thumbnail text

Britt Lundberg recently received some troubling information from a friend in the British city of Sheffield. “He said he kept his door locked… even when he was at home,” she says. The Minister of EU Affairs in the Baltic archipelago of Åland operates a more open policy. Her front door is always ajar, her car never locked and when her constituents drop by for a chat, which is often, there’s always hot coffee and freshly-baked oatcakes to hand round. Lundberg is not alone.

For the 27,000 residents of Åland – a unique, autonomous region of Finland – the most common crime is bicycle theft. Unemployment remains at 2.2 per cent and the standard of living is among the best in Europe. “We think of ourselves as the happiest people in the world,” says Lundberg, barefoot and wearing shorts as she sips tea on her veranda. “We think this is the most perfect place for children to grow up.”

Thanks to a quirk of early-20th century history, Åland’s residents are essentially sovereign co-rulers of their home nation of Finland. This means a population one-twentieth the size of Helsinki can effectively veto any international treaty Finland wants to enter, including EU treaties. All the more remarkable given that Ålanders speak Swedish. It is a little like the UK’s Isle of Man which also has its own parliament.

As far back as the history books recall, Åland has shared a culture and a language with Sweden. As part of the Swedish Kingdom, it enjoyed periods of relative independence up until the war of 1808-1809, when Sweden was forced to relinquish Finland and Åland to Russia. As a result, Åland became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, Åland’s municipalities sought reunification with their Swedish motherland and presented a mass petition to the Swedish king and government. Finland rejected these demands, instead offering autonomy – a scheme Åland rejected. A compromise was reached in 1921, when the League of Nations granted Finland sovereignty over Åland, but made it guarantee the islands would have their own system of self-government (a parliament of up to eight members) and retain their Swedish language, culture and customs.

Today, Ålanders have the right to pass laws and manage their own internal affairs. “Nobody would say we should belong to Sweden anymore,” says Lundberg. “People are quite satisfied with the solution. It is unique.”

Indeed, with its own police department (71 officers), dedicated postal service, education infrastructure and flag, plus radio and television stations, the only downside for the inhabitants of Mariehamn, the capital on Fasta Åland – the main island, where more than 50 per cent of the population resides – seems to be that things run a little too smoothly. “There is really not enough news to go round,” says Camilla Hägglund, the head of police – and Finland’s only female police boss. “The newspapers can write about the smallest thing. Bumps in the road can be written about for two weeks.” (Hägglund isn’t exaggerating. Monocle’s visit made the front page of Ålandstidningen, one of two local papers.)

“Everybody knows everybody,” says Andre Janczak, the Stockholm-born managing director of the city’s Music Shop. Janczak came to Åland on tour with his rock band in 1972, fell in love with a girl and never went home. When Åland’s radio station announces the hourly news, it does so to the sound of a jingle he composed.

Journalist Hanna Navier concurs. “It is impossible to keep a secret. If anyone has an affair, it is like jungle drums. In Stockholm, you could sit naked in a café and nobody would notice you.”

Just as well Åland’s industries provide more than enough work to keep everyone busy. While some Ålanders continue to earn their livelihood from fishing, ferries and the forest, duty-free tourism now employees one in three of them. What’s more, many residents are adept at multi-tasking. “There are 126 fishermen, but only five of us are full-time,” says Pete Ahlström, as he repairs his net down by the harbour. “It is a small island, so there are always plenty of other jobs to do.” (In fact, the overwhelmingly well-educated, well-off population presents a snag: with fewer people willing to seek employment in the service industries, some of the restaurants and bars are forced to shut early in the winter – not enough staff.)

The traditional shipping industries may have taken a downturn – “10 years ago, shipping was 40 per cent of our gross income and today it’s 30 per cent,” says Jorgen Pettersson, Ålandstidningen’s deputy editor – but the balance has been more than redressed by an explosion in IT, banking and on-line gambling.

“When the Finnish banks had to move out of the island in 1921, the Bank of Åland was founded,” says managing director and Åland MP Peter Grönlund. “Then we moved into mainland Finland in 1982 and, today, we have 70 per cent of our business coming from there. For years, we were the only Finnish bank that was making a profit. We never took any government aid. How did we do it? Conservative banking, I should say.”

The island’s Viking Line and Birka Line ferry companies provided the perfect outlet for PAF – Åland’s home-grown gambling firm, licensed by the government to provide slot machines, casino games, bingo and lotteries – and the recent explosion in online gambling has seen it really hit the jackpot.

“PAF was among the first in internet gambling in the world,” says Pettersson. “Since we have our servers on the island, we don’t care if our customers are in Australia, Finland or Britain. It generates loads of money for the island.” Karl Gustaf Pietilä, PAF’s deputy CEO, explains further. “We had a turnover of €82m last year and €31m went to Åland, for social, youth, athletic and cultural activities, plus to charities such as Save The Children and the Finnish Red Cross.”

While politicians and academics often look to Åland and its division of power with Finland as a case study in a successful solution to a minority conflict, there are signs that trouble is brewing. Having joined the European Union with Finland in 1995, many Ålanders are now wondering if that was the right decision. For this proud province has had its faith repaid by unnecessary erosion of certain aspects of its traditional way of life. To date, Brussels has outlawed fishing with traditional nets, abolished the centuries-old ritual of spring duck hunting and quashed local laws on consuming snus, Swedish chewing tobacco.

“It’s very annoying,” says Pettersson. “It’s not like you wake up in the night and think ‘shit, they’ve taken away the hunting’. And this snus thing, I couldn’t really care less. But it’s the principle.”

“Many people don’t like it,” says Kurt Skogberg, a resident, whose in-laws have lived on the island for five generations. “They would like to see Åland run away from Finland – and I think Åland could make it on its own. But the reality is the Finnish people and the Åland people have to agree.” Nobody has been mean-spirited enough to suggest Åland might cause problems for the EU by exercising its democratic rights and vetoing treaties. The solution, says Lundberg, is for Åland to have its own seat in Brussels. “The biggest challenge we face is to have more influence within the EU and [to work out] how much pressure we should put on Finland to get that influence.” It’s something she is lobbying hard for. “I’m an optimist. We will work it out.”

Despite all this, outsiders are going to have to try rather harder if they’re to erode the island’s unique way of life. In 2001, Åland experienced its first and only bank robbery. The thief, a Swede, who had travelled over on the ferry, distracted authorities by setting alight a car outside the police station before calmly opening the bank’s window and climbing in. He was apprehended moments later, carrying a toy gun. “My God, the newspaper was busy that day,” says Hägglund. It’s a story unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. “Before, the window was just glass,” says Janczak. “Now there are bars.”

Five Åland brands

Ålvados
Delicious Calvados-like apple brandy, made in the north of the island and exported to Sweden and Finland.

Optinova
Medical plastic tubing manufacturer that currently controls 40 per cent of the worldwide intravenous tubing market.

Rockoff
Åland’s rock festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this July with an eight-day extravaganza that attracted more than 40,000 people.

Chips
Hugely popular home-brand crisps. Ideal served with Ålvados.

Viking Line
The Mariehamn-based cruise-ferry company operates long, scenic sails between Åland, Finland, Sweden and Estonia, and turned over €405m in 2005-2006.

Loading...

/

15

15

Live

00:0001:00

  • Midori House