Friday, May 16, 2008

About 10,000 years ago, the highest parts of an archipelago emerged from the brackish Baltic Sea. This archipelago now includes some six and a half thousand islands and skerries and is known as the Åland Islands. This place has an interesting story, and one we should examine more closely because this place, home today to a population of about 26,200 people, has a "special status" under international law.

That's what Kofi Annan would have had in mind when, as United Nations Secretary-General, he said in 2006 that the international community’s ability to avert a war between Finland and Sweden over the Åland islands stands as a useful example of conflict resolution that should inspire approaches to current situations.

The geographical location of the archipelago, straddled as it is between Sweden and Finland at a point that could dominate the Baltic Sea, has long had the potential to cause a crisis. In 1921, following what has been dubbed "the Åland crisis," it was made an autonomous, Swedish-speaking, and importantly, demilitarised, administrative province of Finland as a result of a decision made by the League of Nations. It was one of the Leagues first international arbitration decisions.

The people of Åland have long spoken Swedish and had a culture similar to that seen in Sweden. Indeed, Åland was made part of the Swedish kingdom in the 13th century.

In 1714, Åland was devastated by the Russians during "the Great Wrath" and the majority of the population fled to Sweden. Nearly a decade later the inhabitants finally returned to Åland, only to have their islands occupied by Russians again twenty years later during "the Lesser Wrath."

In 1808, as part of their Finnish War campaign, the Russians invaded Åland. An Ålandic uprising put the Russian forces out of action for a time, but in 1809 Åland was conquered by the Russians. Åland became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland as a part of the Russian Empire when Sweden was forced to give up all control of the eastern third of its territory, including the islands, to Imperial Russia.

In 1832, the Bomarsunds fästning (Bomarsund fortress) was built by the Russians on the Åland island of Sund.

It was destroyed twenty two years later during the Crimean War by a British-French fleet and as an outcome of the Treaty of Paris, Britain required Russia to withhold the construction of any new fortifications on the islands. Åland was to be demilitarised.

Yet by the First World War in 1914, the Russian government turned the islands into a submarine base for the use of British and Russian submarines during the war. In 1915, Russian troops were moved to Åland and coastal batteries and field fortifications were built.

Then in December 1917, fearing the effects of the Russian October Revolution, the Finnish parliament called on the principles of national self-determination and proclaimed that Finland was a sovereign state. Ålanders had organised for their own self-determination that winter, fearing what they saw as excessive expressions of "pro-Finnishness" and "anti-Swedishness" in Finland.

Representatives of Åland’s municipalities held a secret meeting at the Åland Folk High School, where they decided to seek reunification with their Swedish motherland. A delegation presented this request, which was backed by a mass petition signed by an overwhelming majority of the local adult population, to the Swedish King and Government.

Finland was not prepared to meet the Ålanders’ demands, and instead offered a form of internal self-government. The Finnish Parliament adopted a law regulating the proposed autonomy, but the Ålandic representatives rejected it.

And so, on the initiative of England in 1920, the Åland Islands Question was referred to the newly formed League of Nations. In June 1921, the League’s Council presented a compromise decision which offered something to each of the three parties to the conflict, Finland, Sweden and Åland. Finland was granted sovereignty over Åland, but was placed under an obligation to guarantee to the population of the Islands their Swedish culture, language, local customs and the system of self-government that Finland had offered Åland in 1920.

The decision was supplemented with an agreement between Finland and Sweden on how the guarantees were to be realised and, most importantly, the League also decided that a treaty governing Åland’s demilitarisation and neutralisation should be drawn up to ensure that the Islands would never become a military asset used to threaten Sweden.

Indeed, thanks to a quirk of early 20th-century history, Ålanders are effectively sovereign co-rulers of Finland. As such, they can veto Finnish foreign policy and ensure "friendly relations" with Sweden that way.

Just this past week there's been a prime example of those "friendly relations" with Crown Princess Victoria, heir to the Swedish throne, arriving in the Åland capital, Mariehamn, to make what is the first official visit from a member of the Swedish royal family since Åland received its autonomy in 1921.

[More to come ...]

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