Åland ([ˈoːland]; Finnish Ahvenanmaa) is a tiny island republic in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. As a member of the Nordic Union, Åland is the smallest of the Nordic nations, and the only one without a distinct language. It is also one of the youngest, its separate identity only dating back to the 1920s.
Åland was part of Finland before World War III and still maintains some political links with it. It is one of the smallest nations in the world, only about 0.5% of Finland's claimed land area.
Åland lies in the baltic at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. The islands consist of the main island Fasta Åland (literally "Firm Åland"), where 90% of the population resides, and an archipelago to the east with over 6,500 skerries and islands. Around 80 of the islands are inhabited. To the west, 38 km of open water separate Fasta Åland from Sweden. In the east, the Åland archipelago runs together with the Finnish Archipelago Sea. Åland's only land border is located on the uninhabited skerry of Märket, which it shares with Sweden. The country is divided into 16 municipalities. Marienhamn, the capital and chief port, is by far the most populous. Other notable municipalities include Jomala, the religious center, and Lumparland, location of the secondary port, Långnäs.
Åland was part of the ancient Kingdom of Sweden, though at times it was adminisered from Turku in Finland. In 1809, Russia defeated Sweden in the Napoleonic Wars and took all of Finland. Åland was included in this cession and was considered strategically important: it was said that "Russia would not take a trunk without the keys."
Åland was demilitarized in 1856 as part of the settlement ending the Crimean War. Nevertheless, the Russians used Åland as a submarine base during World War I. After the war, as both Russia and Finland fell into civil war, Ålanders signed a petition asking to be ceded to Sweden. The new Finnish government would not give the islands up and instead offered them autonomous status, which the Ålanders rejected. The question was deferred to the League of Nations in 1921, which sided with Finland but forced it to guarantee Åland wide autonomy: it was to be fully self-governing, neutral, demilitarized, and would have Swedish as its sole official language.
Over the course of the twentieth century Åland began to develop an identity of its own, shaped by almost two hundred years apart from Sweden. In 1970 the Nordic Council voted to allow Åland to send its own representatives as part of the Finnish delegation, a step on its way to being recognized as a separate "Nordic nation."
The Aland Islands, as a neutral region, were spared from the nuclear onslaught. However, Finland soon collapsed into violence as thousands of Soviet citizens desperately fled for the Finnish border, and riots and hysteria engulfed Helsinki and other cities. Åland was occupied by a radical anticommunist faction that had emerged in the area around Turku. The group saw the islands' advantages as an offshore base. Claiming to be the legitimate government of Finland, the group installed its own governor, though it did not completely abolish local self-government and the Landtag continued to meet and legislate. In 1987 the faction accepted the authority of Finland's new transitional government, but a splinter group of diehards remained in control of Åland and parts of the mainland to the north of Turku.
Communication between Sweden and Finland was poor, but the former had to deal with its own tide of refugees fleeing Finland's riots and the border wars, as well as a collapsing economy. However, because of security needs its navy explored the Finnish coasts. Somewhat opportunistically, Sweden landed an expedition on Åland late in 1987 to keep the peace. The Swedes installed a pro-Swedish governor and soon after announced that it would "provisionally" re-annex Åland "as an emergency measure."
However, the islands were difficult for the resource-strapped Swedish government to defend. By 1990 Åland was claimed by both Sweden and Finland but was really left on its own. It had become a rather notorious base for pirates who preyed on the slowly reviving local trade on the Baltic. Despite these challenges, Åland's elected parliament continued to administer the islands and do what it could to maintain the peace.
The Nordic Union and the Åland Question
When the Nordic Union was formed in 1990, Åland was a major point of tension between Sweden and Finland. The other Nordic countries supported Finland; they would not recognize Sweden's unilateral annexation of the islands. But Sweden, in much better shape than Finland, used the promise of aid to apply pressure. Complicating matters more were representatives from Åland's own elected government, who asked for complete independence on the basis of the islands' "neglect" by Finland, and used their earlier membership in the Nordic Council as a precedent.
A compromise was reached in the middle of 1990 in the lead-up to the NU's creation. Finland agreed to give Åland still more autonomy, making it a fully sovereign republic. The President of Finland would remain the official head of state (represented by a local Vice President), but Åland would conduct its own foreign policy and would operate outside the authority of the Finnish Parliament.
Åland was seated as an Nordic Union member in the NU's First Expansion on September 26, 1991. Despite this diplomatic recognition, the islands remained dangerous and wild. With its thousands of islands, Åland was (and is) an attractive base for pirates. Restoring the rule of law, and rebuilding the shattered welfare state, were the chief concerns of the government for most of the next two decades. A Nordic Battle Group fleet helped dislodge a major pirate base in 2002, so that today piracy in the islands is more a problem of law enforcement than of national security.
Åland's entrance into the Nordic Union common market proved a great blessing. The islands have recovered greatly since the "dark age" of the 80s and early 90s. Tourism is gone for good, but most of the islands' agriculture has moved beyond subsistence levels and Åland is now a food exporter (it was once the most productive farmland in Finland). Wheat, oats, barley, and rye; cucumbers, onions, and potatoes; and apples, plums, and pears are all grown here, and cattle and sheep are the main livestock. Fishing is starting to revive as the Baltic ecosystem recovers.
Most importantly, Ålanders have returned to what they had always been best at: shipping on the Baltic. Ålandic ships are active throughout the sea, in northern Germany and in surviving coastal villages of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, as well as in the Nordic nations.
Some of this commerce has a dark side to it. An untold number of Ålandic merchants make at least part of their money through smuggling or black-market operations. Some likely invest in outright piracy, which remains a constant problem for the coast guard and the courts. The Bank of Åland, a large commercial bank that was partially nationalized to serve as the national bank, is rumored to be a hive of corruption. The problem is probably not as bad as the rumors, but no one can deny that Åland's economic revival has not entirely been led by honest people.
Government and Politics
The President of Finland is Åland's head of state; the arrangement is modeled on the personal union joining Denmark to its former Atlantic colonies. The President appoints Åland's local Vice President to lead the state in his absence. Real power is vested in the Lagting, a parliament that dates to 1922. The Lagting chooses a Premier to lead the government, as well as a Speaker. The Vice President or President have veto power over Lagting decisions. These can be overridden with a 3/5 vote, but the veto power allows Finland to keep some check on Ålandic policy.
The republic is divided into 16 municipalities. They function in basically the same way as municipalities in Finland. They are governed by elected councils and are responsible for providing a range of public services.
Åland sends three members to the Nordic Law Thing (Nordiske Lagting). Out of tradition, they are seated with the Finnish delegation. The elections of these three officers are considered more important than for Åland's Lagting itself, since they give the islands an important voice in world affairs. Åland has three main political parties: Liberalerna (liberal), Åländsk Center (centrist), and the Socialdemokrater (socialist). All three predate the war. A few new parties have arisen but do not play a major role in either the Ålandic or the Nordic Lagting.
Ålanders had greatly valued their neutrality before 1983, but the world situation has changed drastically since then. Security and Nordic solidarity have replaced neutrality as the key foreign policy goals, so the island republic is no longer neutral or demilitarized. The new Nordic Union arrangements supersede the old laws passed after League of Nations arbitration in the 20s. The Nordic Battle Group began building a base in the strategic archipelago in 2005, but construction has stalled because of a lack of funds and local opposition. Åland has no actual military, but the Coast Guard, the body mainly responsible for defense, comes very close. A small police force maintains order on land. Through the Nordic Union, Åland participates in the Atlantic Defense Community.
Åland's history allows it to play a uniquely strong role in world affairs for a small island community still struggling to maintain the rule of law. As a longtime Nordic Union member, it has a level of international prestige that similarly-sized states do not have. Åland has been diplomatically active throughout the Baltic since the mid-90s and strongly supported the Nordic Union's expansion to include Estonia and Karelia, mostly because of the increased commerce that would result. Åland has diplomatic relations with numerous other European countries, both ADF members and others. It was a founding member of the new League of Nations in 2008.
Åland's only official language is Swedish, making it the only Nordic nation without its own distinct language. The Swedish language is one of the most important parts of the Ålandic identity. It is even mentioned in the last stanza of the national anthem: "Loudly shall it sound, our Swedish language, spoken with an urging voice." Åland's dialect of Swedish is distinct but is quite close to the standard and is certainly mutually intelligible with it.
A few Finnish refugees arrived in the years of civil war. Most have returned home, but there are more Finnish speakers in Åland than there were in 1980. Most have had to learn Swedish to get by.
Around three-quarters of Åland's population are members of the Ålandic Evangelical Lutheran Church (Åländsk evangelisk-lutherska kyrkan). The AELK is officially Åland's national church, but religious freedom is guaranteed to everyone.The churches were a great source of strength and solidarity during the "hard years" and are as important as ever to Ålandic society.
Until 2006, Åland's churches were part of the Diocese of Borgå, the diocese of the Church of Finland that oversees the country's Swedish-speaking parishes. In 2006 the infrastructure was finally in place for the islands to set up their own national church. Jomala, site of the islands' oldest church and just north of the capital, was made the seat of the new bishop.
The oldest symbol of Åland is its coat of arms, which were granted by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1560. The arms consist of a blue shield with a gold deer surmounted by a count's crown - a somewhat surprising design when one considers that Åland has no deer. In 1940 it was actually discovered that the arms were granted in error. They had originally been intended for the island of Öland, where the king maintained a game park. Åland was supposed to have received a shield with nine roses to symbolize its connection to Finland. Nevertheless, the arms have a 450-year history in the islands and are a prized local symbol.
Åland's national anthem, Ålänningens sång, was written in 1922. It praises both the natural beauty and the Swedish language of the islands.
Åland's flag was adopted in 1954. The process of choosing a flag was a difficult one, and many proposals were rejected for being either too Swedish or too Finnish. The red cross added to the gold cross of Sweden proved a workable compromise as well as a striking design. Its colors are explained as a combination of the chief colors of the coats of arms of Åland (gold and blue) and Finland (gold and red).