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Ahtisaari, Martti (1937 - )

President of Finland

Martti Ahtisaari
1994, The Office of the President of the Republic of Finland

Martti Ahtisaari, who had enjoyed a distinguished career in the service of the UN, was elected president of Finland in the country's first direct popular election, bypassing the party machines. Prominent elements of Ahtisaari's foreign policy were the promotion of a collective European security system and of Nordic co-operation, and a security policy not involving membership of NATO. Perhaps the most visible feature of Ahtisaari's term in office was his numerous trips both at home and abroad.

Before he became president, Martti Ahtisaari served in posts including those of an expert on development co-operation at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Finnish ambassador in Dar es Salaam and the UN's under-secretary-general for administration and financial matters and commissioner for Namibia; as special representative of the UN secretary-general, he also implemented the process which led to Namibia's independence. As permanent secretary of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Ahtisaari became a presidential candidate independent of party machines after Mauno Koivisto's term in office. He became Finland's tenth president - the first to be directly elected under a two-round system.

Martti Ahtisaari was born while his father Oiva was a non-commissioned officer in the service corps in Viipuri (Vyborg). Oiva Ahtisaari, whose family roots lay in southern Norway, took out Finnish citizenship in 1929, changing his surname from Adolfsen in 1935. The war years took Martti's father to the front as a military mechanic, while his mother Tyyne Ahtisaari moved to Kuopio with the boy to escape immediate danger from the war. Kuopio was the setting for Martti's childhood and schooling, including the first classes at the Kuopio lyseo (grammar school). In 1952, Oiva moved to Oulu with his family for job reasons, and the Oulu lyseo and the local Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) were key factors that moulded Martti's view of the world.

After he had done his military service, Ahtisaari's career wishes took him to the teachers' college in Oulu. There he was able to live at home while attending the two-year course that qualified him as a primary-school teacher in 1959. But the career in education that he began as a class teacher at the school at Oulunsuu did not seem challenging enough for him.

In April 1960, there was an announcement in the YMCA publication Nuori Mies stating that a manager was needed for a students' home at a physical education college in Karachi in Pakistan. The institute was run mainly by Swedes, but a suitable person for the job could not be found in Sweden. Ahtisaari replied to the announcement, went to Sweden for an interview and signed a contract in summer 1960. As well as the managing of the students' home, the job involved training teachers, which in itself suited him well. The essential aspect was to become familiar with problems of development co-operation at a practical level and to get the feel of an international environment.

On his return to Finland in 1963, Ahtisaari began studies at the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration (Helsingin kauppakorkeakoulu). But he became caught up in practical action; in 1964 he became the executive director of the Helsinki international student club Helsingin kansainvälinen ylioppilasklubi and of Ylioppilaiden Kansainvälinen Apu, a student international-aid group. The awakening interest in development-aid activities amongst student circles prompted Ahtisaari to design appropriate forms of action, such as creating development aid groups and arranging practical assistance in settling in for foreign students arriving in Finland. This period also saw the establishment of friendships which proved useful in later years - for instance, that with the student Nicky Iyambo, who later served as a minister several times in Namibia.

In Finland it was decided to give the task of organising the incipient collaboration in development to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and this led first to the establishment of a unit first called the Bureau for International Development Aid and later the Department for International Development Co-operation. The official titles of 'secretary', 'section head' and 'assistant department head' were those acquired by Ahtisaari along the path of promotion between 1965 and 1973. As the second-ranking person in the department, he participated in Finnish co-operation projects, important among which were those implemented in the East African region. One of the most significant projects was a community built at the village of Kiba near the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam as a joint programme of the Nordic countries; it included a training centre for farmers, a secondary school with courses leading to university entrance and a health-care centre.

In 1968, Martti Ahtisaari married Eeva Hyvärinen. They had met as far back as their school days in Kuopio, but had since gone their separate ways. Eeva Ahtisaari, who worked as the secretary for local cultural activities in Espoo near Helsinki, divided her time between her job and her family - their son Marko was born in 1969.

The family's life underwent a change when Martti Ahtisaari was appointed as ambassador in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, being accredited in Lusaka in Zambia, Mogadishu in Somalia and Maputo in Mozambique as well. Finland had been represented previously in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka, but Ahtisaari was the first Finnish ambassador to Somalia and Mozambique. The advancement of the outsider from the teaching profession in the Department for International Development Co-operation had aroused envy among ministry staff, since the department's most important posts were expected to go to career diplomats. This did not, however, prevent President Urho Kekkonen from appointing Ahtisaari, then only 36 years old, as an ambassador. Ahtisaari's social democratic background was believed to have played a key role in the decision, though he indisputably also possessed sufficient expertise in relations between Finland and this region.

His work in Tanzania from 1973 to 1977 thoroughly familiarised Ahtisaari with East African issues. Closely associated with this was the monitoring of Namibia's process of achieving independence, as Dar es Salaam was a base for the operations of SWAPO (the South West Africa People's Organization), the key body of the Namibian liberation movement and later an important political party. Ahtisaari had gained the trust of African circles, and thus - just as it seemed likely that he would return to Finland when his term as ambassador ended - he was put forward as the UN commissioner for Namibia both by the freedom fighters and by other, influential African bodies. What was involved was a post that had become vacant due to the retirement of the Irishman Sean McBride and whose aim was to ensure that the views of the Namibians were heard in New York when the UN was making decisions related to their process of gaining independence.

As commissioner for Namibia, Ahtisaari was involved in activities aimed at preparing the Namibians for independence. A Finnish initiative had led to the establishment of a Namibia Institute, where Namibians were trained for specialised tasks in the future national administration, school system and other essential structures. At the same time Martti Ahtisaari committed himself to the Namibian independence process in another way. In this process, the role of the UN secretary-general was important, given the tangle of pressures generated by the Cold War and the complex conflicts of interest within Africa. Ahtisaari became the special representative in Namibia of Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and especially of Waldheim's successor Javier Pérez de Cuellar. Since in practice the roles of commissioner for Namibia and special representative of the secretary-general proved impossible to deal with simultaneously, Ahtisaari concentrated on the latter task.

In 1978, the Ahtisaaris moved to New York, where Martti Ahtisaari's career at the world organisation began. On the one hand, he laid foundations for Namibia's independence; but his main task was to maintain constant contact between SWAPO, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the most important nations in the arena of world politics, and the highest levels of the UN's leadership. However, with the advent of the 1980s, the political preconditions for Namibian independence still did not exist, and this situation provided an opportunity for the Ahtisaaris to move back to Finland.

The return to Finland coincided with a period in which the country was engaged in a lively debate over the effectiveness of development co-operation and the possible misuse of resources appropriated for this purpose. As head of the Department for International Development Co-operation and a permanent undersecretary for development co-operation, Ahtisaari participated in this debate. Answers to open questions were often found through practical action, so that organisation became more effective and the need for criticism was removed.

As a permanent undersecretary, Ahtisaari took part in monitoring the Namibia process and was also able to influence the course of negotiations from a specifically Finnish angle. Interested as he was in administrative issues, and being an experienced expert in this field, Ahtisaari was appointed a UN under-secretary-general for financial and administrative matters in 1987. Under the pressure of its increasing workload, the world organisation had been forced to approve ever new expenditure and an increased administrative staff. Ahtisaari's task was to draw up procedures for achieving savings and ensuring that member countries - above all, the United States - paid their share of expenditure. Ahtisaari also created genuine opportunities for UN employees to intervene in order to rectify faults in the organisation's operating procedures.

The Namibia problem began to move towards resolution as the front lines in the Cold War crumbled in the late 1980s. The great powers now called on the African parties involved to agree to independence. After many rounds of negotiations, Martti Ahtisaari, who had been appointed special representative of the UN secretary-general, left for Namibia in March 1989 to lead the country to independence as the head of a UN force comprising some 8,000 military and civilian personnel. However, the whole process seemed to be coming unstuck when - in late March/early April, before the UN force had had time to arrive - SWAPO soldiers pushed into Namibia across the border with Angola in order to ensure their position in the elections which were being arranged. Informing the UN secretary-general, Ahtisaari delegated the South African forces present in the country to act in the name of the world organisation in order to restore calm. The authorised activities of their former oppressors angered many; but during April, Ahtisaari succeeded in using the path of negotiation to stabilise the situation and to steer events in the direction of elections, which were held in November. The flag of an independent Namibia was hoisted in Windhoek. The Namibian government respected Ahtisaari's work and later - in 1992 - made Eeva and Martti Ahtisaari honorary citizens of Namibia.

Once the Namibia problem had been resolved, Ahtisaari returned to New York and his UN job in the area of finances and management. However, the highest bureaucratic position at the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs - that of valtiosihteeri (~ UK permanent secretary) - was becoming vacant. Ahtisaari took charge of the ministry in 1991 and found the job especially pleasing because his earlier years working at the level of development co-operation and the financial and administrative experience that he had acquired at the UN provided good starting points for the work.

Purely administrative duties were, however, soon joined by other challenges. After the war launched by Iraq, Ahtisaari led a working party whose task it was to report to the UN on changes in the situation. Its message was that, all things considered, the most sensible course was to allow the country to return to normal life as soon as possible. The United States in particular had expected statements justifying tougher measures against Iraq. The report did not meet these expectations and was believed by many to have destroyed American support for Ahtisaari as a candidate in the contest for the post of UN secretary-general. A solution came when African countries put forward a common candidate in the person of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Ahtisaari was, however, asked to become chairman of the Bosnia-and-Herzegovina working party at the UN's conference on Yugoslavia in Geneva in the same year, though there were interruptions to his work there because of the presidential campaign in Finland.

The discussion concerning a successor to President Mauno Koivisto had become more intense at the beginning of the 1990s, even though Koivisto had not yet commented on a possible third term. The 1994 presidential election took place in a situation in which Finland had lapsed into a deep recession. Trust in the traditional actors within the power structure was wavering, and the politicians were seen as incapable of leading the country out of its difficulties. The method of electing the president had also changed: for the first time a direct, two-round popular election was to replace the electoral-college system. In addition to those of party candidates, a large number of names of persons committed only loosely - or not at all - to the parties entered public discussion. Martti Ahtisaari was one such person, and early in 1993 he finally agreed to stand. A number of parties held their own internal preselections; The Finnish Social Democratic Party (Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue: SDP) granted the right to vote to persons other than party members as well. When Mauno Koivisto announced that he was not going to seek a third term, Kalevi Sorsa responded that he would start campaigning. In the preselection held on 16 May 1993, Ahtisaari beat Sorsa and three others. One of the factors working to Ahtisaari's advantage was that he succeeded in gathering more votes than the other candidates among non-party members.

After the preselection, Ahtisaari returned to his work in Geneva and did not begin his presidential election campaign until October. By the election day on 16 January 1994, however, he had managed to travel all around the country and attend some 300 events.

Martti Ahtisaari won the first of the two rounds in the direct popular election with almost 26% of the votes; this was in line with the support for him shown in a number of previous opinion polls. In second place was Elisabeth Rehn with 22%; even though she had served in posts including that of minister of defence in Esko Aho's government, she managed during her campaign to shake off the damaging label of party commitment. "Finland won; the parties lost" was thus one comment made about Ahtisaari and Rehn as alternatives from outside the party machines.

In the run-up to the second round, most supporters of Raimo Ilaskivi and Paavo Väyrynen transferred their allegiance to Elisabeth Rehn for ideological reasons, and in the opinion polls Martti Ahtisaari's support rating remained below 50%. However, by the time of the decisive vote on 6 February, Ahtisaari had closed the gap and then passed Rehn, so that in the end slightly over 53% of the voters backed Martti Ahtisaari as Finland's tenth president. Voters committed to the political left and most of those with loose party ties sided with Ahtisaari. It is estimated that over 80% of those who had voted for Eeva Kuuskoski in the first round and more than 70% of 'Veltto' Virtanen's supporters went over to Martti Ahtisaari. More than 60% of those who had supported Keijo Korhonen, an opponent of the European Union (EU), are also estimated to have voted for Ahtisaari, even though the starting shot for his presidency, which began on 1 March 1994, was the EU membership treaty negotiated by Finland and supported by Ahtisaari.

Ahtisaari's term began with a somewhat confused situation, in that the Centre Party prime minister Esko Aho did not consider it necessary to offer his government's resignation, despite the fact that this had in the past been customary when a new president assumed office. Differences of opinion over policy arose between the president and the government; the issues included Finland's representation abroad. The president being in charge of the country's foreign and security policy, it was Ahtisaari's view that he should also take part in important meetings. The Aho government was of the opinion that within the context of the EU, domestic and foreign politics were intertwined in such a way that the roles of the prime minister and foreign minister took on a new importance. But Ahtisaari had his way, and when the new, broadly based Lipponen government was formed after parliamentary elections, the division of labour was clarified and disputes over representation took a back seat.

In a referendum held in October 1994, 57% of Finnish voters favoured the country's joining the European Union, and it thus became possible for accession to be implemented at the beginning of 1995. Promoting a European system of collective security and Nordic co-operation as well as a security policy which did not include membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were key elements of Ahtisaari's foreign policy. One of the most conspicuous events of his term of office was a summit conference held in Helsinki on 20/21 March 1997, at which Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton agreed on principles for the expansion of NATO, the continuation of disarmament and various economic issues. Ahtisaari made abundant use of his time abroad to deal with such matters as the establishment of contacts important in the area of foreign trade. With his trips to the provinces at home, he honoured his pledge made during the election campaign to maintain discussion contacts with 'ordinary' Finns.

The climax of Ahtisaari's term as president came with his role - in collaboration with the former Russian foreign minister Viktor Chernomyrdin - as an intermediary in the achievement of a treaty to end the war in Kosovo. The war, which lasted almost two-and-a-half months, ended on 3 June 1999 with the agreement of Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic to joint NATO/Russian peace conditions negotiated by Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin in Belgrade. As a result of the successful negotiations, Ahtisaari - and Finland as well - received much positive publicity.

Martti Ahtisaari did not stand again for president in the 2000 election. Since his retirement he has taken on duties in international foundations and the administrative bodies of Finnish enterprises.

Hannu Heikkilä

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari, born 23.6.1937 Viipuri. Parents: Oiva Alvar Adolfsen, from 1936 Ahtisaari, military mechanic, and Tyyne Karonen. Wife: 1968 - Eeva Irmeli Hyvärinen, born 1936, wife's parents: Aarne Taavetti Hyvärinen, contractor, farmer, and Aini Lilja, housewife. Child: Marko Oiva Ilari, born 1969.

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