representatives were allowed to work from inside Finland.
Meanwhile, gambling on his continuing good relations with Russia’s leaders, he began the process of leading Finland out of international isolation. When in 1990, after German reunification, he unilaterally renounced the military clauses of the 1947 Paris Treaty, which placed restrictions on Finnish defence forces, there was no official protest from Moscow.
The son of a ship’s carpenter, Mauno Henrik Koivisto was born on November 25 1923, in the southern port city of Turku. At the beginning of the Winter War in 1939 he volunteered aged 16 for a field firefighting unit.
During the Continuation War, he served in a reconnaissance detachment operating behind enemy lines. He was awarded the Order of the Cross of Liberty (2nd class) and was promoted to the rank of corporal.
After the war, Koivisto joined the Social Democratic Party and graduated from the University of Turku with a degree in Philosophy and a PhD in Sociology. After graduation he became a banker, rising to become managing director of the Helsinki Workers’ Savings Bank from 1959 to 1967.
By this time he had emerged as a key figure among the Social Democrats and he went on to serve as chairman of the board of the Bank of Finland, a position he retained until 1982 and in which he was widely credited as the architect of the country’s prosperity.
He also announced that Finland would play host to the 35-nation European Conference on Security and Cooperation that would lead to the Helsinki accords of 1975. However, he backed off from a proposed Nordic Economic Union with other Scandinavian countries for fear of jeopardising Finland’s neutral status.
In his spare time Koivisto liked playing volleyball, whittling and relaxing in a log cabin outside Helsinki that he had largely built himself.
In 1952 he married Tellervo Kankaanranta, who survives him with their daughter.
Mauno Koivisto, born November 25 1923, died May 12 2017
Original article: The Daily Telegraph.