In the middle of the Baltic Sea, a paradise for peacemakers

The Aland Islands were once contested by Finland and Sweden, their immediate neighbors. But the dispute's peaceful resolution has worked so well that Aland now serves as an example to other cultural conflicts.

Gregory Wrona/Newscom
A ship sits in harbor in Mariehamn, the capital of the Aland Islands autonomous region of Finland.

Sloops and cutters tack back and forth against the summer sky. Peacocks mingle with the natives at the town beach along its graceful mile-long waterfront. Mariehamn, the capital of Aland, a Finnish archipelago in the middle of the Baltic, is as bucolic a place as one can find in or near Europe these days.

Attractive though it is, Mariehamn’s Elysian calm is only partly the product of its unique topography. It also derives from Aland’s unique status.

The chain of some 6,500 islands is an autonomous, Swedish-speaking province of Finland, as well as Europe’s only officially demilitarized and neutralized zone. And its capital is the site of the Aland Peace Institute, a busy think tank devoted to promoting conflict resolution, as well as educating the world about the so-called "Aland Model" of self-governance and successful majority/minority relations.

Established almost a century ago, 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. The institute, founded in 1992, was set up to assist other regions and minorities, both in Europe and further abroad, in peacefully resolving their own linguistic or ethnic-based separatist conflicts. Areas whose representatives have studied Aland and selectively applied the lessons thereby gained include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Corsica, and Myanmar.

“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.

A country within a country

Things haven’t always been 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 Bormasund fortress then being erected in the Aland Islands by the Russian Empire, which had wrested the islands from Sweden 50 years before.

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.

But 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 wanted 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 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 of their own, within Finland, along with a proudly peaceful ethos.

Defense of the archipelago is Helsinki’s responsibility, along with its limited foreign affairs. Virtually everything else – education, medical care, law and order – is the responsibility of the discrete Aland government, which also has its own parliament, the Lagting. In effect, Aland is a country within a country. It even has its own flag and postal service.

War and its accoutrements are strictly verboten. Although Finland is responsible for the islands’ defense, Finnish military personnel are not welcome there (at least in uniform). Peace is truly the law, and the credo, in this, Europe’s only official “peace zone.”

'A kind of smorgasbord'

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, Aland became a symbol for the possibility for creating safe spaces without weapons, as well as a successful example of conflict solution by diplomatic means.

In recent years, as separatist issues and concerns have become an increasing force in world affairs, many from afflicted regions have taken a look at Aland to see what they could learn and apply in their own lands.

“The Peace Institute is the ultimate fruit of a long process which began 300 years ago when Peter the Great negotiated with Stockholm over the rights to access Aland waters,” says Anders Wiklof, a leading Alandic businessman and entrepreneur and backer of the institute.

“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 Sia Spiliopoulou Akermark, the institute's research manager.

Interest in Aland has been especially intense in the former Soviet republics, with their many separate, oft-warring 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 it affairs with Helsinki, and vice versa.

Institute staff have also traveled to hot spots to lend their expertise around the world. Nordquist, who is also a professor of peace and conflict studies at Sweden’s Uppsala University, recently returned from Mindanao in the Philippines, where he was asked to consult on the conflict between the central government in Manila and the indigenous Moro minority on Mindanao.

Aland's limits

To be sure, visitors who come to study the Aland Way sometimes find that there is a conflict between the beneficent model and the messier, extrajudicial reality they confront at home.

In 2001, for example, the institute hosted a “Seminar on Autonomy and Conflict Management” for parliamentarians from Ukraine and Crimea. But the participants ultimately found it impossible to put what they learned in Mariehamn into practice after Russia’s decision to annex Crimea outright in 2014.

Mr. Wiklof 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 that is not necessarily true elsewhere.

Still, Ms. Akermark says that the Aland Islands are all the more important today, now that the Baltic has once again become the site of tensions among 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.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.