Lahti, Yannick & Palonen, Emilia. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on right-wing populism in Finland.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0018
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As Finland’s neighbour, Russia, attacked its neighbour, Ukraine, the response across the political spectrum in Finland was universal. All the parties underscored the importance of patriotism and sovereignty and messages of solidarity and support for Ukraine (alongside condemnation of Russia). Support for Putin or the war is basically non-existent in Finland. Still, the Finns Party (FP), which is part of the populist Radical Right milieu in Finland, polls extremely well. Moreover, groups combining anti-COVID-19 measures with pro-Putin leanings have registered as political parties in preparation for elections in spring 2023. Still, their combined support is in single digits. The concrete consequences of the war include a U-turn in foreign policy from long-standing neutrality to NATO membership, with all parties—including the FP—supporting the government’s pending application to join alongside neighbouring Sweden. Interestingly, as the conflict heated up in early 2022, “Niikkogate”—a scandal in which a parliamentary committee chair from the FP was replaced after tweeting pro-Kremlin sentiments—has indicated the degree of pro-Ukraine support across the political spectrum.
Keywords: Finns Party (FP); Finland; Russia–Ukraine war; populist Radical Right; digital counterpublics; disinformation.
By Yannick Lahti* & Emilia Palonen** (University of Helsinki)
It is inconceivable to study the effects in Finland of Russian aggression toward its neighbours as something that started in February 2022 with the current conflict. First, we must consider the historical impact of the Soviet Union’s hegemonic position, particularly on the origins of the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset, FP). This legacy of sovereignty implies that most FP supporters stand for Ukraine against Russia. What pro-Kremlin voices existed in the FP before February 2022 have been marginalized.
Second, Russian influence has worked in the margins of the Finnish media field, particularly since the Russian annexation of Crimea. As Bjola and Papadakis (2020) have found, sound macro-level “resilience” to digital disinformation in Finland is threatened by the potential for Russian influence campaigns in the largely unregulated micro-level, where “digital counterpublics” often flourish. Leaders of these “counterpublics” are linked with the marginal populist Radical Right movements and parties and appear on both the Finnish and Russian sides, generating a new hostile anti-government perspective of Finland in Russia that is transmitted digitally into Finland (ibid.). Third, Russian influence (particularly since 2014), the pandemic and the proximity to the national elections in April 2023 have contributed to the emergence of new Radical Right parties in Finland that, while small, often have distinct pro-Kremlin leanings (Hatakka, 2019; Fagerholm, 2022).
Mudde’s (2019) definition of the Far Right divides it into two subgroups: the Extreme Right, which is hostile to democracy and seeks to subvert it, and the Radical Right, which chooses to operate within the democratic system. The FP fits mainly the latter and is more or less populist in its outlook. Most of the existing populist Radical Right parties in Europe foster nationalism and nativism, and most of the leaders and key figures of these parties are—if not outright admirers of Putin—at least tend to look favourably at some of his conservative, nationalist policies and leadership characteristics. Thus, shared nativism, authoritarianism, and, increasingly, illiberal politics creates a natural bond between these parties and the Kremlin (Eatwell & Goodwin, 2018).
The FP has been a distinct outlier in this party family. Russia is Finland’s “unpredictable neighbour” (Nyberg, 2016) in the region and the FP, being committed to Finnish national interests, has never adopted pro-Putin or pro-Russia stances. Some members and MPs have pro-Kremlin leanings, but the majority in the party have openly opposed Putin and his regime and condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. We see the party’s robust defence of Ukraine as a logical continuum of their advocacy of nationalist values and national sovereignty. The Finnish people see an analogy between Ukraine’s current fight for independence and Finland’s struggle in the Winter War (1939–40), when the country’s small but highly motivated defence forces beat back the much larger Soviet Union against all odds. Additionally, while Ukrainian refugees have not (yet) provoked nativist sentiments, Moscow’s invasion has activated Finnish Russophobia.
Although we focus on Radical Right populist parties in Finland, another populist party, Liike Nyt (“Movement Now”), deserves mention. It is an emerging force that fashions itself after Italy’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which successfully won seats outside the capital in the Finnish regional elections in 2021 (Yle, 2021). While a disproportionate number of the current leading figures of the FP hail from the universities and the teaching professions (Saresma & Palonen, 2022), Liike Nyt’s leadership are business elites that have been tied to Russian oligarchs (Luukka, 2022), which they now publicly disavow (Nalbantoglu, 2023).
The full-scale war in Ukraine contributed to a new national consensus regarding the country’s potential membership in NATO. This was a significant shift in foreign policy, as Finland prided itself on its neutral status and non-alignment during the Cold War (and after). Popular views changed fast. In August 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, only 26% of Finns supported Finnish NATO membership, with 57% against (Elonen & Kinnunen, 2014). By early March 2022, the numbers had flipped, with 48% in favour and 26% against (Huhtanen, 2022), and by June 2022, 79% of Finns were in support of NATO membership, with just 10% opposed (Vanttinen, 2022). Finland applied for NATO membership with strong cross-party parliamentary support. Even grassroots supporters of the Left Alliance have backed NATO membership, compelling the stridently neutralist party elite to change tack somewhat. Crucially, the Finns Party was also strongly in favour, with the party council voting 61–3 in favour of NATO following an electronic membership ballot (Arter, 2022, p. 15).
The Finns Party: From stridently anti-Soviet to avowedly pro-Ukraine
The Radical Right in Finland has anti-elitist and rural roots. The Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue, SMP) emerged from the agrarian populist movement founded by Veikko Vennamo in the late 1950s and was against the “urban elites”, specifically President Urho Kekkonen, who held that office continually from 1956–1982. In contrast to its Scandinavian counterparts, the SMP was not an anti-taxation party calling for the retrenchment of the welfare state (Palonen & Sunnercrantz, 2021). Rather it was for welfare “without socialism” and was stridently anti-communist. The party lost support in the 1990s and, by 1995, was a spent force in Finnish politics.
A former party secretary and supporter of Vennamo, Timo Soini founded the FP (at first known as the “True Finns”) on the ruins of SMP in 1995 and would go on to chair the party for the next 20 years. In 1995, the FP had only one seat in the Parliament, but it grew steadily and scored three seats in the 2003 elections. An election financing crisis in the 2007 elections boosted the FP’s stocks. The party broke through in national elections in 2011, gaining 39 seats in Finland’s 200-seat Parliament (Arter, 2022; Palonen & Saresma, 2017). Under Soini’s leadership, the FP retained the SMP’s anti-elitism and combined it with opposition to supranationalism, which was convenient as Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995.
The FP has always had a more radical, right-wing, anti-immigration faction centred on Jussi Halla-aho, who led the party from 2017–2021. When Halla-aho was elected leader in 2017, a splinter group of 19 MPs (including five serving ministers) formed the Blue Reform movement (Sininen Tulevaisuus). It broke away in opposition to the “openly Far Right” values which the party had embraced by electing Halla-aho as leader. As a result, the FP line changed overnight as the party shed its softer anti-elitist, populist positioning and embraced mainstream Radical Right populist positions. The FP continued this tack to the right under Riikka Purra, the party leader since 2021 (Palonen, 2021). The party’s finances were unaffected by the split as legislation ensured they continued to receive party subsidies based on the original number of MPs. Such a sound financial footing is likely why the party has never been accused of financial links to the Kremlin, unlike other European Far Right parties, like Marine Le Pen’s Front National (Laruelle et al., 2015, p. 33).
The pro-Putin faction inside the FP became evident in early February 2022. On February 8, the chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, Mika Niikko, a Finns Party MP, posted a (now-deleted) tweet calling on President Macron of France to “step up” and put the official kybosh on Ukraine joining NATO. Niikko believed that without intervention from a Western leader with a deep understanding of Russian intentions like Macron, negotiations to cool the simmering tensions between Russia and Ukraine would fail. Niikko’s comments were widely seen as inappropriate across the political spectrum, especially because of the parliamentary committee he was chairing (Blencowe & Suikkanen, 2022). Even the FP’s notoriously radical youth wing condemned his rhetoric, and the ensuing firestorm saw Niikko resign the same day (Etelämäki, 2022). “Niikkogate”, as the scandal came to be known, saw Jussi Halla-aho return to the political centre ground and take over Niikko’s role as chair of the committee.
“Niikkogate” ultimately reflected political institutionalists’ desire to deal with the pro-Putin elements in the Finnish populist Radical Right at a moment when it was increasingly becoming clear that a Russian invasion was imminent. Intelligence reports of Russian troop movements were closely monitored in Finland, and tensions were apparent to the public already in 2021. For months, several seasoned MPs on the committee had been expressing concerns about Niikko’s (in)competence and personal ethics in such a sensitive position (Yle, 2022a). Unlike Niikko, most committee members considered it prudent to defer to long-serving civil servants and special advisers in making public statements about foreign policy. In any event, the committee was in safe hands due to the vice chairmanship of Erkki Tuomioja of the Social Democrats (SDP), a former minister of foreign affairs and a veteran institutionalist (Auvinen, 2022).
Important for understanding the FP position on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is Jussi Halla-aho’s background as a scholar of early Slavonic linguistics, in which he has a PhD. He was even on track to enter academia before becoming engaged in blogging and politics (Nurmi, 2018). His studies from the 1990s to 2006 introduced him to the history of Ukraine and its establishment as a modern nation-state after the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, Halla-aho was staunchly pro-Ukraine from the start of the war. Slightly more striking for a man now chairing a major parliamentary committee, Halla-aho was publicly effusive in his support for Kyiv, even getting ahead of Finnish policy. In early March, he went on record claiming that the “intervention of the West [in the war] will be inevitable” and that action against Russia sooner rather than later was critical: “Please, stop the Russian horde before we have a new Grozny and Aleppo in the middle of Europe! You have the means. You have the legal and moral right” (Yle, 2022b). Fellow committee members criticized Halla-aho for “pushing World War Three” (Yle, 2022c; Muhonen, 2022). In January 2023, Halla-aho posted on Facebook a picture of the signed artillery shell he purchased for Ukraine (Yle, 2023) with the text, “If killing Russian soldiers in this situation is right and necessary, then anything that promotes their killing is also right and necessary” (Pantzar, 2023).
In short, the FP has roots in strong anti-Soviet thinking and lacks the Russophilia of other Far Right parties in Europe (e.g., France’s Front National and Italy’s Lega). This is echoed in the current pro-Ukraine stance, which is also strengthened by the former party leader’s personal history. In this sense, their anti-Sovietism also turned them against Russia and for Ukraine. Finally, Halla-aho’s policy direct testifies to his emergence in the anti-immigration faction of his party (Vaarakallio, 2015). In the FP, anti-immigrant stances have hardened even further. The party’s current policy on immigration argues, for example, to end non-citizens’ welfare benefits.
New pro-Putin parties emerge at the margins
The Finnish party system is well over a century old, established when Finland was still an autonomous part (a Grand Duchy) of the Russian Empire, which had conquered it from Sweden in the early nineteenth century. For example, the parties in the current ruling coalition are long-standing, including the Social Democrat Party (founded in 1899) and the Centre Party and Swedish People’s Party of Finland (both founded in 1906).
After the country won its independence from Russia in 1917, the party system stabilized right through to the end of the Cold War. Since then, it has been in flux. Especially since the year 2000, a significant number (almost 20) of new parties have been founded to compete for seats in the Finnish Parliament. According to Mickelsson (2021), a remarkable proportion of these newcomers have “political party characteristics” that allow them to be classified as radical right-wing parties or Far Right extremists. Researching the ideological profiles of the new Far Right parties in Finland in the last two decades, Fagerholm (2022) identifies an existing dominant dividing line within the Finnish Far Right between traditionally populist elements of the Radical Right and ethnonationalist tendencies, with the Finns Party sharing both.
Five new populist Radical Right parties have emerged on the Finnish political scene since 2017 (Fagerholm, 2022). These include the aforementioned Blue Reform movement (now known as the Finnish Reform Movement) and Suomen Kansa Ensin (Finnish People First), which has its origins in the anti-immigration Rajat Kiinni! (“Close The Borders!”) movement. Two personal splinters are on a more general populist line: Valta Kuuluu Kansalle (Power Belongs to the People, VKK), formed around Ano Turtiainen, a former FP member of Parliament, in 2021. The VKK has networks among the leaders and influencers of Finland’s digital pro-Russian counterpublic. Vapauden Liitto (Freedom Alliance), a splinter of the VKK, was founded in 2022 by a former FP activist, Ossi Tiihonen, who also ran for party chair and has been vocal against Finland’s COVID-19 measures. Ideologically distinct is the proto-fascist, ethnonationalist Sinimusta Liike (Blue–Black Movement), also founded in 2022. Party formation has intensified, and three other populist Radical Right parties are waiting to be officially registered.
The Russian attack on Ukraine is not the only reason for the emergence of these new party actors. They are also a product of the pandemic and the moderation of the FP under Purra, which is hungry to return to government. Moreover, their rapid emergence is related to thriving online communities, which are driven by pro-Kremlin forces. What are these splinters likely to produce? Certainly, they can partly erode the power of the FP and split some of its votes. It is not a coincidence that they appeared at the end of the pandemic (Wondreys & Mudde, 2022) and before the April 2023 general elections.
What is the actual friction between these populist Radical Right parties, and what has the war in Ukraine to do with it? First, it sustains the VKK as a parliamentary opposition to FP, which has moved away from the position of “populist challenger party” into what they like to see as the populist nationalist mainstream. Despite historic EU criticism and suspicion of supranational institutions, they have not actively campaigned for a Finnish exit from the EU or the Eurozone and continue supporting NATO membership. However, in the election campaign in January 2023, Riikka Purra identified such a “Fixit” as the long-term goal of the party.
The Russian invasion in Ukraine has seen the idea of “defending the nation-state” return to the centre of political discourse in Europe (Fiott, 2022). National sovereignty or sovereignism, which is sometimes connected with populist language in which claims to recover authority are made on behalf of the “the people” against the political elite and international institutions, is at its core the idea of “taking back control” (Mazzoleni & Ivaldi, 2022). The element of “taking back control” is essential within the narrative set by populists as they aim to create a division by positioning “us” against some “frontier” in any given political context, whether the “us” or the “frontier” are real or imaginary (Vulović & Palonen, 2022). The “us” (who are virtuous) aims to “take back” something (in this case, control) from “them” (who are a threat). In Finland, the “mental frontier” against which the “us” is cast is quite concretely the Russian border and the threat of the Kremlin’s imperialism.
The Finns Party is polling at around 19% in the run-up to general elections in 2023 (and up to 30% among first-time voters), which puts it in second place to the ruling SDP of Prime Minister Sanna Marinin (Keski-Heikkilä, 2023) Overall support for the FP has not shifted significantly in any direction following the war in Ukraine as it has adopted a pro-Ukraine stance and reaffirmed its support for national sovereignty. Moreover, Niikko, a pro-Russian MP, was removed from a key parliamentary foreign policy role just before the war broke out.
Still, since shortly before the Russian attack in Ukraine, Finland has witnessed a surge of Far Right party registration and mobilizing online, with many advocating for a Finnish exit from the EU and against Finland joining NATO. These stances may cause tension between the mainstream FP, the only Radical Right party currently represented in the Finnish Parliament, and the more marginal Far Right parties outside and inside the Parliament. Nevertheless, if and when the more Radical Right parties seek to differentiate themselves markedly in the public consciousness, these themes of pandemic restrictions and military neutrality may be useful points of leverage to recruit new voters.
The fact that the FP is not actively running a Fixit campaign (however committed to it they are in the long term). It has endorsed Finnish NATO membership as a notable and remarkable difference between it and other populist Radical Right parties, which are emerging from the margins. The more radical margins may indirectly influence the FP and other parties’ discourse or legitimize FP as a more “respectable” actor in the field.
Historical experiences differ across the member states of the EU, which sets all countries apart as individual nation-states in supranational policymaking and cooperation. The Finnish case shows how factions within the populist Radical Right parties manage to leverage concerns about this in crises. Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine casts Far Right themes of national pride and sovereignty into sharp relief, translating into migration policy, even when unrelated to the war itself. Thus, a range of political actors with their own agendas can “leverage” the issue space for their own ends. The strength of the established Far Right in such debates can also foster more marginal voices from the Extreme Right.
Ultimately, this calls for political action—discursive and electoral—from the forces of the centre and the liberal Left. For when liberal values and principles are called into question in one form or another by the Far Right, deeper understanding and discussion of these values should be promoted by the opposing side. Responses could include adjustments to policy to enhance democracy rather than expecting existing structures and open forums to do this work as a natural consequence of a plural public sphere. After all, “resilience” to disinformation in the macro-level public sphere is undermined by influence campaigns at the micro-level of the internet, where “digital counterpublics” opposed to democracy can flourish unless checked.
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(*) Yannick D. O. Lahti is a political scientist and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Helsinki. Lahti obtained his PhD-degree in 2022 from the University of Bologna in Italy. In his research, he examined European populism, populist actors, and political communication during the last European Union elections of 2019 within the Hybrid Media system. In his work, Yannick Lahti departed from the consideration that as populism and populist rhetoric are challenging concepts to define – especially in relation to different media environments; they should be addressed and analyzed through the usage of a combination of methods and theoretical perspectives, namely Communication Studies, Corpus Linguistics, Political theory, Rhetoric and Corpus-Assisted Discourse Studies. Recently Lahti was involved with Whirl of Knowledge project and is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher conducting research for the transatlantic ENDURE-project funded by the Finnish Academy (Suomen Akatemia).
(**) Emilia Palonen is a senior University Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Helsinki. She is Programme Director in Datafication at the Helsinki Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities and Leader of the HEPPsinki research group. She is PI of the Academy of Finland project WhiKnow (2019-2022), Kone Foundation project Now-Time Us Space (2020-24), European Commission funded DRad project (2020-2023), and the Academy of Finland and other Trans-Atlantic Partnership project funders’ ENDURE exploring resilience in crisis (2022-2024). Emilia is an Executive Committee member and chair of the publications committee of the International Political Science Association (IPSA). She served between 2018-2022 as the Chair of the Finnish Political Science Association. She is a board member of the Finnish Federation of Learned Societies (2021-2023) and Treasurer of the Society of Scientists and Parliament Members, Tutkas ry. (2019-2023).
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