Europe’s most cooperative islands?

Surrounded by sea and forest, the 6,700 islands of Åland are idyllic, but Åland’s peacefulness runs deeper than its setting.

Ester Laurell had always had a dream of walking a pilgrimage route. Not one of the famous paths like the Santiago de Compostela, but one closer to her home in the Åland Islands, an autonomous Finnish archipelago lying in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. In 2014, while working for the Nordic Archipelago Cooperation, she hosted workshops with communities from Åland and other archipelago regions in Finland and Sweden where they discussed sustainable tourism based on their joint cultural heritage. Together they came up with idea of a route to celebrate Saint Olav, answering both Laurell’s dreams of undertaking a pilgrimage and creating a project in which island communities surrounded by the Baltic Sea could support each other.

King of Norway, a Viking warrior who converted to Christianity and patron saint of the Åland Islands, Saint Olav often travelled around the Baltic Sea, from Gotland, Sweden, to Novgorod, Russia. With this in mind, the communities decided to create a new, eastern section of the St Olav Ways, a network of pilgrim paths to St Olav’s burial church, Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, that has been an official European Cultural Route in Norway, Sweden and Denmark since 2010.

Finally opened in 2020, the new section, called St Olav Waterway, became the first certified European Cultural Route on Åland, where it was built entirely by volunteers. The 600km route follows marked pathways over land and uses public ferries to hop between islands, travelling all the way from Turku Cathedral on Finland’s south-west coast through the Åland archipelago – from the gneiss bedrock of Kökar to the birch forest of Eckerö – and onto Sweden. The waterway, said Laurell, highlights “our joint history [and] maritime heritage”.

In this part of the Baltic Sea, history and heritage is as tangled as the seaweed lying on its rocky shores. The 6,700 Åland Islands are a part of Finland but are not entirely Finnish. They are culturally aligned with Sweden, but not quite Swedish either. Åland, Finland and Sweden have long been linked but the relationship hasn’t always been quite so smooth.

One hundred years ago, the Åland Islands were the subject of a dispute between Finland and Sweden. The islands were Swedish until 1809, when, as part of the Grand Duchy of Finland, they became the Russian Empire’s westernmost outpost. Russia soon began building a great fortress in Bomarsund on Åland’s main island, but during the Crimean War (1853-1856) Great Britain and France attacked the fortress – its ruins are now one of Åland’s main tourist attractions – and in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856, Åland was demilitarised.

After Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917, a movement for (now-Finnish) Åland’s reunion with Sweden gathered steam. Islanders, who felt culturally Swedish, feared a threat to their language and culture from the Finnish national movement. Tensions rose: at one point Finland sent troops to detain leaders of the movement and Sweden responded by recalling its diplomats from Finland. The Parliament of Finland adopted an Autonomy Act for Åland in 1920, which the Ålanders refused to accept.

In June 1921, Ålanders finally accepted a compromise to the Autonomy Act that took into account the interests of both countries as well as the Ålanders and gave a little bit to each side. Sweden was assured that Åland would not become a military threat; Finland retained sovereignty; and the islands gained the elevated status of an autonomous polity. Ålanders now have their own legislative assembly and provincial government, and Finland was obliged to protect the Ålands’ Swedish culture and language – Swedish is the only official language on Åland, whereas Finland’s official languages are both Finnish and Swedish. At the same time, the island’s demilitarised status was upheld and it became neutralised. Ålanders are exempt from military service, compulsory in Finland. The Autonomy Act for Åland was applied in 1922.

The dispute’s peaceful resolution has worked so well that Åland now serves as an example for other conflicts. Åland’s capital, Mariehamm, is home to the Åland Islands Peace Institute (AIPI), a think tank devoted to promoting conflict resolution and the “Åland Example” of self-governance and successful majority/minority relations, worldwide.

The resolution was aided by what AIPI’s director Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark called “a fortunate congruence between domestic processes and international ones.” The compromise, she said, “was reached at several levels, and through multiple tools, during a process that lasted for more than three years,” [1918 – 1921] in which the Ålanders were active.

At the international level there were two parallel channels of negotiations. One was the multilateral negotiations in the newly formed League of Nations, which focused on the broad strokes, such as demilitarisation and neutralisation. The second, a bilateral channel between Finland and Sweden, focused on nuanced issues, such as concerns around language. Both channels overlapped and were able to reinforce the conclusions of the other, bringing more legitimacy to the solution. At the same time negotiations took place domestically in Finland.

“Good deals take time and a lot of effort from many sides – including minorities themselves, great powers and neighbouring states – and considerable will to compromise,” said Åkermark. “You cannot simply run over the legitimate concerns of minorities, nor can you pick and choose in a complex deal.”

The physical situation of Åland also played a part. “‘Islandness’ has its own specificity,” said Åkermark. Islanders have to accept the duality of needing a measure of self-sufficiency while also being dependent on the lands surrounding them, which perhaps makes them more ready to accept compromise. “This is probably one explanation why many territorial autonomies are islands,” said Åkermark. “In the particular Åland case, the islands “are a bridge between the Swedish speaking cultural world to the west [Sweden] and the east [Swedish-speaking Finland]. So, this bridging function is rather characteristic to Åland, I believe.”

Since the early 1990s, as the end of the Cold War brought hopes for long-lasting peace and security, Åland has been known as the “islands of peace”. It’s “a way to market the Åland Islands,” said Roger Nordlund, who is a member of the Åland Parliament, on its Autonomy Committee and chair of the AIPI board. But, “it’s not for our own sake that we’re using [the term], we use it because we want other regions to have this good situation that we have now.”

There’s certainly been interest. Åland’s unique situation has been examined as a potential solution to conflict by politicians and researchers everywhere from Israel/Palestine and Aceh/Indonesia to Zanzibar/Tanzania and beyond. As well as providing inspiration, Åland also provides a neutral setting for opposing parties to meet. In the early 1990s, for example, the AIPI brought young people from Northern Ireland to the islands, which, said Åkermark, allowed “different sides to meet each other, which had not been possible in Northern Ireland”. The AIPI facilitated discussions ahead of what then became the Good Friday Agreement. One of the key figures in the agreement, former Finnish prime minister Harri Holkeri, later spoke of how important the Åland example had been to his efforts in the negotiations.

“I think one of the most important lessons that could be learned from the Åland Example is that everything is so peaceful and we are prosperous and happy people here now. But 100 years ago, Finland, Sweden and Åland, all three parts, were very disappointed,” said Nordlund. “It took more than one generation before people took autonomy to their hearts. It was only when the second Autonomy Act was passed in the mid-1950s that the people decided now, this is it, we have to do the best with it. And from that starting point, we have developed a very good society here in Åland.”

The autonomy law has been revised twice and over the years more visual symbols of autonomy have appeared. Åland has had its own flag since 1954 and postage stamp since 1984. In 2006, it got its own Internet domain .ax. If the 1921 agreement felt imperfect at the time, it’s been the islanders who have worked together to improve it.

There is a certain amount of accountability here that encourages positive social behaviour

“There is a spirit of caring and support among people,” Laurell said of the islands and villages of Åland. That the Åland section of the St Olav Waterway was built by volunteers is not unusual: islanders are often busy with volunteer work. With a population of just 30,000, Åland is home to more than 370 registered associations, from sporting to cultural and environmental associations.

“I think as we live on islands, we have to cooperate,” said Laurell. “Because there are situations where [otherwise] you couldn’t survive. You can’t fish alone, you need somebody else with you to row… you need to cooperate to survive, that has been the old tradition in the archipelago.”

For Michael Taevs, a Canadian living on Åland, “there is a certain amount of accountability here that encourages positive social behaviour.”

Old-time values are still important, said Taevs. “Imagine living on a little island in the Baltic Sea 100 years ago. You took care of your neighbours and they took care of you, because there was no one else. Somehow the Ålanders haven’t lost that kindness.” Rather than an especially “cooperative” society, it’s a “kind society aware of the strengths and failings of each other and accepting of each because we’re all in this together.”

In this spirit of caring and cooperation, islanders will come together for a full year of centennial celebrations from June 2021 to June 2022. Åland will celebrate 100 years of what the organisers call “Ålandic willfulness“, a trait that motivates islanders to rise to challenges and work to make the community comfortable for all. While the pandemic has forced the postponement of the planned kick-off event, the building of the world’s longest picnic table, there is still a full calendar of offerings, including festivals, opera performances and a tall ships race.

Besides the feeling of pride it instills in most Ålanders, celebrating 100 years of the Åland Example is a reminder that it can still be relevant to the islands today. Locally, there’s an energy around finding solutions to tackle the climate crisis, which, as an archipelago, is a major concern for Åland, according to Åkermark. One prominent example is the Åland Index, created by the Bank of Åland to calculate the individual carbon footprint of every credit card transaction.

“I see it as a continuation of the Åland Example,” said Åkermark. “First you had the identity problem, the security problem and the power-sharing problem. And now we have this other major problem, which is climate.”

She believes that finding solutions to the climate crisis may be a fitting focus for channelling the energy of the Åland Example: “We need to find the next step of where to concentrate the willfulness, so to speak, of the islands. You don’t discard the old part; you just add another layer.”

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