No Friends to the Fir (Sierra 5-6/91)

 As Soviet acid rain falls on the forests of Lapland, nature-loving Finns find that glasnost alone isn’t good enough.

The Soviet Union’s problems in the Baltic region are not limited to burgeoning independence movements in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. While the end of the Cold War should have brought an easing of tensions between the USSR and neighboring Finland, a new obstacle to harmonious relations is emerging in the form of trans boundary environmental issues-most prominently, poisonous air pollution wafting across the border from Soviet factories. At risk are Finland’s beloved fir forests, which Finns view as a spiritual as well as an economic resource.

Although they share a common, 700-mile-long border — Finland was a Russian duchy between 1809 and 1917 — there has traditionally been little lost between these two countries. Three times this century the Finns a Soviets (or their proxies) have clash with bloody results. The outcome the most recent confrontation was the grudgingly symbiotic political relationship that has come to be known as “Finlandization.”

Finland’s last armed conflict with the Soviet Union came during World War II, when the Finns joined with Nazi Germany in a vain attempt to recover territory lost in the “Winter War” of 1939. When it was over, the victorious Soviets could have turned Finland in a communist satellite with the Allies’, blessing. Instead, the Finns were allowed to retain their western-style democracy and capitalistic economy, but the Soviets forced them to pay $300 million in war reparations and to join the Soviets in a defensive military alliance against NATO. Over the years the ties binding the two countries have gradually loosened, to the point where, in October 1989, on the occasion of his first visit to Helsinki, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev openly endorsed Finnish neutrality.

Nearly as important to the Finns, however, was Gorbachev’s pledge that he would take tough action to stop the noxious gases issuing from the Soviet mining and industrial complexes on the Kola Peninsula, pollution that falls as acid rain in Finland. The massive factories, most run by Soviet military industries, send 700 tons of corrosive sulfur-dioxide emissions across the Finno-Soviet border each year-far more than is produced in all of Finland. Much of it falls on Finnish Lapland in the northern third of the country. Forests have been ravaged within a 300- square-mile radius of the factories, ex- tending over the border into the Finnish province of Salla. Another 500 square miles of both Finnish and Soviet forestland have been severely affected, reports the Finnish Green Party, with “clear signs of damage” in an additional 50,000 square miles. In all, an estimated 30 percent of the firs in Finnish Lapland are in danger of dying.

As the largest exporter of paper products in Europe, Finland is economically dependent on its vast forests. But the trees play an important psychic role as well for a nation whose population was still 90 percent rural only 40 years ago. Even today a great many city dwellers maintain lakeside summer cottages and cherish the natural beauty of the countryside. The result is environmental consciousness elevated to an almost mystical level of intensity.

“The beauty of nature affected me almost as profoundly as a religious ‘born-again’ experience,” claims Finnish Foreign Trade Minister Pertti Salolainen, describing childhood visits to his family’s cottage in the woody archipelago that rings the Finnish coast. “The whole of nature unfolded in front of my eyes. I’m not a religious person, but you could describe me as an eco-pantheist. ”

“Finnish Lapland has always evoked images of pristine purity in the minds of those who admire scenic beauty,” writes Pekka Haavisto, a Green Party member of the Finnish Parliament. “But it is threatened by a reality that we have been slow to wake up to: Just across the Soviet frontier, industrial plants on the Kola Peninsula spew three times as much sulfur into the air as does the whole of Finland.” Haavisto’s tacit acknowledgment that the Finns are not entirely without responsibility for their environmental dilemma is echoed by Jorma Lavrila, editor of the widely read magazine Suomen Luonto (“Finnish Nature”), who admits, “We create one- third of our own pollution problems. But,” he adds, “two-thirds come from the Soviet Union.”

While Finns applauded President Gorbachev’s promise to address the acid rain problem, they are now coming to doubt the value of his word. Finland’s delicate position vis-a-vis its powerful neighbor has traditionally made Finnish officials reluctant to air their differences with the Soviet Union in public. Nevertheless, Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri reacted angrily last spring when he paid a visit to the disputed Soviet industrial complexes and saw the chimneys belching away as vigorously as before Gorbachev’s promise.

“Mr. Gorbachev received a rapturous welcome when he visited Finland last year, considering that this is a country with a reputation for gloom,” grumped a high-ranking Finnish minister quoted in the London-based newspaper The European. “He gained great credit for his speech praising Finland’s neutrality, and was liked for his warm manner. Every Finn wishes him well. But if there is one issue that clouds the new Finno-Soviet I relationship, it is ecology.”

The problem of Soviet slop tends beyond the high-profile issue of acid rain: A huge dam under construction near Leningrad is resulting in a large amount of untreated sewage from the city being discharged into the Gulf of Finland. Though the USSR is a signatory to the 1974 Helsinki Marine Environment Commission, “a lot has been done to protect the Baltic on paper,” says Green legislator Haavisto — there is no indication that there will be any delay in construction of the Leningrad dam.

In the case of acid rain, the sticking point is not so much Soviet will as Soviet pride. The Finnish government offered to pay the Soviets to employ a technology for cutting sulfur-dioxide emissions already developed by the Finnish state copper company, Outukemenu. But the Soviets balked, preferring to employ an experimental process of their own, which they said would do the job-though not for five to seven years. Last September they finally relented, accepting a $l-billion loan from Finland, Sweden, and Norway (all of whose forests are affected by the Soviet Union’s acid rain) to help pay for installation of the Finnish anti-pollution equipment.

“One of the many new features that glasnost has brought to Soviet life is a lively environmental debate,” says Haavisto. “New groups of activists have sprung up, and Greenpeace now has an office in Moscow. But the task facing environmentalists in the Soviet Union is gargantuan. It isn’t really clear whether the country as a whole really cares about the environment or the problems that their environmental recklessness is causing us.”

Are the Soviets capable of being good environmental neighbors? As the European country with the longest air, land, and water boundary with the USSR, Finland is a good place to look for an answer to that question. And Finland is having its doubts.