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President Sauli Niinistö: Time to make peace with the past

In his traditional New Year’s Day address Monday, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö applauded Finland’s independence centennial and called for honesty as the nation faces the 100th anniversary of a civil war that ripped the country apart.

Tasavallan presidentti Sauli Niinistö pitää uudenvuodenpuhetta.
Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

In his annual New Year’s Day address on Monday, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö declared the last year, in which Finland celebrated its independence centenary, a success.

"It has been rousing to see how people’s festive mood took over the country during the course of the year. We recapped the past, looked to the future and, above all, felt genuine joy of our own Finnishness."

Niinistö said however that the milestone year could easily delude people into thinking of the watershed period as a time before and after independence.

Stark difference between 1917 and 1918

Turning to the year ahead, which marks 100 years since the country’s bloody civil war, Niinistö called for reflection, noting that the first year after independence saw a nation that was not united, but very much apart. He said that time had not yet healed the scars of that tumultuous period.

"This cannot simply be swept away. We must have the courage to be honest about history, because only honesty creates a foundation for trust. A strong society is able to face up to painful things as well. We must try to reconcile the past," Niinistö declared.

The president called on the country to learn the lessons of this painful period. He spoke of diversity, different backgrounds, convictions and goals and noted that people have a right to disagree. He stressed the important of respecting that right, regardless of what individuals may think.

"Lost decade" over

Turning to the present, Niinistö said that after a lost decade of stagnation, the economy is experiencing an upswing and employment is improving. However he warned of the perils of excessive borrowing to fund public and private consumption.

"The warning that abundant funding has been channelled into increased debts and asset values is well founded. Tighter monetary policy, which is inevitable in the world at some stage, will lead to a more challenging situation. Reasonable caution is now called for," he advised.

Concerns about marginalised youth

The president also raised the issue of marginalisation among young people and referenced an autumn study that looked at young adults’ security concerns. He pointed out that many young people are marginalised and that school bullying is still a problem in Finland – in person and on social media. He added that the #MeToo movement has raised awareness of how much young people are harassed.

"Much would improve if we showed empathy or at least if we were able to respect each other. There would be understanding and the connection that ensues," he remarked.

North Korea and the status of the EU and UN

Niinistö then reviewed events on the world stage, saying that in spite of global turmoil, Finland enjoys a stable position. Among the global security risks to have emerged during the past year, the President listed arms development in North Korea.

He also expressed concern about a recent development in which China, Russia and the United States have a place at the table where global matters are decided, while the EU and the UN appear to be on the sidelines.

"Fortunately, there is always room for small actors between the major powers. Finland is more than pleased to provide good services when required. Finland is also active in supporting stability and dialogue in the Baltic Sea area, Arctic areas and also globally."

Niinistö said that one positive development had been the fact that the UN Security Council had been unanimously been able to agree on further sanctions against North Korea. However he said that on a gloomier note, the United States had been bluntly critical of the global organisation.

More funding to fight climate change

The President also used the opportunity to declare that climate change is a real threat and that Finland is committed to implementing the provisions of the Paris climate change agreement. He noted that Finland had increased funding for international initiatives to combat climate change.

He called for action to improve the status of women and girls in developing countries and for programmes to ensure they receive education and exercise the right to self-determination.

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