Inside Sweden's 'Volvo of rebel groups'


The Swedish town of stersund has been in the news lately, in the role of honest but unsuccessful contender for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002.

While rival Salt Lake City was sweetening its bid to host the games with questionable donations and expensive gifts, virtuous stersund offered International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials little more than bath towels and ceramic trivets.

But stersund should be known not merely as a spurned Olympic suitor.

It is also the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Jamtland (pronounced yamt-land) and headquarters of the Jamtland Liberation Movement, which advocates independence from Sweden.

stersund is home to the most polite, and possibly the most comical, autonomy struggle on the face of the globe, seasoned with a healthy dose of dry Scandinavian humor and a dash of theater of the absurd.

How much this low-key political turmoil entered into the Olympic site selection process can only be a matter of conjecture.

But when IOC members arrived to inspect stersund, they couldn't help but notice the large oil portrait of the republic's president hanging in the arrival lounge of tiny stersund airport. (There is no portrait of the king of Sweden.)

Nor could they miss the green, white, and blue flag of the republic flying from nearly every hotel, gas station, and grocery store.

According to one Jamt, the flag is older than Christianity around here.

The republic also boasts an official seal, its own visa, national anthem, and of course, its own Web site.

Its military wing, the Jamtland Republican Army (JRA), gleefully takes credit for a range of mischievous actions. These include border stops, road tolls, visa checkpoints, and friendly "hijackings" so entertaining that local inns arrange them for guests.

Jamtland is one of the 24 provinces of Sweden and sits in the mountainous center of the country. Roughly half the size of Ohio, it is sparsely populated (6 Jamts per square mile). Lapp herdsmen graze reindeer in the hills. Farming is poor; there is tourism - skiing, hiking, and fishing - but little industry.

While rich in natural resources - its rivers produce 15 percent of Sweden's hydroelectric power and its forests account for about 10 percent of lumber production - most facilities are not locally owned. It lies near the bottom in per capita income and unemployment stands near 11 percent.

There's a communal sense that the Swedish government doesn't care a lingonberry about the province.

"In Stockholm ... they say that they are supporting us. But we are supporting them," says Sonja Pederson, a middle-aged matron and JRA activist. "We are supporting them with our forests, our power, our people. They do not treat us with respect."

Historic republic

The Jamtland Liberation Movement was born in 1963 to protest Swedish government plans to merge the province with a neighboring one, for the sake of administrative efficiency.

Even though Stockholm eventually shelved the plan, the Republic of Jamtland became established as a colorful focus of the local imagination.

Jamtland was a sovereign republic from the 9th century until 1178, when King Sverre of Norway won it in battle. The region was ceded to Sweden in 1645, but is still fighting assimilation.

The big rallying event became the annual Storsjyran Freedom Festival, a sort of rock festival with political overtones, celebrating local cuisine (lots of reindeer meat and yellow cloudberries, a relative of the raspberry), music, and language.

The highlight of recent summer festivals is the address by the republic's flamboyant president, Ewert Ljusberg. A professional singer and storyteller, Mr. Ljusberg always makes a grand entrance, once arriving atop a seven-ton elephant. Last year he flew to the podium in a small blimp.

For all the liberation movement's hijinks, it is crucial to understand how very respectable it is, the Volvo of rebel movements.

Activists in the JRA include professors, farmers, schoolteachers, artists, and merchants.

The rebels earn operating funds by selling items ranging from flags, shirts, and hats to CDs of Jamt patriotic songs.

Hijacking hijinks

But the most reliable source of revenue is their "hijackings."

"We know who to call to arrange it," says Tommy Hagstrom, owner of a resort lodge in Graftavallen, about 60 miles west of stersund. "I pick up the phone and say: 'I shall have the president of this or that corporation here at Graftavallen as a guest, could you perform a hijacking?' "

JRA units, armed with farm implements, take command of a tourist bus or taxi and offer their startled captives a local beverage while regaling them with folk songs and witty political tirades.

They also issue official Republic of Jamtland visas to the hostages and offer them language lessons in the Jamska dialect (closer to old Norse than to Swedish, is the claim).

Rather than a ransom, there's a performance fee that is bundled in as part of the entertainment and activity expenses at a resort like Mr. Hagstrom's.

But the JRA won't force its message on an unwilling audience. For instance, since the rebels oppose Sweden's decision to join the European Union, they won't do a hijacking for an EU conference.

"Here in Jamtland there's a different mentality, our souls are different from the other parts of Sweden, because we had belonged to Norway," explains JRA member Ms. Pederson. Unlike Sweden, Norway voted down EU membership.

"Many in Jamtland do feel closer to Norway," agrees Lillemor Eriksson, smoothing the forest-green wool skirt of her JRA uniform.

But that closeness is more for economic than sentimental reasons.

Jamtlanders who are in the trades usually end up going to school or working in Trondheim, the nearest Norwegian city, because there are more skilled jobs to be found there and better wages.

"We have a sort of aggression toward Stockholm," says Ms. Eriksson. "We want Stockholm to pay for the power they're taking out of our rivers, pay for the forests they've cut down."

"Most of all, we'd like independence," says Pederson. "But Jamtland is too small to really be independent, so we'd settle for belonging to Norway."

There must have been very mixed emotions when stersund lost the second of its three Olympic bids, for the 1994 Winter Games, to Lillehammer, Norway.

Stockholm unfazed

But to say that Stockholm is not fazed by the openly secessionist sentiment in Jamtland is an understatement.

"I know nothing of a liberation movement in Jamtland," says Birgit Vogel, a press officer for the Swedish Interior Ministry in the capital. "It's a poor province, I do know that."

"I've never heard of it," says Margareta Paul, press attach at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. "Do they have a [Web] home page I could look at?"

The Jamts say they're accustomed to being ignored by Stockholm - that's what their liberation movement is all about, after all.

But they feel outrage about being cheated out of the Olympic Games by cities that used performance-enhancing bribes. Unlike other host city hopefuls, stersund refused the not-at-all subtle solicitations.

In one case, stersund deputy mayor Gun-Britt Martensson met an IOC dignitary for dinner to discuss the town's 1994 bid. The delegate wrongly assumed she was a prostitute hired to entertain him.

"But if I had said 'Yes,' we might have hosted the Olympics," she told Reuters.

And perhaps things might have been different in the contest for the 2002 Games if the JRA had been able to perform a friendly hijacking.

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