Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 14:33 UK

Nobel peace prize boosts Finland

By Sean Crowley
BBC News, Helsinki

Martti Ahtisaari at home with his wife Eeva Irmeli Hyvärinen in Helsinki
Mr Ahtisaari was at home with his wife in Helsinki when the award was made
News that former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari has been awarded the Nobel peace prize is being warmly welcomed in his native country.

Finland has been under something of a grey cloud of late: there have been two mass killings over the past year and there is nervousness over a resurgent Russia, the small nation's giant neighbour.

"If one man ever deserved the prize, it is Ahtisaari," said Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.

"This is a fantastic achievement, honouring his work like this, and a great achievement for Finland as a whole."

"We wholeheartedly congratulate former President Ahtisaari on this prestigious recognition of his life's work," Helsingin Sanomat - the leading daily newspaper - announced on its website.

'Country of peace'

Shoppers in central Helsinki seemed surprised at the news that their former leader had beaten 197 others to take the prestigious award.

But one said it was the kind of boost the Nordic nation needed after September's school shooting in which 10 people died. "After the terrible [school] killings at Kauhajoki last month, this shows Finland in a better light: a man of peace recognised, from a country of peace," the shopper said.

A visitor to the capital from the north attributed Ahtisaari's success in diplomacy to the Finnish qualities of patience, calmness and tenacity, adding: "He's a Finn - we never give up, we stay cool and we listen without interrupting."

The veteran diplomat's recent achievements as an international mediator include successfully leading peace talks between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government, through his Helsinki-based non-governmental organisation, Crisis Management Initiative (CMI).

He was also the UN's special envoy for Kosovo, conducting tricky negotiations on the final status of Kosovo. In addition, Ahtisaari was responsible for overseeing the peaceful passage to independence of Namibia in 1989.

"These efforts have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations' in Alfred Nobel's spirit," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. The 71-year-old served as Finland's president from 1994 to 2000.

Some Finns appeared unready to congratulate a man who was a star on the global stage but was less renowned in domestic politics. "Sure, he sorted out the world, but why didn't he sort out Finland first?" a herring stallholder on Helsinki's waterfront said.

Whilst president, Mr Ahtisaari led Finland into the European Union in 1995 and economic and monetary union in 1999.

Surprise decision

This is the first time the Nobel Peace Prize has come to Finland. The award carries with it a cash prize of $1.5m (£0.8m).

Mr Ahtisaari will formally receive the award in Oslo on 10 December, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel.

Although Mr Ahtisaari's name had been mentioned in speculation leading up to the prize, and he had been a nominee for the prize several times before, his naming as this year's winner came as a surprise.

Favourites this year included Chinese dissidents Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia, Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Quang Dota and the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation.

In addition to Mr Ahtisaari's higher-profile diplomacy, he also served as an independent arms inspector in Northern Ireland from 2000 to 2001, and in 2000 was picked as one of three "wise men" to assess the Austrian government's commitment to upholding human rights and combat racism.

He has also been the UN special envoy for the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, and in April 2002 headed a fact-finding team to investigate the scene of a three-week Israeli assault on Jenin in the West Bank.

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