A COLORFUL mural in the modern parliament building in the capital of this Swedish-speaking archipelago depicts the reaction of local politicians when learning their islands were to be put under Finnish rule.
The year was 1921. The land (pronounced Oo-land) Islands, part of Sweden for centuries, had been conquered by Russia along with Finland little more than a decade earlier. After Finland gained independence following Russia's Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, landers wanted union with Sweden. But the League of Nations ruled that Finland would retain sovereignty over the province.
"The landers refused to accept the autonomy act. So they wanted out of the League of Nations meeting," says Susanne Ericksson, second secretary of land's Landsting, or parliament. She points to the mural, a large panel in the Landsting's main entrance hall, showing red-faced landers donning their top hats and stomping angrily from the session.
"Finland said it would allow land to be as autonomous as possible without becoming an independent state," she explains, laughing. "But the initial reaction was bad."
Today, the vast majority of land's 25,000 residents are as proud to be Finnish as they are of their strong Swedish-speaking identity. A self-governing entity with its own flag and postage stamps, land has been a demilitarized semiautonomous zone since 1921. The "land model," considered a workable solution to ethnic-minority conflicts, has attracted considerable international attention.
Straddling the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden, land's 6,500 islands are more than simply picturesque. Argentina's foreign minister came here when he was looking for solutions to the Falkland Islands crisis. More recently, envoys from the United Nations, the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, and Croatia in the former Yugoslavia have looked to emulate land.
"We have now reached the point in Europe where you can create a new state for every small minority. So politicians are looking for alternative ways to create soft borders," Ms. Ericksson says. "We are aware that you cannot put one solution on another problem. But we can function as an inspiration."
For the most part, self-rule has run smoothly. land retains the right to its own language, culture, and identity. No military forces can be stationed on the islands, and landers are exempt from military service, which is compulsory for all other Finnish men.
Four political parties and one independent political group make up the 30-member parliament in the capital - and only town - of Mariehamn (a mere 61 of the land Islands are inhabited.) The parliament enacts independent laws in all spheres except foreign relations, the administration of justice, customs, and monetary policy.
A spat over EU membership
One legislator from land - an independent who cooperates with the Swedish People's Party, which represents the Swedish minority in Finland - represents the islands in the Helsinki parliament. Helsinki, Finland's capital, for its part, has to gain approval from land's parliament before entering into international agreements and treaties. So when Finland held a national referendum and decided to join the European Union, it was obligated to consult with land's Landsting first. It soon found that not all landers were in favor of inclusion into the pan-European body.
"land's autonomy clashes with the ideals of the EU," says Peter Lindback, head of administration in land's government, or Landskapssytrelse. "Our system is more protective, while the EU is about harmony and integration. They are opposites."
Rather than reject the EU proposal and risk confrontation, landers spent more than a year persuading Helsinki to negotiate with the EU on their behalf, Mr. Lindback says. Finally, land was granted two exceptions to EU membership in a special protocol to the Finnish agreement. Finland joined the EU on Jan. 1 this year.
The first exception protects landers minority rights in the future. Only landers with regional citizenship are allowed to own real property or businesses on the archipelago.
The second exception was designed to protect land's unique economy, which is based on tourism. It depends on the ferries between Finland and Sweden, which are inexpensive because of their profits from tax-free sales on board.
But the EU agreement stipulates that all tax-free traffic between member states cease by June 1999.
"If this happened to us, the results would be disastrous," Lindback says. So land negotiated the right to retain its tax-free sales.
land's economy is largely service-oriented, with about 60 to 70 percent of the 12,000-strong work force in the service sector. The economy is so strong that unemployment is only 6 percent, compared with 18 percent in Finland proper. But if taxes make exporting goods and services too expensive, this could considerably weaken land's standard of living, now equal to that of the United States.
Mariehamn has a lively harbor, varied restaurants, and busy shopping streets, along with 30 banks. About 1,200 small and medium-sized businesses are registered, or about one enterprise for every two employed landers. Most cater to the 15 million tourists who descend on land annually to fish, hike, or rent cottages during the brief but spectacular eight-week summer season.
"The ministries in Helsinki don't always understand that land depends on services," laments Agneta Erlandsson, managing director of land's Chamber of Commerce and the niece of land Prime Minister Ragnar Erlandsson. "They are thinking only of the mainland, where services are not too important and manufacturing is the big thing."
If only we were Monaco
Sten Sundman, a former sea captain who chairs the Fria land (Free land) lobbying group, agrees. His organization, which claims only 150 members and has no representation in parliament, wants land to be entirely free of the Finnish yoke. He sees Monaco, Andorra, and Liechtenstein as models of small independent states.
"We are slowly getting influenced and overrun by Finland. You can't keep your national identity when you are a small minority with a different language," he says from his office, where he works part time editing a commercial shipping magazine. "You have to work for something you believe in.
"There is something you can call the 'tyranny of small steps,' " he adds. "It's a very slow process of 'Finlandization.' They do it on all fronts: education, economy, everything."
But most landers express confidence that their parliament represents their needs and that they have no need for increased autonomy. Partly this is because a small-town atmosphere prevails, enabling every citizen to partake in the archipelago's political life.
"If any lander comes to Mariehamn from the archipelago to buy something and has an extra half hour before his bus leaves, he can always call on [Prime Minister] Erlandsson," says the government's Lindback. "All he has to do is poke his head in [Erlandsson's] office, and if he's there, they can have a chat."