The origins of the Finnish people are still a matter of conjecture,
although many scholars argue that their original home was in what is now
west-central Siberia. The Finns arrived in their present territory thousands
of years ago, pushing the indigenous Lapps into the more remote northern
regions. Finnish and Lappish--the language of Finland's small Lapp minority--both
are Finno-Ugric languages and are in the Uralic rather than the Indo-European
Finland's nearly 700-year association with the Kingdom of Sweden began
in 1154 with the introduction of Christianity by Sweden's King Eric. During
the ensuing centuries, Finland played an important role in the political
life of the Swedish-Finnish realm, and Finnish soldiers often predominated
in Swedish armies. Finns also formed a significant proportion of the first
"Swedish" settlers in 17th-century America.
Following Finland's incorporation into Sweden in the 12th century, Swedish
became the dominant language, although Finnish recovered its predominance
after a 19th-century resurgence of Finnish nationalism. Publication in
1835 of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala--a collection of traditional
myths and legends--first stirred the nationalism that later led to Finland's
independence from Russia.
In 1809, Finland was conquered by the armies of Czar Alexander I and
thereafter remained an autonomous grand duchy connected with the Russian
Empire until the end of 1917. On December 6, 1917, shortly after the Bolshevik
Revolution in Russia, Finland declared its independence. In 1918, the country
experienced a brief but bitter civil war that colored domestic politics
for many years. During World War II, Finland fought the Soviet Union twice--in
the Winter War of 1939-40 and again in the Continuation War of 1941-44.
This was followed by the Lapland War of 1944-45, when Finland fought against
the Germans as they withdrew their forces from northern Finland.
Treaties signed in 1947 and 1948 with the Soviet Union included obligations
and restraints on Finland vis-a-vis the U.S.S.R. as well as territorial
concessions by Finland; both have been abrogated by Finland since the 1991
dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Finland's proportional representation system encourages a multitude
of political parties and has resulted in many coalition governments. Political
activity by communists was legalized in 1944, and although four major parties
have dominated the postwar political arena, none now has a majority position.
The Center Party (Keskusta), traditionally representing rural interests,
gained a slight plurality in Finland's parliament in the general election
of March 2003, narrowly defeating the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDP)
by a 24.7% to 24.5% margin. The Center then formed a three-party governing
coalition with the SDP and the Swedish People's Party. The Green Party,
which had withdrawn from the government in spring 2002 in protest to the
government decision to approve building a fifth nuclear reactor, remained
in the opposition, as did the National Coalition Party (conservatives).
The National Coalition leads the opposition in Parliament. The Left Alliance,
a combination of socialists left of the SDP and a number of former communists,
maintains representation in Parliament but is not a significant factor
in most policy decisions.
The Center Party's leader, Anneli Jäätteenmäki, became
Finland's first female prime minister in April 2003. However, she resigned
amid a scandal over the leak of classified materials 2 months after taking
office. She was replaced as prime minister by the Center Party's new chairman,