Swan Song For Sauna Diplomacy?

The interview is steaming--literally. I am in the parliament building in downtown Helsinki. My host, MP Kimmo Sasi, strips and climbs to the top wooden bench. I follow. He scoops up water and throws it onto the hot coals. The temperature, nearly 200F, shoots up. "Now," Sasi asks, "what did you want to know about Finnish politics?"

Call it sauna diplomacy. For years, Finns did their most serious business in their renowned steam room. Weekly Cabinet meetings ended in a group sauna, and when labor negotiations stalled, both sides headed for the bath. Foreign politicians and businessmen almost inevitably were invited to strip before negotiating. "In the sauna, you're no longer an MP or minister," says Arto Ojala, director of the Finnish Federation of Insurance Cos. "You're a naked man sitting on a wooden bench."

But rarely a naked woman. And that's why working saunas face a crisis. Almost 40% of Finnish MPs are female, and in Finland, men and women do not steam up together unless they are members of the same family.

Some influential women are fighting back by forming their own power saunas. In off-hours, Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen and Bank of Finland President Sirkka Hamalainen have taken to steaming together. Female MPs have their own sauna, where they spend less time than their male peers. "Women have all this makeup to put on afterward," Sasi says. "They can't get in and out of the sauna as fast for votes."

Business execs don't seem to have enough time either. When Finland had a forest-based economy, the hot bath seemed natural. Now that Finland is a high-tech center, the "primitive" rite seems inappropriate. "Many of our business contacts just don't have time for a sauna. They want to catch the evening flight home," says Lauri Kivinen, senior vice-president of mobile-phone giant Nokia Group. Besides, he adds, "we don't want to leave women out of the picture. That wouldn't be correct."

Every upstanding Finnish company once had a sauna, usually on the top floor near the chairman's office. But in a recent renovation, furniture manufacturer Artek decided against an in-house bath. "Space here is expensive," says President Mauri Heikintalo. "If we need a sauna, we'll rent one at a hotel."

The omission is all the more striking because the sauna remains central to the Finnish identity. "Sauna" is the only Finnish word to make its way into English. Historians say the bath was created by the pre-Christian Finns as the site of pagan rites. "The sauna is sacred to Finns," says Esko Makela of the Finnish Sauna Society.

Indeed, there are 1.6 million saunas in this country of 5 million people, says Veli-Markus Penttila, export manager of the world's largest sauna maker, Oy Saunatec Ltd. That's more saunas than cars. And the Finnish sauna market still is expanding at about 10% a year. But Penttila says his company, with $34 million in 1996 sales, expects most growth to come from abroad. With manufacturing plants in Germany and the U.S., the company says 70% of revenues comes from outside Finland. Most Asian hotels are built with saunas, he says.

GERMAN TWIST. Elsewhere, saunas don't always have the healthy, squeaky-clean image they do here. In Britain, many are raunchy establishments with female hosts, alcohol, and "massages." Germans favor mixed-sex nude saunas with music and bright lights, "more like a disco than a sauna," says David Ahonen, export director at Harvia, with 1996 sales of $16 million. "Germans love neon lights, herbs, fragrances."

Some health-conscious Americans say they are worried that saunas could bring on heart attacks. So the Finnish manufacturers work with U.S. doctors to convince people that sitting in a sauna is as healthy as a gentle jog.

Finns have always associated saunas with health. Women once delivered babies in the sauna, the cleanest place on the farm. They cured meat there and dried malt, hemp, and flax. Now, even as the sauna loses its hold over political and business life, it's strengthening its grip on the Finnish lifestyle.

Nokia is a good example. It once restricted its executive-floor sauna to top execs and guests. But at its new headquarters, which opened in April in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo, Nokia added male and female saunas to the company gym, for use by all employees. "We do business in the office," says Kivinen. "Then we relax with a sauna."

Back in parliament, Sasi and I sweat up fast discussing the disappearing era of sauna diplomacy. Former President Urho Kekkonen, who came from a rural background and dominated Finnish politics for the three decades after World War II, was a sauna freak. He held one-on-one sauna talks with Russian leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. "Parliament didn't have a sauna until 1975, and to be frank, we didn't have much power, either," Sasi says. Along with the sauna, parliament has more power, too.


Today, wealthier, more democratic Finland won't put up with scheming in the sauna, says Sasi: "We do things more out in the open." At the recent Helsinki Summit, the Finns didn't invite either Boris Yeltsin or Bill Clinton for an official bath. Neither the ailing Russian President (saunas aren't advised for those with fragile hearts) nor the wheelchair-bound American leader was up to the heat.

Still, in Finland, working baths aren't likely to fade away completely. Former communist Culture Minister Claes Andersson joins us in the parliamentary sauna and falls into deep conversation with right-wing Sasi. As the heat becomes unbearable, the two shower and continue their discussion wrapped in towels in the resting room. Then it's back to the sauna for another round.

"You see how easy it is to speak in the sauna," says Sasi. "It melts away political differences."

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