HELSINKI (AP) — Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and global peace broker who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work to resolve international conflicts, died Monday. He was 86.
The foundation he created for preventing and resolving violent conflicts said in a statement it was “deeply saddened by the loss of its founder and (former) chair of the board.”
In 2021, it was announced that Ahtisaari had advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
“It is with great sadness that we have received the news of the death of President Martti Ahtisaari,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said in a statement. “He was president in times of change, who piloted Finland into a global EU era.”
Niinistö described Ahtisaari in a televised speech as “a citizen of the world, a great Finn. A teacher, diplomat and head of state. A peace negotiator and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.”
Ahtisaari helped reach 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, being tasked with monitoring the IRA’s 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 committed all his life to peace, diplomacy, the goodness of humanity, and had an extraordinary influence on our present and the future,” said Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani. “He engraved the frame of our country, and his name will remain forever in the pages of the Republic of Kosovo’s history.”
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 a good friend” and said he made a “vital contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote on X that “we are losing an outstanding diplomat.” He pointed to Ahtisaari’s mediation “in many conflicts, including in the Balkans” as he attended a summit of Western Balkan leaders in Albania.
When the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee picked Ahtisaari in October 2008, it cited him “for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.”
Ahtisaari was the Nordic country’s president for one six-year term — from 1994 until 2000 — and later founded the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative, aimed at preventing and resolving violent conflicts through informal dialogue and mediation.
Born June 23, 1937, in the eastern town of Viipuri, which is the present-day Russian town of Vyborg, Ahtisaari was a primary school teacher before joining Finland’s Foreign Ministry in 1965. He spent about 20 years abroad, first as ambassador to Tanzania, Zambia and Somalia and then to the United Nations in New York.
He then joined the U.N., working at its New York headquarters, and in 1978 was appointed as the special representative for Namibia by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
He headed the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the 1980s that led to Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990. Ahtisaari had become deeply involved in activities aimed at preparing Namibians for 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 pivotal role in midwifing the birth of a new Namibia.”
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, emphasized Ahtisaari’s “invaluable contributions” to the work of the organization, including as the secretary-general’s special representative for Namibia and as a special U.N. envoy for the Horn of Africa and Kosovo among other posts.
“His remarkable life of service and pursuit of peace will always serve as an inspiration to countless United Nations officials who had the privilege to work 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.”
After returning to Finland in 1991, Ahtisaari worked as a Foreign Ministry secretary of state before being elected president in 1994. 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 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 highlight came in 1999 when he negotiated — alongside Russia’s Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin — the end to fighting in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Ahtisaari later said his toughest job as a negotiator and peace broker was during the Kosovo talks.
During his presidency, Ahtisaari hosted Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton at a U.S.-Russia summit in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in March 1997.
Ahtisaari “had a great heart and he believed in the human being,” Niinistö said.
“In his speech at the Nobel celebration, Ahtisaari said that all conflicts can be resolved: ‘Wars and conflicts are not inevitable. They are caused by humans,’” Niinistö said. “There are always interests that war promotes. Therefore, those who have power and influence can also stop them.”
As president, Ahtisaari traveled abroad more widely than any of his predecessors. At home, he often appeared impatient and vexed 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 would otherwise have used for campaigning to run the rotating EU presidency, which Finland held for the first time in 1999.
After the Finnish presidency, he was offered several international positions, including in the United Nations refugee agency, but decided instead to open his own office in Helsinki which centered on mediating international crises.
In May 2017, Ahtisaari stepped down as chairman of the Crisis Management Initiative to help resolve global conflicts but said he would continue working with the organization as an adviser. He was replaced by former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who is now running for president.
Stubb reacted to Ahtisaari’s death on X, saying that “perhaps now more than ever, the world needs people like him.”
Ahtisaari is survived by his wife Eeva and their adult son, Marko.
CMI said Ahtisaari will be laid to rest following a state funeral. The date will be announced later.
Former Associated Press writer Matti Huuhtanen, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this story.