Is Finlandization the way to save Lebanon?
Can Finland’s relations with Russia serve as an example for Lebanon in the face of an Iranian takeover? One might need a little history refresher to answer this. Finland was under Swedish rule until the end of the 18th century. When Sweden lost its position as a great power of the time and was defeated in the Finnish War of 1808-09, Russia conquered Finland and it became an autonomous grand duchy. Ironically, it was at that time that the seeds of the idea of an independent state were planted among its population.
Finland ultimately took advantage of Russia’s revolution and the First World War to declare its independence in 1917. And, following a short civil war, it became a republic in 1919. Conciliatory measures allowed for its fast development as a nation.
As the Second World War started, a pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union relegated Finland to the latter’s influence. Soviet forces attacked Finland in 1939 and took over the southeastern part of the country. The Western world was weak and hence silently watched this aggression, so Finland was left to deal with it alone. This is partly why, when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Finland joined the attack. It took the deaths of more than 90,000 Finns and 300,000 Soviets, as well as Finland losing 10 percent of its territory, to reach the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 that finalized the country’s new borders.
This brief history lesson does not end here. However, it already shows that, when we in the Middle East look at the stability in Europe with envy, it was in fact not so long ago that the old continent was living with similar, if not greater, levels of conflict and instability as we see in our region today. This primarily means that there is a path to stability and prosperity.
The history of Finland and the Soviet Union becomes more relevant to Lebanon (and also Iraq) during the Cold War era. Then, the division of Europe between the US and USSR clearly put Finland under Moscow’s influence without any regards to the wishes of the local population. So how was Helsinki able to keep its independence despite this global geopolitical arrangement?
Many commentators of the time claimed that Finland was able to remain sovereign and independent because the Kremlin allowed it, as it saw this as a net advantage that demonstrated to the world the USSR’s openness and impartiality. It was, in short, a needed ideological tool in its fight against the US. There is certainly truth to this view. However, Finland also played a part in convincing Moscow that this was the case. And Soviet Russia had understood that a new military adventure in Finland would be costly.
This effort at appeasement is known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine. It is named after President Juho Paasikivi and his successor Urho Kekkonen. It was a pragmatic view, stating that to maintain the country’s independence, sovereignty and democracy, but also maintain a free economy, it needed to stay neutral; but it was an active neutrality rather than a passive one. This came at the cost of local censorship and geopolitical ambiguity, as well as other measures to keep the Soviets happy.
These men painstakingly built a trusting relationship with Moscow, while deepening economic ties with the Western bloc and striving to remain neutral in the tough environment of Cold War Europe. Following the fall of the USSR in 1991, Finland maintained this balance while joining the EU. Yet, until this day and despite collaborations, Finland has not joined NATO or any other alliances that could be perceived as an escalation by Moscow.
It is quite strange to use this example when looking at relations between Lebanon and Iran, when there are no borders between these two countries. Unlike Finland for Russia, Lebanon is not part of any military planning routes to Iranian territory. But, as Lebanon is left alone under the growing control of Iran through Hezbollah, could the Lebanese politicians who do not emanate from the Hezbollah bloc be able to create this balance with Iran?
I stay opposed to all types of Iranian influence in the region, except for positive cultural ones — and food; who can resist a good fesenjoon? But I cannot call for all-out opposition while I benefit from what today seems like the privilege of living outside Lebanon, meaning I do not suffer the same pain as those that have stayed. I do not wish to be a hypocrite like the so-called Western-based resistance thinkers that call for boycotts and military action from the terraces of Parisian coffee houses or from the safety of the streets of London or Washington. A new breed of Lebanese political leader is needed on the ground to find a long-term solution and lead the country toward neutrality. This is especially true as we can already notice a new set of global and regional arrangements.
It is a difficult realization, but for Lebanon to pursue this strategy it would need to convey a new message to Iran, and also the rest of the world. But how can Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accept today’s Lebanon becoming neutral? Hezbollah is entrenched within the Iranian military and security apparatus and represents an important part of Iran’s foreign actions. It seems like an impossible mission.
It was not so long ago that Europe was living with similar, if not greater, levels of conflict and instability as we see in our region today.
Khaled Abou Zahr
Lebanon seems more likely to live the fate of Czechoslovakia than Finland. In early 1968, Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact troops began to crack down on reformists in Prague, before invading the country in August of that year. To reach their true independence, the citizens of what are today Czechia and Slovakia had to wait for the fall of the Soviet Union and the obliteration of all its local proxies.
Regardless of the tremendous changes in the Middle East, Lebanon’s political forces need to become neutral and ensure the country is not a ground for aggression toward any other state. And, while communicating this message, there is a need to obstruct Hezbollah’s actions continuously and tactically, without reaching an explosion point. The less it serves Iran, the closer to independence and sovereignty Lebanon gets. It is also part of the Finlandization process.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.