In Finland, one minister shows he can be both a populist and a diplomat

When Timo Soini, a co-founder of the populist Finns Party, entered government last year, some expected him to 'push his agenda or act like a hick.' But instead, he has proven a responsible, respected foreign minister.

Martti Kainulainen/LEHTIKUVA/AP/File
Chairman Timo Soini of the True Finns celebrates with supporters after hearing the results of first preliminary votes of Finnish parliamentary elections in Helsinki, Finland, in April 2011.

Timo Soini, Finland's foreign minister, is used to being the center of attention. Even in the parliamentary lunchroom.

All eyes were on the country's top diplomat and best-known politician recently as, flanked by a squadron of attentive aides, he entered a conference room adjoining the packed cafeteria in the elegant annex of parliament in Helsinki.

The attention which Mr. Soini draws isn't solely for his flamboyant style – and his famed big mouth. He also happens to be a founder and chairman of the Euroskeptic, populist Finns Party, one of the two main parties in the center-right coalition that came to power in May 2015.

Between being foreign minister of a progressive-minded, EU-friendly Nordic country and chairman of a party whose members are decidedly more anti-immigrant and anti-EU than the government, Soini's performance in office has been closely watched by both the press and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

But the friction between Soini's two roles has not sparked the fireworks that many expected when he took office. The populist politician has, observers agree, upended the criticism that greeted his appointment last year, and proved himself a collaborative leader of Finland's most prominent ministry – even though that has sometimes meant disappointing his cantankerous party members.

“I think a lot of people had an almost cartoon character view of Soini when he took over the portfolio and either expected him to push his agenda or act like a hick,” said Eddy Hawkins, a noted Helsinki-based American journalist. “I’ve heard praise from him from other members of the foreign ministry for actually listening to what they had to say. I think by and large that he has been conscientious about promoting the cabinet’s policies, even when they have been in conflict with those of his own party.”

A populist politician

To be sure, based on both his history as well as that of his party, Soini was an unlikely figure to become the face of Finnish foreign policy when he was given his portfolio last year. The former protégé of Veikko Vennamo, founder of the populist Finnish Rural Party, Soini founded its successor, the True Finns, along with several of his sauna buddies in 1999 on a platform that combined left-wing economic views with right-wing nationalist ones, including opposition to EU.

Soini was first elected to parliament in 2003 and was the party's candidate for president in 2006, when he finished fifth. However, neither he nor his party were taken very seriously until the 2011 parliamentary election, when the True Finns, who have since acquired the more moderate moniker of The Finns, polled a surprising 19 percent of the vote, up from a mere 4 percent in the previous election.

Suddenly he and his party were a force to be reckoned with. Doubts about how he and his party would behave if and when they came to power – particularly vis-à-vis the EU, which remains popular in Finland – were reinforced when he campaigned against the Greek and Irish EU bailouts, as well as by his unabashed friendship with Nigel Farage, a leading British Euroskeptic.

Nevertheless Soini has proven a team player in government, and has continued to do so in the wake of the shock British vote to depart the EU.

“Europe is strong, Europe will survive,” he said on the day of the vote, before the result was known. Later, speaking with the Finnish press, he agreed that the British vote “is a serious setback” because Britain was such a major economic and military contributor to European security. “If a player like Britain wishes to leave, there is something fundamentally wrong with the project,” requiring the remaining 27 members, including Finland, to re-examine it, he said. And he reiterated his feeling that the other EU members need to examine the “excessive regulation” the Brussels bureaucratic complex generates.

At the same time, Soini acknowledges Finland’s strong support for EU. “The country voted 57 percent in favor of joining the EU [in 1994]. I am aware of this.”

On the no less touchy subject of the migrant crisis – which hit Finland foursquare last year when more than 30,000 asylum seekers arrived in the country, as opposed to 4,000 in 2014 – Soini is cautiously optimistic. “Europe was not prepared, and neither were we. But I think we came through rather well.”

Still, he felt, “Europe needs a new mechanism for dealing with the situation.”

From opposition to government

It's that kind of awareness of and respect for other points of view, even ones that he might disagree with, that have allowed Soini to confound the pessimistic expectations some had for his ministry.

“In contrast to other countries which have seen the rise of right wing movements ... Soini and his party have shown that they are capable of taking responsibility,” says Michael Franck, a well-known Finnish filmmaker and historical documentarian.

Mr. Franck points out that this corresponds with Finland’s “history of taking members from the former opposition into key positions, from both the left and right, and disarming them.”

Franck notes that tradition extends back to the late 1940s, when many feared the country was in danger of becoming a Soviet satellite. President Juho Paasikivi brought Yrjo Leino of the Moscow-backed Finnish Communist party into the government – where the newly patriotic Leino helped stymie a Czech-like Soviet coup.

More recently Franck points out the "reformed" precedent of Soini's respected predecessor, Erkki Tuomioja, a one-time student radical who ably served as foreign minister. "Like Tuomioja, Soini has managed to convince people who were disillusioned with politics that change can be effected from the outside."

Soini's own room to maneuver also stems significantly, if seemingly paradoxically, from the drop in popularity of his party, which has lost considerable support since last year’s election. The most recent poll shows a drop to 9 percent support, less than half the election level of 18 percent. That has given him more latitude to represent the country as foreign minister.

As for his party, he says, “I still think we aren’t doing bad for four guys who started in a sauna.”

The bear next door

On the subject of Finland’s historically agonistic relations with neighboring Russia, which has recently roiled both Europe and the Baltic region with its puzzlingly aggressive behavior, Soini said that “I do not feel that Russia poses a threat.” However, he pointed out, “it is only realistic for us to reevaluate our own security situation, particularly after [Russia’s actions in] the Ukraine.”

He said that he was particularly proud of his success in persuading Moscow to stop the flow of migrants across the Finnish-Russian border in Lapland, a subject of intense anxiety here last winter, when many feared that Russia was intentionally “infiltrating” asylum seekers to subvert Finnish security.

“It took us weeks to get that,” he said of the informal agreement, which Moscow seems to have adhered to.

On the other hand, Soini also made it clear that Russia also needed to be watched, and that he was strongly in favor of closer defense cooperation with Finland’s apprehensive neighbor to the west, Sweden. The two countries recently signed a new multi-level defense compact, and both are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

But polls indicate that the general population is conflicted about actually joining the NATO alliance, a prospect adamantly opposed by Russia. On that sensitive subject, Soini said that “we are glad NATO’s door is open to us,” while also swearing fealty to the government’s official position that Finland is a neutral and militarily nonaligned nation.

'I proved them wrong'

The still occasionally unpredictable politician-cum-diplomat raised hackles at home when he made an unannounced visit to London following the British vote to exit EU, ostensibly to mollify his anti-EU members. Still, he hewed to the government line and has explicitly rejected a similar referendum in Finland.

“I proved them wrong," he said of his critics. "And I will continue to prove them wrong. It is a privilege to serve as foreign minister of this great country.”

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Soini said, referring to his pressurized job, as he glanced at his buzzing phone with an annoyed glance before handing it to his press aide to answer.

“But,” the proud diplomat boomed, “I love it.”

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