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Feisty Finns

The departure of Finland's long-enduring President Kekkonen offers an occasion for kudos to him and his quietly heroic nation. It is not easy for a small country to share a border with the Soviet Union and resist the bear's suffocating embrace. Whatever the domestic outcome of the politicking unleashed by Kekkonen's resignation (for health reasons), all parties seem agreed to pursue his remarkable diplomatic balancing act. It combines official neutrality and independence with ties to Russia and receptivity toward the West. ''Finlandization,'' indeed, ought to have a positive sense in international parlance beyond imputing to a nation an uneasy subservience to Moscow.

In history the name of Finland means centuries of struggle against not only Russia on one side but Sweden on the other. It means self-sacrificing integrity in meeting debt obligations. It means refusing to join in some German World War II operations and fiercely adhering to the concept of ''separate war'' against the Soviet common enemy. It means in defeat achieving restrictions on a Soviet ''mutual assistance'' treaty that were not found on Moscow's similar treaties with Hungary and Romania.

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On the current world scene, including the United Nations, Finland bespeaks what was said this week by Prime Minister Koivisto, who is deputizing as president: ''We must keep in mind the words of President Kek-konen that in issues of war and peace Finland is not neutral but is on the side of peace and against war.''

Events in Poland and elsewhere could present new challenges to the course Kekkonen picked up from former President Paasikivi in 1956 and carried on for a quarter of a century. In any case, liberty-loving Finns remain all too aware of Moscow's encroachments. But peace can continue to be served by Finland's extraordinary ability to shake hands with the bear without being crushed in the process.

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