AN ARTICLE WEDNESDAY ON FINNISH PRESIDENT MARTTI AHTISAARI INCORRECTLY REPORTED THAT PRESIDENTS ARE LIMITED TO ONE TERM IN FINLAND. AHTISAARI COULD RUN FOR REELECTION WHEN HIS TERM EXPIRES NEXT YEAR, BUT HAS ANNOUNCED THAT HE WILL NOT DO SO. (PUBLISHED 06/05/99)

The move to recruit Martti Ahtisaari, the 61-year-old president of Finland, as the European Union's special envoy on the Kosovo crisis surprised no one in Ahtisaari's country, because the Finns have always looked on the former school teacher and diplomat as a man who can meet just about any challenge.

Ahtisaari proved that in 1994, when he returned from a peacemaking mission in Yugoslavia and announced his candidacy for president. Although he never had held elective office and had no political experience, Ahtisaari stunned the pundits by winning the Social Democratic Party's presidential primary and moving on to an easy win in the general election.

"He started his political career at the very top -- and he won," said Jakko Iloniemi, another former diplomat who has been a close friend of Ahtisaari for 34 years. "He is a formidable man, and he tends to achieve what he sets out to do."

Ahtisaari seems to fit perfectly that old Hollywood role -- the strong, silent type. He demonstrated that steely determination two weeks ago when two eminent visitors dropped by his elegant Russian-era presidential palace overlooking the Gulf of Finland.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Russia's Balkans envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, were trying to enlist Ahtisaari in the Kosovo peace process, and Chernomyrdin already had told the media that Ahtisaari would be heading to Belgrade as soon as the talks in Helsinki were over.

The Finnish president had different ideas. He made clear that he had no intention of negotiating with anyone until the United States and Russia could reach agreement on a plan to end the NATO bombing and resolve the Kosovo conflict. Ten hours of talks ensued. Finally, Chernomyrdin headed off to Belgrade -- alone. Ahtisaari's conditions had not been met.

But the Finn did agree to take part in talks with the two big powers, and those negotiations led to his decision to go to Belgrade with Chernomyrdin today to meet with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The State Department said he will be carrying a detailed plan on Kosovo to present to the Yugoslav leader.

Ahtisaari's background in resolving seemingly intractable conflicts was probably his strongest qualification for the job of Kosovo peacemaker. In 1977, the United Nations dispatched him to Namibia, where a tense standoff between South Africa, Cuba, Angola and Namibia's independence movement, the South West Africa People's Organization, threatened to burst into all-out war.

Ahtisaari spent years working in southern Africa and was widely credited with helping assure Namibia's eventual transition to independence. He also worked to resolve the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.

But geopolitics also played a role in his selection. Finland probably has the best relations with Moscow of any Western nation. It is a member of the European Union -- Finland holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency beginning in July -- but has declined to join NATO, a decision appreciated in Moscow.

Ahtisaari was a high school teacher, then joined Finland's Foreign Ministry in 1965. After his successful involvement in the Namibia crisis, he was given other U.N. assignments and eventually served as undersecretary for administration and management from 1987 to 1991. Along the way, he became a close friend of Kofi Annan, the current U.N. secretary general. He is married and the father of a son.

Ahtisaari's six-year term as president ends next year, and Finnish presidents cannot run for reelection. That would suggest that a peacemaking job centering on Kosovo might be a logical career move for a man who is said by his friends to be full of energy.

"He is just a formidable negotiator," said Iloniemi. "He comes into a situation as a man from little Finland, a man without power. And he is adroit at using that position to enhance his own power at negotiation."

CAPTION: Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, left, with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, will visit Belgrade to present Slobodan Milosevic with the West's conditions for ending the war.