Baltic islands of peace
With its graceful waterfront, and sailboats tacking back and forth against the summer sky, Mariehamn, the capital of Aland, a Finnish archipelago comprised of 6,500 islands in the middle of the Baltic, is about as close to Shangri-la as one can find near the troubled continent of Europe these days.
Mariehamn may only be four hundred kilometers from Riga, but for all intents and purposes, it is on the other side of the world. To be sure, Mariehamn’s Elysian calm is only partly the product of its unique topography. It also derives from Aland’s unique status as an autonomous, Swedish-speaking province of Finland, as well as Europe’s only officially demilitarized and neutralized zone. Appropriately, this seaside town of 10,000 is also the site of a busy think tank, the Aland Peace Institute, devoted to promoting peaceful conflict resolution, as well as educating the world about the so-called Aland Model.
“The Institute is a medium by which we like to share our experiences with other areas in the world which are dealing with majority-minority issues and related matters, “says Kjell-ake Nordquist, the director of the Peace Institute, which was founded in 1992. Over the years, the Institute has hosted visits from politicians and other officials working to resolve linguistic or ethnic-based separatist conflicts who have considered adopting aspects of the so-called Aland Model from such far-flung places as Armenia/azerbaijan, Corsica and Myanmar, as well as the Baltic republics.
The Aland Model - or Example, as the Institute prefers to call it - refers to the internationally guaranteed protection afforded the Swedish speaking minority population of Aland by which the federal government essentially allows the 29,000 Alanders to manage their own affairs, while also abiding by Aland’s demilitarized status. Defense of the archipelago is Helsinki’s responsibility, along with its foreign affairs (as such). Virtually everything else education, medical care, law and order - is the responsibility of Mariehamn, which also has its own Parliament, the Landsting.
In effect, Aland is a country within a country. It even has its own flag and postal service.
In recent years, as separatist issues and concerns continue to be a force in world affairs, a long list of people from regions and minorities from both Europe as well as elsewhere, have taken a look at Aland, including an on site look, to see what they could learn and apply in their own lands. Interest in Aland has been especially intense in the former Soviet republics, with their many separate, oftwarring linguistic and ethnic enclaves. This past May, for example, the Institute hosted a working group comprised of representatives of the parliament of the former Soviet republic of Moldova and the autonomous, ethnically distinct region of Gagauzia, to see what they could learn from how Aland manages its affairs with Helsinki, and vice versa.
To be sure, things weren’t always so pacific in Aland. In 1854, during the Crimean War, the islands were the site of a violent naval action when a combined Anglo-franco task force blew up the mammoth fortress then being erected at Bormasund by Imperial Russia, which had wrested the islands from Sweden fifty years before. Today, a pockmarked fragment of the original massive fortress still stands at Sund, in the eastern archipelago, a testament to the long ago conflict.
After the war, which Russia lost to Britain and France, the islands were officially demilitarized by common consent of the major powers, creating the world’s first peace zone. However, true peace had not come to Aland yet. Following World War I, Finland and Sweden locked horns over the contentious islands. Helsinki insisted that it needed the islands, which are actually located closer to Finland, for its defense. Stockholm desired to reunite the Swedish-speaking islands with the mainland. So did the fiercely Swedophile Alanders.
The disputants elected to submit their dispute to the newly-minted League of Nations. In 1921, the League wisely decided to award Aland to Finland, on condition that Helsinki respect the archipelago’s indigenous Swedish culture, as well as its demilitarized status.
The solution worked well - so well that Alanders relinquished their desire for repatriation with Sweden, and developed a quasi-national identity, within Finland, of their own, along with a proudly peaceful ethos of their own. Peace is truly the law, and the credo, in this, Europe’s only official “peace zone.” Visitors can explore Aland’s quixotic, and little-understood history in the recently renovated Aland Museum in Mariehamn.
War and its accoutrements are strictly verboten in Aland. Although Finland is responsible for the island’s defense, Finnish military personnel are not welcome there (at least in uniform). Alanders take their special dispensation from the ways of the barbarous Outer World quite seriously.
The specific process that led to the establishment of the Peace Institute actually began in the 1980s, at the time of the then intense European anti-nuclear movement, when Aland became a symbol for the possibility of creating safe spaces without weapons, as well as a successful example of conflict solution by diplomatic means. The peaceminded institute also lends its good offices and staff to solving local legal disputes.
The Institute’s local mediation efforts were until recently by Justina Donielaite, Organization Secretary and a member of the ten strong Institute staff since 2002. Ms. Donielaite, who hails from Lithuania, eagerly spreads the good word about Aland when she returns to her hometown of Vilnius, where she finds that people in the former Soviet republic “are amazed at the idea of 29,000 people in the middle of the Baltic essentially running their own affairs.”
“The Peace Institute is the ultimate fruit of a long process which began three hundred years ago when Peter the Great negotiated with Stockholm over the rights to access Aland waters,” says Anders Wikloff, a leading Alandic businessman and entrepreneur and backer of the institute. At the same time, Wikloff emphasizes that the “Aland Solution,” while applicable in parts to conflict areas, was originally possible because the two original disputants, Finland and Sweden, “are societies based on the rule of law,” something which is not necessarily true elsewhere.
“We like to think of the Aland Example with its three layers - demilitarization, neutralization, and autonomy - as a kind of smorgasbord enabling many variations and adaptations,” says Ms. Akermark.
To be sure, visitors to the Islands of Peace, as Aland is also called, who come to study the Aland Way, sometimes find that there is a conflict between the beneficient Alandic model and the messier, extra-judicidial reality they confront at home. In 200l, the Institute hosted a “Seminar on Autonomy and Conflict Management” for parliamentarians from the Ukraine and Crimea. In the event, the participants ultimately found it more difficult to put what they learned beneath the sheltering linden trees of Mariehamn into practice, after Russia’s decision to annex Crimea outright in 2014.
However, while Crimea may be lost to the Alandic cause, Mr. Nordquist hasn’t given up hope for the Ukraine. “I would say that a solution which gives back full Ukrainian control and sovereignty over its territory, with an application of some ideas from the Aland Islands solution would be something worth considering.”
Ms. Akermark says that the Islands of Peace are all the more important now, now that the Baltic has once again become the site of tensions amongst the great powers. “I think all the powers have been eager to establish their rights in the Baltic Sea. Their perennial arms race is not helpful for the states and peoples living around the Baltic. We like to think that we can help show that there is a different way, based on negotiations, respect for indigenous cultures, human rights, and constitutional law.”
Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian who has been writing about the Baltic region for American and British publications since the early 90’s. This article was adapted from a dispatch for The Christian Science Monitor, where he is special correspondent. Sander is also the author of several books about the Baltic region, including, most recently, The Hundred Day Winter War, about the 1939-40 Soviet-finnish War. Sander was recently artist in residence at the Aland Museum.
Mariehamn, the capital of Aland, a Finnish archipelago, is comprised of 6,500 islands in the middle of the Baltic