Two new biographies of Sauli Niinistö are in Finnish bookshops this week, released just before the President’s 70th birthday.
One book, ‘Sauli Niinistö – Lord of Mäntyniemi’ – is written by two Aamulehti journalists. The other, titled ‘Sauli Niinistö – President of the Republic’ – is also written by a Finnish journalist.
Disputes And Interference Alleged
The books make new revelations about behind-the-scenes disputes between Niinistö and government ministers.
According to one text Niinistö argued with Foreign Ministry officials, as well as Foreign Minister Timo Soini (Blue) and then-Prime Minister Alex Stubb (NCP) about whether to host senior Russian politicians to an event in Helsinki, while they were still subject to international travel sanctions.
Niinistö wanted to invite the Russians to events marking the 40th anniversary of the 1975 CSCE conference in Helsinki, but his ministers strongly disagreed. In the end, the Russians were not invited.
Another insight published today is about how President Niinistö analyses Russian President Vladimir Putin through the hockey games the two have played.
Niinistö played hockey with Putin as a newly elected president at a rink in Russian Karelia in Midsummer 2012. He apparently told confidantes that Putin only plays hockey to win outright, and that the Russian leader was annoyed when their match ended in a 4-4 draw. Niinistö and Putin played on the same team during the game.
Based on his observations of Putin’s competitive hockey strategy, sources in one of the books say Niinistö has concluded Putin is not afraid of the consequences if he flexes his military muscle in the Baltics.
By 2014, Niinistö was caught off guard by EU sanctions on Russia, which halted regular bilateral summits with Russia’s leadership.
While EU policy is the purview of the government, the President had played a key role in managing relations with Russia.
So Niinistö was wrong-footed by then-Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen (NCP) who had not informed the president that a summit ban might be one of the cards the EU would play. This had been discussed at the government’s EU committee, which Niinistö is not a part of.
“The leadership’s territorial dispute was quickly resolved so that Finland’s position on EU sanctions was dealt outwith the EU Cabinet Committee when the president was also present. Niinistö was thus able to influence the Finnish position” says author Risto Uimonen in his book.
Domestic Policy Disputes
Another allegation published in one of the books is that Niinistö interfered with domestic policy decisions which are outside his presidential remit.
At one point in 2015 Niinistö summoned the heads of the employers’ federation EK and the trades union umbrella group SAK to his official residence Mäntyniemi and urged them to reach common ground on the Competitiveness Agreement.
The meeting was kept secret from the public, and not reported to either Prime Minister Stubb or opposition leader Antti Rinne (SDP).
Current Finance Minister, and leader of the National Coalition Party Petteri Orpo, says he has not seen any evidence of the President interfering in domestic policy issues.
“I’ve been in three ministerial posts and I do not feel that the president would be embroiled in internal politics, he is very careful to mind the boundaries” he said today in Jyväskylä.
“I think that the President very clearly leads Finland’s foreign and security policy, but he said when he was campaigning [in the 2018 presidential election campaign] that he would gladly take part in the debate […] I think the president works within the spirit of the constitution” Orpo added, although he conceded there are certain areas where domestic policy, and foreign and security policy cross over.
The President’s Man?
Petter Orpo is portrayed in one of the new biographies as Niinistö’s preferred candidate to lead the National Coalition Party, with hints that Niinistö championed him to challenge Alex Stubb for leadership of the party.
It was widely understood in Finnish political circles that Niinistö and Stubb did not see eye-to-eye on a range of policy issues, and also suffered from a personality clash.
In April 2016, Orpo and Niinistö went snowmobiling in Lapland, and just three weeks later Orpo announced that he would take on Stubb for leadership of the party. That summer, he beat Stubb in a vote of party members.
Orpo says Niinistö stayed on the sidelines of party politics, and was not involved in his campaign to oust Stubb.
The President’s office was contacted for comments.