HELSINKI — Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president and world peace mediator who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work to resolve international conflicts, died Monday. He was 86 years old.
The foundation he created to prevent and resolve violent conflicts said it was “deeply saddened by the loss of its founder and (former) chairman of the board.”
In 2021, it was announced that Ahtisaari was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
“It is with great sadness that we learned of the news of the death of President Martti Ahtisaari,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said in a statement. “He was president in a time of change and led Finland into the era of the global EU.”
Niinistö described Ahtisaari in a televised speech as “a citizen of the world, a great Finn. A teacher, a diplomat and a head of state. A peace negotiator and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.”
Ahtisaari contributed to the conclusion of peace agreements related to Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo in the late 1990s, Namibia’s attempt at independence in the 1980s, and the autonomy of Aceh province in Indonesia in 2005. He was also involved in the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s, being responsible for monitoring the IRA disarmament process.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Ahtisaari a “hero of peace, security and conflict prevention,” adding that “I admired his peace work in the Western Balkans.”
“President Ahtisaari dedicated his entire life to peace, diplomacy and the goodness of humanity and had an extraordinary influence on our present and our future,” said Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani. “He etched the framework of our country and his name will forever be etched in the pages of the history of the Republic of Kosovo.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called him a “visionary” and a “champion of peace” on X, formerly known as Twitter. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Ahtisaari an “outstanding statesman and good friend” and said he had made a “vital contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote of X that “we are losing an exceptional diplomat.” He highlighted Ahtisaari’s mediation “in many conflicts, including in the Balkans”, while attending a summit of Western Balkan leaders in Albania.
When the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee chose Ahtisaari in October 2008, it cited him “for his significant efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.”
Ahtisaari served as president of the Nordic country for a six-year term – from 1994 to 2000 – and later founded the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative, aimed at preventing and resolving violent conflicts through informal dialogue and mediation.
Born on June 23, 1937 in Viipuri, eastern Russia, now the Russian city of Vyborg, Ahtisaari was a primary school teacher before joining the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1965. He spent about 20 years in abroad, first as ambassador to Tanzania. , Zambia and Somalia, then to the United Nations in New York.
He then joined the UN, working at the UN headquarters in New York, and in 1978 he was appointed special representative for Namibia by the then UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim.
He led the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the 1980s that led to Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990. Ahtisaari had become deeply involved in activities to prepare for Namibians to independence during his diplomatic tenure in Africa in the 1970s.
The Namibian government was grateful for Ahtisaari’s work and later made him an honorary citizen of the country. Namibian President Hage Geingob said on X that Ahtisaari was “a friend of the Namibian liberation struggle and a leading peacemaker who played, through the United Nations, a central role in the birth of ‘a new Namibia’.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, highlighted Ahtisaari’s “invaluable contributions” to the organization’s work, including as the secretary-general’s special representative for Namibia and as UN special envoy for the Horn of Africa and Kosovo. among other messages.
“His remarkable life of service and pursuit of peace will always serve as an inspiration to the countless United Nations officials who had the privilege of working with him,” Dujarric said in a statement. “Mr Ahtisaari was a distinguished statesman, diplomat and exemplary mediator who dedicated his life to the cause of peace.”
Returning to Finland in 1991, Ahtisaari worked as state secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before being elected president in 1994. He was the first Finnish head of state to be elected directly rather than through an electoral college.
Having lived abroad for so long, he entered the race as a political outsider and was seen as bringing a breath of fresh air to Finnish politics. Ahtisaari was a strong supporter of the European Union and NATO, which Finland joined in 1995 and 2023 respectively.
A high point came in 1999 when he negotiated – alongside Russian Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin – an end to fighting in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Ahtisaari later said that his most difficult task as a negotiator and peace mediator had been during the Kosovo talks.
During his presidency, Ahtisaari hosted Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton at a US-Russian summit in the Finnish capital Helsinki in March 1997.
Ahtisaari “had a big heart and he believed in human beings,” Niinistö said.
“In his speech at the Nobel Prize celebration, Ahtisaari said that all conflicts can be resolved: ‘Wars and conflicts are not inevitable. They are man-made,'” Niinistö said. “War always defends interests. Therefore, those with power and influence can also stop them.”
As president, Ahtisaari traveled abroad more than any of his predecessors. At home, he often seemed impatient and annoyed by media criticism – he 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 otherwise would have spent on his campaign to leading the rotating presidency of the EU, which Finland held for the first time in 1999.
After the Finnish presidency, he was offered several international positions, including at the United Nations refugee agency, but instead decided to open his own office in Helsinki, focused on mediating international crises.
In May 2017, Ahtisaari resigned as president of the Crisis Management Initiative to help resolve global conflicts, but said he would continue to work with the organization as an advisor. He was replaced by former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, now a presidential candidate.
Stubb reacted to Ahtisaari’s death on X, saying that “perhaps more than ever, the world needs people like him.”
Ahtisaari is survived by his wife Eeva and their adult son, Marko.
The CMI said Ahtisaari would be buried after a state funeral. The date will be announced later.