What was once a simple meat-and-potatoes issue for the Finnish people has suddenly threatened to careen out of control as groups of nationalistic Finns go wild, demonstrating outside the homes of various members of the current Conservative Party prime minister Jyrki Katainen’s cabinet.
“They are traitors,” said Jiri Litmainen, a taxi-driver who has spent four months of weekends holding placards and chanting outside Katainen’s home. “They should be tried and imprisoned as an example.”
Why? Because the leadership of the True Finns party, a parliamentary minority, wants to abolish the currently compulsory national law which forces Finnish children to learn Swedish. As is, the constitution states that Finland is a bilingual country and permits Swedish to be used as an official language, meaning that Finland’s Swedes can communicate with government authorities in their own language if they wish.
This may sound like a tedious issue to the rest of a world worried about terrorism and the economy, but typifies a new tendency among right-wing movements everywhere to pick small winnable fights instead of dealing in rhetoric that threatens over race and religion. The Finnish Republic, which was founded over a century ago, has a Swedish minority which accounts for between an estimated four or five percent of the population and has always previously been regarded as an integral part of Finnish society. Additionally, in a country with one of the finest educational systems in the world and a small economy, there has always been a brain drain of its best and brightest young people to Sweden and the United States. This seems to have caused a kind of festering resentment that the average Middle Class Finn failed to notice, until now.
At any rate, the True Finns party seeks to put an end to the mandatory Swedish learning law and have collected 50,000 signatures for a petition which forces Finnish parliament to debate the issue. “But this is ridiculous,” said Nikka Verkasaala, a painter living in Chicago who insists she is 100% ‘pure’ Finnish. “The best and brightest our country has produced are often mixed Finnish-Swedish. What is to be gained from this?”
Indeed, historically prominent Swedes, including former President Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who led Finland through the Winter War against the Soviet Union, the composer Jean Sibelius and Nokia founder Fredrik Idestam, are sometimes the only Finns foreigners actually know about. Their minority even has a tiny representational parliamentary party, the Swedish People’s Party of Finland. In an April 2012 survey, 97 of 200 MPs questioned said they favored voluntary Swedish lessons in future, with 96 saying they wanted Swedish to remain a compulsory subject.
The fight for a pure Finnish identity is being waged mainly by the youth organizations of the far right. Somewhere in the middle, full of rhetorical belligerence about “Our beloved country never returning to a state of Swedish puppetry,” is the slippery Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, who preaches nationalism at home and European inclusivity abroad when attending EEC meetings in Brussels. “This kind of language fundamentalism on both sides; it’s all a load of bollocks,” European Minister Alexander Stubb said in a harangue in Brussels. “Finland was part of Sweden for some 500 years. It’s nobody’s fault.”
The atmosphere has become so poisoned and heated that both prominent Finnish and Swedish authors and politicians have been getting death threats and hate mail. “I should have kept my big trap shut,” the best-selling Swedish author Henning Mankel, creator of the Wallender mysteries told a Toronto Globe & Mail reporter after mentioning he has had to hire round-the-clock bodyguards to protect both himself and his family after criticizing the True Finn party on a talk-show. “This is crazy.”