In the balance - Issue 168 - Magazine | Monocle

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“It’s not Finland. It’s not Sweden. It’s something in between.” A voluble Swede is describing Åland to monocle on an afternoon ferry back to the main island. He’s right, in more ways than one. Åland is a collection of some 6,700 islands in the Baltic Sea, positioned about halfway between Stockholm and the Finnish coastal city of Turku. Its 30,000 inhabitants are overwhelmingly Swedish speakers but Åland has been Finnish territory since 1809. Landing at the islands’ only proper airport – a compact propeller plane does the 35-minute hop from Stockholm – you’re met by fresh salty air. “People here are a little special,” says our German-born taxi driver. “A little back-in-time.” Trying to get a meal in the capital, Mariehamn, past 20.00 on a Sunday proves tricky. A waitress at a mercifully open pizzeria-slash-sports-bar shrugs. “It’s Åland.”

Despite the sleepy nightlife, this is no political backwater. Åland is the subject of no fewer than four international treaties, which give it significant government autonomy from Finland and a demilitarised status. This means that no armed forces can be stationed here in peacetime. This began in 1856, after the Crimean War. Åland’s proximity to Stockholm meant that, in words attributed to Napoleon III, a military base here would be “a pistol pointing directly to the Swedish heart”. The victorious French and British insisted that Russia, which controlled Åland at the time, keep it free of fortifications. This was reiterated three times in diplomatic settlements after the First World War, the Finnish-Soviet Winter War and the Second World War. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year has prompted a tightening-up of Baltic security. Finland joined Nato in April and has increased its military spending by 36 per cent; Sweden, whose Nato bid is awaiting ratification from Turkey and Hungary, conducted its largest military exercise in 25 years this spring and is refortifying the Baltic island of Gotland. Given Åland’s similarly strategic position, its demilitarisation has come under scrutiny. Several MPs in Helsinki’s new right-wing coalition support scrapping the policy. One, Atte Kaleva, bluntly stated that “Åland’s freeriding should end”. Finland’s foreign ministry has opened a legal review into the islands’ treaties, which was due to report as monocle went to press.

Twenty-first century Åland is not without a security presence. Its police are armed, as are its border guards, who have an office in Mariehamn and another on Kökar, a small outlying island with barely 200 residents, reached from the main island by a two-and-a-half-hour ferry. As the boat chugs along, small spits of land appear out of the thick, early morning mist. Kökar is scrubby and rocky, with scattered houses and a few herds of cows. Clumps of reeds and red boathouses line the shore. The mist lifts for a few hours in early afternoon and the sunshine briefly transfigures a rather severe landscape into something idyllic. 

Here monocle meets Juri Jalava, deputy head of Åland’s 33-strong border guard, whose shaved head and steely blue eyes are offset by a toothy grin. His officers are equipped with pistols and rifles but no military-grade kit such as machine guns and artillery. One of the border guard’s “daily chores”, says Jalava, is patrolling the sea and identifying vessels that pass through or near the islands. Vigilance has been heightened since the Ukraine invasion – they’re on the lookout for accidents at sea and issues with electrical cables. “Such disruption could mean something else,” he says. Jalava mentions, without elaborating, “interesting” observations in the northern Baltic but no uptick in Russian vessels veering too close to Åland’s territorial waters. “I think we have gone back to the Cold War era,” he says, meaning a time when states were careful with each other’s boundaries.

In wartime proper, Åland’s demilitarisation is temporarily lifted and the border guard is merged with the Finnish military. The islands’ territorial waters were mined during the Second World War, and on a small hill above their station are piles of rubble: the remains of gun emplacements and bunkers built during 20th-century wars and then destroyed in order to comply with the four treaties that govern Åland’s fate.

Kökar border-guard station
Members of Åland border guard, with Juri Jalava
Border guard Markus Åkerfelt
Radar tower
Protestors outside the Russian consulate
Resident Denise Bergvall

Some think that this isn’t enough to keep the islands and their defenders safe. Charly Salonius-Pasternak, leading researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, says that no large country would accept, as Finland has to, “that it has responsibility for defending a territory but it cannot fully prepare to defend that territory”. When demilitarisation was first introduced in the 1850s, it could take weeks, or even months (depending on sailing conditions) to launch a naval attack. But “the time-distance equation has changed dramatically”. An enemy assault would be much quicker today and if Finnish troops aren’t allowed to train on Åland and familiarise themselves with its terrain, then some of them would “die unnecessarily”, says Salonius-Pasternak, due to lack of preparedness.

Susanna Mickwitz is the owner of the only grocery shop on Kökar that is open all year. “If, God forbid, we’re moving to war, everyone here should help in whatever way they can and not expect others to come and help us,” says Mickwitz, who relocated to the island from Helsinki with her husband 10 years ago. Like many who monocle speaks to, she knows of more young men signing up for military service – which is optional for Ålanders but compulsory in mainland Finland – since the war began. 

Åland’s first military reservist group was founded last year by Jonas Back, who led a 25km “march” through Mariehamn in April. Proper military training involving weapons has to be carried out on the mainland, where Swedish-language courses held by mpk, Finland’s national reservist organisation, have attracted dozens of Ålanders. He thinks that the ban on mpk activities in Åland is “overprotective”, given reservists are private citizens and demilitarisation “only applies to state actors”. If given permission, he plans to set up a shooting range for reservists on Åland next year.

Mariehamn is a small city of some 11,000 people. The centre, an architectural hodgepodge of modernist office blocks and traditional Scandinavian design, quickly gives way to suburbs with pastel-coloured houses. It’s built along a small peninsula so you’re never far from a bracing sea breeze. In the days of the windjammer – huge, iron-hulled sailing ships built to carry cargo – it was a major shipping hub: Åland-owned vessels carried Australian grain to Europe until the 1940s. Today the port is more likely to welcome ferries carrying tourists who descend in the summer for hiking, swimming and other outdoorsy pursuits. By mid-September the season is over, bar a few hardy Germans, and the unused docking machines look like strange metal sculptures silhouetted against a white sky. 

Mats Löfström, Åland’s sole MP in the Finnish parliament, has a room in the old offices of Gustaf Erikson, once the islands’ biggest shipowner. He cautions against Finland revisiting or even breaking any of the treaties. It would lead to a diplomatic “race to the bottom and that doesn’t serve small countries”, he says. “In that world, only big superpowers will dictate the rules.” The deputy head of Åland’s local government, Harry Jansson, agrees. Abolishing Åland’s status would “go against everything that is at the very heart of international relations”. Permitting the creation of a reservist organisation was up to the mainland authorities, he says, and it wouldn’t have been allowed by Åland’s 30-person parliament, which supports demilitarisation. “I don’t think a couple of weekends on the Finnish mainland will make any difference when it comes to defending the islands,” says Jansson. 

Tranquil nature
Local politician Harry Jansson
Åland architecture

One problem that Löfström sees with the demilitarisation debate is that “people don’t know that there are military plans for Åland but they cannot be disclosed to the public” – hence an impression that the islands are defenceless. Those plans, Salonius-Pasternak says, would probably involve “specialised archipelagic maritime units” from Finland and Sweden, similar to the UK’s Royal Marines and equipped with high-speed boats. It’s a “robust” strategy, he says, but one that could be significantly improved by lessening constraints and constructing bunkers to store ammunition, for example. But any changes wouldn’t be dramatic. “No one is calling for any sort of military base,” he says. Besides a few Finnish soldiers occasionally training on the islands, most Ålanders “would not notice” any difference.

Among many locals here, questions about demilitarisation are refused in a polite Scandinavian way. But opinions that are offered tend to lean towards the status quo. “Most people want demilitarisation,” says Ingvar Darnemo, a plumber who was taking the inter-island ferry to change someone’s radiator valves. Erik Nordlund, an 83-year-old former sea captain and shipping manager, thinks it’s “a paper tiger, really” – Stalin and Lenin didn’t ask about Åland’s legal status when they attacked Finland. Demilitarisation is a “relic”, he says, albeit one that serves as a “good symbol” for the islands and is worth maintaining. But according to Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark, director of the Åland Islands Peace Institute, a local ngo, it offers far more than symbolic value. The “Åland example” – an effective system of autonomy for a minority group – has been cited in negotiations over contested territories from Cyprus to Kashmir. When Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997, the dispute-resolution body between Hong Kong and mainland China was modelled on the one between Åland and Finland.

Peter Eklund, chef and co-owner of Café Viktor in central Mariehamn, says that demilitarisation “is a two-edged sword”. “In peacetime, it’s a great thing,” he adds. “But when the shit hits the fan, it’s totally different.” If the Ukraine war leads to “some form of real aggression” from Russia against Finland or Åland, he would favour reconsidering the policy. “We have to defend our way of life somehow.” The issue comes with considerable cultural baggage. The second Åland treaty, from 1921, was part of a League of Nations intervention to stop Sweden and a newly independent Finland going to war over the islands. Despite an unofficial referendum in which more than 95 per cent of residents said that they wanted to join Sweden, Finland was granted sovereignty – partly due to the diplomatic nous of its chief negotiator, Carl Enckell. To compensate, Ålanders were granted political autonomy, protections for the Swedish language and property laws that favoured natives. Even today, you have to be a resident on the islands for at least five years to buy a house in certain areas. Autonomy within Finland is accepted to the point where both independence and joining Sweden are fringe beliefs at best.

MP Mats Löfström
Troubled waters

The demilitarisation debate, therefore, is partly a proxy for Åland’s cultural distinctiveness from mainland Finland. If military rules are altered, might language rules be next? Jansson, the deputy head of government, is clear: “We only watch Swedish television; we are culturally part of Sweden.” Kenneth Smulter, a 59-year-old sport and health teacher at Mariehamn’s secondary school, says that “in sports I’m a Finn”. Otherwise, he considers himself an Ålander with “our own culture”. Two of his pupils, Hanna and Sofia, agree. Like many people here, neither of them speaks Finnish, though their Swedish has a distinct Finnish accent. 

A few minutes’ walk from Mariehamn’s government buildings is a Russian consulate, established in 1940 to allow the then ussr to monitor the islands’ demilitarisation. Today, it’s only home to the consul and his wife. Since the war began, there has been no sign of either of them and a petition demanding the consulate be closed has accrued more than 50,000 signatures. At 17.00 every day, Ålanders gather outside the consulate to protest against the war in Ukraine. On a Tuesday afternoon in early September, it consists of 20 people and a golden retriever. “U-kra-i-na,” they chant. Then they sing Beethoven's Ode to Joy, followed by more chants – “free Na-val-ny”; “Pu-tin, kill-er”. It’s wrapped up in five minutes and the crowd filters away. Among the attendees is Kaveh Bahar, an Iranian refugee who came here with his family in 1992. Why protest? “I don’t like dictators,” he says. “If Putin wins in Ukraine, he doesn’t stop.” Demilitarisation is a model that has worked, he adds. “Maybe we could be a model for the rest of the world.”

It seems unlikely that a small Baltic archipelago would be particularly cosmopolitan but it is. There are 300 Ukrainian refugees here; many residents monocle meets come from Sweden, mainland Finland or further afield. Roberto Ferrari, an Italian from near Bologna, met his now-wife in a nightclub here. Mariehamn in the summer used to be “like Rimini”, he says, with young Finns exploiting the long, balmy daylight to party endlessly. Denise Bergvall worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon before coming back and eventually opening an antiques shop. “We are the children of sailors,” she says. “They brought home ideas and we were influenced to go abroad.” This worldly outlook has long gone hand-in-hand with a contentedness, bordering on complacency, about Åland’s seclusion from the world’s military realities. But a choice, now discussed after decades of silence, has come into view: to retain demilitarisation or to properly prepare for a near-unimaginable conflict. As war rages unabated in Europe, this discussion is likely to only grow louder. 

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