Finland's ÅLand Islands: Historic Playground

By Sander, Gordon F. | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Finland's ÅLand Islands: Historic Playground


Sander, Gordon F., Scandinavian Review


Åland, the archipelago at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia, comprises some 6,500 islands. While belonging to Finland, its 26,00 inhabitants are Swedish-speaking.

SCANDINAVIA IS MORE THAN DENMARK, SWEDEN, NORWAY, Finland and Iceland; it also encompasses three of what historians call "forbidden nation" regions. The peoples of the forbidden nations are those who, although established within their own defined territories and possessing distinct languages and cultures, live in nation-states other than their own. Whether through a loss of sovereignty, a failure ever to achieve it or a forced separation from a motherland, they have become the strays of European political history. One Scandinavian area answering to that description is the Faeroe Islands, 250 miles north of Scotland, midway between Iceland and Norway and under Danish rule. A second is Lapland, whose estimated 32,000 natives are largely concentrated in Norway, but also distributed among Sweden, Finland and Russia's Kola Peninsula. And then there is probably the least known of all such territories, the Åland Islands of westernmost Finland.

An archipelago of some 6,500 islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia, Åland belonged to Sweden until 1809, when Stockholm had to surrender it at the conclusion of a disastrous war with Russia. That turned out to be merely the first step in an intricate diplomatic history that today leaves the Swedish-speaking territory (population: 26,000) as the second-oldest demilitarized zone in Europe after a small tract of land between Spain and Gibraltar. How demilitarized? When members of the Finnish armed forces spend their leave in the provincial capital of Mariehamn or other parts of Åland, they have to do so in civilian clothes. And don't get the idea the natives play favorites on this score, since Swedish sailors putting into Mariehamn are also told to break out their jeans before taking to the streets.

The demilitarization of Åland was a key feature of an international agreement initially brokered by the League of Nations. Between Sweden's surrender of the territory in the early 19th century and the 1917 Russian Revolution, the region was part of the Grand Duchy of Finland under the tsars. Then the Grand Duchy gave way to grand scale maneuvering. While Russia was preoccupied with Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, Ålanders drafted a petition demanding reunification of the islands with Stockholm. Their timing was logical enough, but paled in comparison to that of Finland, which also took advantage of what was happening next door with its eastern neighbor to declare independence. With no time for what it deemed a relatively petty matter, the Finns insisted Ålanders he satisfied with some modest internal self-governing mechanisms under the overall rule of Helsinki. The Ålanders said nej tack, not ei kiitos.

What was quickly gnarled into the "Åland Islands Question" found its way to the League of Nations in June 1921, and the international body labored to placate everybody. Finland was granted sovereignty over Åland, but with the obligation to guarantee the islanders the primacy of their Swedish language and culture, as well as to abide by its earlier internal self-government proposals. The formal demilitarization and neutralization of the zone was part of assurances to Sweden that Finland could never use Åland for military threats against Stockholm. For their part, Ålanders who established residence on the islands before the age of 12 were exempt from service in the Finnish armed forces. In 1951, the Soviet Union pressured Finland into renouncing the League's autonomy guarantees, but Helsinki filled that void with accords more or less reiterating the 1921 pact. The bottom line for Ålanders was that all official business on the islands was to be conducted only in Swedish, they were entitled to their own flag and post office and locals were to have exclusive land ownership rights. In our own day, Åland even had to give its separate approval to inclusion with Finland within the European Community. …

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