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Ex-President Koivisto secretly funnelled money to support Estonian independence

During his term as Finnish President, recently-departed statesman Mauno Koivisto faced harsh criticism for not supporting Estonia's bid for independence more openly. Koivisto actually disguised aid to Finland's southern neighbour as cultural cooperation, to avoid the ire of Moscow. He kept quiet about it until his death.

Presidentti Mauno Koivisto tapaamassa Venäjän presidentti Boris Jeltsiniä Moskovassa 5. maaliskuuta 1993.
Koivisto with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Image: Kimmo Mantylä / Lehtikuva

When he was President of Finland, Mauno Koivisto sent financial support to Estonia in the guise of cultural cooperation funds to avoid drawing attention from Moscow.

"We cannot interfere in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union," Koivisto said publicly in 1991, "Finland has de facto recognised the Baltic States' integration into the USSR, and we will adhere to everything that has been internationally agreed."

In reality, Finland's decision to help Estonia had already made behind the scenes three years earlier. Estonia had declared sovereignty, and Finland's political elite had decided to support Estonian independence as much as possible.

To stay on the right side of the Soviets, however, the money had to look as if it did not originate from the Finnish state.

"Many Finns are bitter about how cold-heartedly Koivisto treated Estonia. He did this in public because he thought that it was in Finland's best interests to maintain a good relationship with Moscow," says historian and researcher Heikki Rausmaa, who defended a doctoral dissertation on Finland's aid to Estonia in 2013.

100 million Finnish marks

Rausmaa's studies show that Finland contributed over 100 million Finnish marks towards Estonian independence by the year 1991. In addition to this material support, Finland provided expert consultation and training to its southern neighbour, which basically had to build a market economy and the system of democratic rule from scratch. 

"Finland's old constitutional law stipulated that all of the responsibility for foreign policy lay with the president, so without Koivisto's decision, the aid couldn't have been delivered," Rausmaa says.

Finland extended money to Estonia under the cover of cultural cooperation. Education and Culture Minister Anna-Liisa Kasurinen was giving responsibility for the program. Behind closed doors she was called the Estonian affairs minister.

"In the name of culture"

Kasurinen reportedly asked Koivisto how much help Finland could give to Estonia, to which Koivisto replied: "Well, you can practice a lot of things in the name of culture." 

The Ministry decided to fund the Tuglas Society and the Finnish-Estonian Cultural Association, whose office in Helsinki became the fledgling country's informal mission and support base. Future Estonian President Lennart Meri worked there when news broke of the "singing revolution" breaking though in August 1991.

Later in his life, Koivisto refrained from speaking about his personal relationship with Estonia and the events of the early 1990s.

"He wrote less than 100 pages on the Baltic countries in his memoirs, but didn't mention Minister Kasurinen or Finnish funding for Estonia once," says Rausmaa.

Keeping it under the radar

One month after Estonia declared independence, Koivisto was interviewed by the Estonian public broadcaster. It was one of the few instances in his life when he spoke of Finland's carefully-concealed support for Estonian sovereignty.

"It is not general knowledge in Estonia - and it never will be - all the things that Finland has done for Estonia," he said.

Koivisto's public support levels plummeted in the early 1990s, in part because he was seen as being too soft about Estonia in his public statements as Finland's president.

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