Martti Ahtisaari, former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Laureate, dies aged 86

FILE: Former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari
FILE: Former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari Copyright CMI
By David Mac Dougall with AP
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In 2021, it was announced that Ahtisaari had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and in a televised speech on Monday Finland's current president said that he died after "a long illness."

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Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, diplomat, teacher and global peace broker awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work to resolve international conflicts, has died at the age of 86.

The current Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said that Ahtisaari was "a Finn with a big heart."

"He believed in people, education and goodness. He worked tirelessly to secure peace and life. Even for those who lived far away and under very different circumstances. For him, human dignity was inviolable," Niinistö said in a television speech Monday, which replaced regular programming on Yle, Finland's public broadcaster. 

Ahtisaari was Finland's president for one term from 1994 to 2000, and the foundation he created after leaving office for preventing and resolving violent conflicts said it was “deeply saddened by the loss of its founder and chair of board.”

In 2021, it was announced that Ahtisaari had advanced Alzheimer’s disease. His death was announced on Monday morning.

International career

Among his most notable achievements, Ahtisaari helped strike peace accords related to Serbia's withdrawal from Kosovo in the late 1990s, Namibia’s bid for independence in the 1980s, and autonomy for Aceh province in Indonesia in 2005.

He was also involved with the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s, tasked with monitoring the disarmament process of the IRA terrorist group.

When the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee awarded its esteemed prize to Ahtisaari in October 2008, it cited him "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts."

FILE - Former Finish President and Nobel Price winner for Peace Martti Ahtisaari, left, meets with Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu in Pristina, Kosovo, on Monday, June 15, 2009
FILE - Former Finish President and Nobel Price winner for Peace Martti Ahtisaari, left, meets with Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu in Pristina, Kosovo, on Monday, June 15, 2009VISAR KRYEZIU/AP

Born June 23rd 1937 in the eastern town of Viipuri – which is now in Russia – Ahtisaari worked as a primary school teacher before joining Finland’s Foreign Ministry in 1965. He spent some 20 years abroad, first as Finland's ambassador to Tanzania, Zambia and Somalia and then its top diplomat at the United Nations in New York.

After that he joined the UN itself, first working at its New York headquarters before heading the UN operation that brought independence to Namibia in 1990.

Ahtisaari had become deeply involved in activities aimed at preparing Namibians for independence during his diplomatic tenure in Africa in the 1970s. He was appointed as the special representative to Namibia by UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim in 1978, and is widely credited for helping support the African nation on its path to independence under his mandate as the head of UN peacekeeping forces there in the late 1980s.

The Namibian government was grateful for Ahtisaari’s work and later made him an honorary citizen of the country.

Ahtisaari's return to Finland

After returning to Finland in 1991, Ahtisaari worked as a foreign ministry secretary of state before being elected president in 1994 for a six-year term. He was the first Finnish head of state to be elected directly instead of through an electoral college.

Having lived abroad for so long, he came into the race as a political outsider and was seen to bring a breath of fresh air to Finnish politics. Ahtisaari was a keen supporter of the European Union and NATO, which Finland joined in 1995 and 2023 respectively.

His international highlight came in 1999 when he negotiated – alongside Russia’s Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin – an end to fighting in the former Yugoslavian province of Kosovo.

Ahtisaari also hosted Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton at a US-Russia summit in Finnish capital, Helsinki, in March 1997.

FILE: US President Bill Clinton, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, Russian President Boris Yeltsin Mantyniemi presidential residence March 21, 1997
FILE: US President Bill Clinton, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, Russian President Boris Yeltsin Mantyniemi presidential residence March 21, 1997ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AP1997

As president, Ahtisaari traveled abroad more widely than any of his predecessors. At home, he often appeared impatient and vexed by media criticism, and was clearly much more comfortable in international circles.

He declined to run for a second term in the January 2000 presidential election, saying he wanted to devote the time he would otherwise have used for campaigning to run the rotating EU presidency, which Finland assumed for the first time in 1999.

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After the Finnish presidency, he was offered several international positions, including in the UN refugee agency, but decided instead to open his own office in Helsinki which has focused on mediation in international crises.

In May 2017, Ahtisaari stepped down as chairman of the Crisis Management Initiative he founded in 2000 to help resolve global conflicts, but said he would continue working with the organisation as an adviser. 

Ahtisaari is survived by his wife Eeva and their adult son. He will be llaid to rest in a state funeral. The date will be announced later.

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