15 Aug 2010
Aland Islands Model: Pro et Contra
Parallels with other ethnic conflicts are frequently being drawn to try to understand the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and to identify possible similarities, useful lessons, models, techniques, and expertise which may be of help in finding a solution to this protracted ethnic conflict. The Aland Islands conflict resolution model, known as the Aland model, which successfully solved a protracted conflict over a group of islands populated by Swedes but put under Finnish control is probably the most quoted in such contexts. This model has even been revisited by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Mediators, which resulted in a resolution package called the “Common State Plan” put forward by them in 1998 and then with minor amendments was officially handed to the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in 1999. Armenia expressed general agreement with 10 out of 12 points in the resolution proposal, while Azerbaijan rejected it.
The Aland Islands have been contested by Sweden and Finland. First the islands went to Russia as part of those territories that were surrendered by Sweden in September 1809 by the Fredriksham Agreement. As a result, those territories became part of a larger semi-sovereign dukedom. In 1832, Russia started the fortification of the islands by building the huge Bomarsund fortress, which was occupied and destroyed by Franco-English joint naval forces in 1854 during the Baltic Campaign of the Crimean war. With the Paris Agreement of 1856 the islands were de-fortified and demilitarized and eventually annexed to Finland.
The conflict was put for consideration at the League of Nations, with the latter deciding to appease Finland’s claims and ruling to keep it under Finnish jurisdiction, while putting forward clear requirements that the islands be given a high level of autonomy and secure conditions for preservation of linguistic, cultural rights, and traditions.
The foundations and guarantees for the Special Status of the Aland Islands lie in a number of international and national agreements and national legislature. The Sovereign status started with the Finnish authorities pushing for The Autonomy Act passed by the Finnish Legislators in 1920. The status was affirmed by the League of Nations in 1921 and was further amended and adopted with Finland joining the European Union. By law the Aland Islands are politically neutral and entirely demilitarized.
The Aland Islands are the smallest out of six regions of Finland (Number 6 on the map) with a population of 26,200. The population of Finland is 5.3 million: The population of the islands is Swedish speaking, while the rest of the five regions are Finnish speaking. Despite the huge difference in the number of speakers, both Finnish (95% usage) and Swedish (5% usage) are official state languages of Finland. Unlike the other five regions of Finland, the Aland Islands enjoy a Special Status. The territory has 30 legislators in their own parliament called Lagting, which deals with internal affairs. The Aland Islands have their own police force, national flag, postmarks, and a governor who is appointed by Finland and affirmed by the Lagting. The territory is a sovereign member of the Nordic Council and does not have its own armed forces. Entry of Finnish armed forces into the Aland Islands is forbidden. The population of the Aland Islands is exempt from compulsory service in the Finnish army. The authority to grant rights of domicile, purchase of lands and regulations for domicile and lands is exclusively under the jurisdiction of the Aland Islands’ authorities. The Aland Islands are given mechanisms to impact Finland’s foreign policy and international agreements with reference to the rights and affairs of the islands. Overall, the legislative and executive bodies of the islands are given vast sovereign authority. The Lagting’s authority includes local taxes, development, construction, and environment. The Finnish Government has control over the legislature that regulates foreign affairs, foreign trade, family and inheritance issues, and penal code.
Today, the Aland Islands enjoy vast benefits from the Special Status, and the living standards and general benefits on the islands are somewhat better than in the other five regions of Finland. Some politicians on the islands do promote cessation from Finland and complete sovereignty, yet these forces are a minority and are only getting stronger due to certain EU-enforced restrictions and regulations, where Finland has no stake.
Neither side has had any history of violence in the Aland Islands of any significance. Whereas in Karabakh, both ethnic groups have past and recent memories of interethnic violence and the legacy of a full-fledged war, further backed by continued state propaganda of intolerance and hatred on both sides. The Swedish and Finnish cultural, political, and value systems have a lot in common, while differences between the two groups in conflict over Karabakh are immense and include cultural, historical, and religious differences as well as dominating myths, stereotypes, selected memories over past clashes, traumas, and victories, which fuel intolerant attitudes and sense of ethnic incompatibility.
With all its crucial shortcomings, the Aland model offers a good “out of the box” solution, which could well have been implemented to bring about an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unfortunately, more than 15 years of cease-fire and mediation processes were wasted, and no reconciliation and co-existence is seen as an option to the societies or the representatives of the nations in conflict today. Should the sides seriously reconsider promoting hostility and intolerance, and should they develop their own social justice and development programs as well as policies of equality and inclusiveness, the model could well serve to bring peace to the region. Co-existence and cooperation among Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the territories of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh would be possible, as such peaceful and beneficial coexistence among Armenian and Azerbaijani communities exist in many countries today.