HELSINKI — FINLAND's application to join the European Community has raised the politically sensitive issue of its independent defense system and NATO membership in this traditionally neutral country.
While clinging to the familiar phrases of neutrality and nonalignment, Helsinki is increasingly leaning toward the West.
One sign of this evolving foreign policy is the government's recent decision to buy all its new fighter planes from the United States. Until now Finland has always bought half of its fighters from the West and half from Russia as part of a careful cold-war balancing act.
President Mauno Koivisto has defended the $3-billion deal for the American F/A-18 jets as strictly business with no security guarantees involved. "In the fighter deal, we haven't requested extra favors on security policy and we haven't been offered any," he said.
But Tomas Ries, a Norwegian specialist on Finnish security, says the fighter deal makes Finland dependent on Washington. Some Finnish analysts, however, argue that rather than bringing the country into a closer alliance with the US the deal simply leaves the door open to NATO and does not compromise Finland's independent security policy.
Ilkka Suominen, this country's Speaker of parliament, further fueled debate when he recently questioned in a speech whether Finland could remain fully independent in its security policy if it were to join the EC.
Although Finland's application to the EC contains no reference to preserving neutrality as a precondition, it is a priority in negotiations. Until now Finns have been told that neutrality is a realistic goal even in the future.
But EC countries are looking ahead to some form of common defense and Finland is planning to join the Community around 1995. As centrist Foreign Minister Paavo Vyrynen said in March, shocking the country, membership in NATO cannot be ruled out as a future option.
The principle of political neutrality has been for decades a sacred cow in Finnish foreign policy. With its 780-mile shared border with Russia, Finland insisted on neutrality during the cold war, despite being loosely tied to the Soviet Union by a treaty of cooperation. This allowed Finland to develop its market economy and maintain profitable trade relations with Moscow.
The price Finland paid was to walk a tightrope between East and West. In international politics, the country refrained from taking sides when superpower interests conflicted, even in evident violations of international law such as the occupation of Czecho-slovakia in 1968. And in foreign trade, equal terms were struck with the EC and the former Soviet bloc.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the cooperation treaty was scrapped early this year, Finnish foreign policy was freed of its watchdog.
But as President Koivisto stated at the opening session of parliament in February, "Our basic attitude to a policy of neighborliness remains unchanged."
Boris Yeltsin's Russia had no objections to Finnish membership of the EC. "If Finland decides to apply for EC membership, we will be loyal in this and support Finland's bid," Russian Deputy Premier Gennady Burbulis commented before Finland's formal application.
Although neutrality is no longer a political necessity, Finns are only slowly starting to question it. In principle, all political parties still support neutrality as the basis for foreign policy.
Because of a long tradition of neutrality, Finland - like Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria - has remained outside NATO and the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, to which the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe belonged.
One reason given for the extreme caution is that turmoil in Russia could explode and divide Europe again. This argument is also used by those favoring integration into Western Europe.
In a recent interview with the Helsingin Sanomat daily, Max Jakobson, a prominent political analyst, welcomed the recent debate about Finland's foreign policy: "The speeches have eliminated allergy to NATO, which Finland has suffered from," he said.
Finnish politicians are finally getting down to real foreign policy issues, Dr. Jakobson says, although "nonalignment" and "neutrality" should be deleted from foreign policy vocabulary, he asserts.
As part of its goal to become more integrated into Europe, Prime Minister Esko Aho's government, along with the three major parties, sees EC membership as an essential first step. But hardly anyone is ready to question neutrality publicly. Abandoning the concept of neutrality has until now been considered a major political heresy by Finns.
Leaders of the Center Party, for instance, want to preserve the concept of neutrality, while softening its interpretation.
In parliament, attitudes toward the EC do not follow traditional party lines. The Center Party, which holds the largest number of seats and is the backbone of the center-right coalition government, is deeply split. Nearly half of centrist representatives voted against joining the EC in March.
The reason lies in the deep agrarian roots of the party, which draws much of its support from the countryside. Resistance to the EC is strongest among farmers, two-thirds of whom oppose membership because of concern over losing agricultural subsidies.
The Conservative Party and the Social-Democratic Party, the largest opposition group, unanimously voted for the EC.
EC opponents like Eero Taivalsaari, leader of the small anti-EC movement Alternative to the EC, are worried that Finnish sovereignty will be threatened.
"In the union Finland would become an abused party and that would be the end of independence," he claims. Instead, he offers Nordic cooperation and the recent agreement on the European Community Area which guarantees free-trade without compromising political sovereignty.
Public opinion is becoming more pro-EC. According to a poll last month, 56 percent of the population favor EC membership, up from 41 percent in January, while 31 percent oppose it (down from 40 percent). Another poll shows that the young and educated are most pro-EC membership.
The prime minister said yesterday that Tuesday's Danish vote rejecting the Maastricht Treaty will not have a direct influence on Finland's EC policy. He added, however, that it may inflame public discussion about the Community.