FOR years, East Europeans dreamed about ``Finlandization.'' Western pundits pondered the possibility. Now George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev look set to discuss it at their December mini-summit. Unfortunately, too few people seem to understand what the idea of ``Finlandization'' actually means. Under Finlandization, the captive nations of the outer Soviet empire would be freed to enjoy Western-style democracy and prosperity in return for cast-iron guarantees of its vital security interests.
Moscow would discover that it is better off this way. Instead of subsidizing their allies by buying their substandard products, it would profit from them. Instead of worrying about unrest, there finally would be stability on their frontiers. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has asked, ``In the long run, aren't arrangements in Finland more useful to Soviet security than those in Eastern Europe?''
Mikhail Gorbachev seems to have said yes. In Helsinki last month, he spoke of Finland as a ``model of relations between a big country and a small country ... a model of relations between neighbors.''
East European communist leaders agree that their goal is ``Finlandization.'' Poland already has a noncommunist government and Hungary's Communist Party has transformed itself into a West European-style social democratic organization pledging to fight full, fair, and free elections. When I visited Budapest, the Socialist Party's new ideology chief Janos Barabas told me, ``Finland is much closer to my idea of socialism than Hungary.''
Logical as it sounds, however, ``Finlandization'' won't be easy to achieve. Before World War II, Finland guarded its democratic traditions, while other East European nations, with the notable exception of Czechoslovakia, became authoritarian. During the war, the Finns fought against the Russian invader and gave him a very bloody nose: One million Russian soldiers died. The Finns were never occupied and their country's social fabric emerged intact.
History should caution the East Europeans. Should they try to show their manhood and bloody the Russian nose? Of course not. Their countries suffered from five years of Nazi occupation followed by 40 years of Soviet oppression. This legacy cannot be wiped away in one swipe. Reviewing the armed suppression in 1956 in Hungary, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, in 1981 in Poland, and most recently in China, any reasonable East European knows that the Soviet Union and their own communist regimes still hold the weapons.
That's why some recent noises from behind the crumbling iron curtain are disturbing. No one should question the postwar borders. Everyone should try to avoid the prewar nationality disputes which plagued the region. When Hungarian Socialist leaders talk of ``neutrality,'' when the new Polish Solidarity foreign minister insists on renegotiating the terms of participation in the Warsaw Pact, they are dealing with dynamite. Why? Would the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact change the lives of ordinary Hungarians or Poles? Not really. But if Hungarians and Poles lived in a prosperous free-market democracy, that would bring change.
The Finns understood this lesson well. They worked hard to win the trust of their giant neighbor, avoiding ``emotionally satisfying'' gestures which might feel good but serve no practical purpose. Under the peace treaty with Moscow, the Finns ceded the historic heart of their country, the Karelian province. About a tenth of the population, 400,000 people, lost their homes.
These refugees were quickly resettled and the lost territory has not become a divisive issue. Finns understand they did not fight for Karelia. They fought for national survival and the right to guard their freedom.
Similarly, Finland hasn't antagonized Moscow. Though the West has been critical, the Finns turned back some political refugees who crossed their border, and they've refrained from criticism of Soviet actions such as the invasion of Afghanistan.
``The Finnish policy of restraint is often taken to reveal a limitation of sovereignty, an abdication from the pursuit of national interest. It is, of course, the very opposite: an expression of the sacro egoismo of the nation, a rejection of the claims of ideological solidarity,'' notes Max Jakobson, the former Finnish Ambassador to the United Nations. ``Those who complain about Finland's lack of engagement in promoting freedom and human rights in the Soviet Union fail to understand that the Finns have strong reasons of their own to adhere to the strict classical interpretation of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other states.''
Let's hope the Hungarians, Poles, and other East Europeans, learn these real lessons of ``Finlandization.''