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Suomi-Finland Presents: The Åland Show

The self-government model of the Åland Islands has been shown off to visitors from Sri Lanka to Zanzibar, and from Okinawa to Nagorno-Karabakh

Suomi-Finland Presents: The Åland Show
Suomi-Finland Presents: The Åland Show
Suomi-Finland Presents: The Åland Show
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By Pekka Mykkänen in Mariehamn, Åland
      The bus driver tells us in his native Swedish that last night on Åland the mercury went down to a staggering -19°C! It was the coldest night of the winter so far.
      No real wonder, then, that the party of Africans sprint out of the doors of the airport terminal in Mariehamn and jostle to take their seats in the bus. They inform us that back home it was a balmy 32°C when they left. The Zanzibar presidential adviser Haroub S. Mussa observes drily that "if we're talking about climate, then Zanzibar and the Åland Islands belong at opposite extremes."
      However, last Monday the subject was not the weather, but autonomy. The Åland representatives gave a presentation to the party led by Zanzibar's President Amani A. Karume on how Finland has managed over the course of 84 years to keep the Ålanders onside and reasonably satisfied with their lot.
      As a semi-autonomous group of islands (basically Zanzibar and Pemba) in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar is interested in learning about Finnish-Åland relations and how they work.
This party is by no means the first to get the tour. Åland has hosted visits from dozens of delegations: from Okinawa, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Nagorno-Karabakh, Nagaland in N.E. India...
      In fact there have been so many of them and so often that people in Finland sometimes talk about "The Åland Model"; could our amicable solution be an example that might be cloned elsewhere in the world?
But let us go back for a moment to the end of February.
      Former President Martti Ahtisaari has just hosted talks in Finland between representatives of the Indonesian government and the separatist rebels from Aceh Province, who have been at war for decades.
      A journalist from the Swedish-language Helsinki daily Hufvudstadsbladet asks Ahtisaari whether the plan is to offer Aceh Province more or less autonomy than the Ålanders enjoy.
      "I think we should be a bit careful with our love with the Åland Islands solution. I think it has served extremely well as a solution to that particular problem, but I have my doubts it has universal values... One has to be careful that we don’t start believing that every problem in the world can be solved with the Åland Islands form", answered Ahtisaari.
      All the same, let's not allow that sentiment to rain on the parade.
      "Welcome to Åland on this very cold morning", begins Lars Ingmar Johansson, Secretary-General to the Åland Parliament.
President Karume and his party are taken to a place known as the Lagtinget, the legislative assembly or Parliament. This body of 30 members elects the Landskapsregeringen, or Åland's "regional government".
      The visitors are given a breathless crash-course in how the so-called "Ooland War" (an incident in 1854 in the Crimean War, when a combined British and French force took the Åland fortress of Bomarsund in a naval operation against Russia, which at that time ruled Finland) led in 1856 to the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands.
      They are also told how Sweden and Finland might have come to blows over the scattered archipelago at the time of Finnish independence, but for an agreement worked out in 1921 by the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN.
This deal left Finland with sovereignty over the islands, but the Åland population were guaranteed their Swedish culture, language, customs, and a system of self-government. The Ålanders had - on Finland's declaration of independence from Russia a few years earlier - expressed a desire to be re-united with the Swedish motherland.
      Having just got through its own bloody Civil War, Finland might have chosen to make a fight out of it, but ultimately the situation was resolved without bloodshed.
      In spite of losing out, the Swedes saw their own security policy position in the Baltic Sea enhanced, as the demilitarised and neutral status of the Åland Islands was formally ratified in an international treaty.
Over the decades, Åland grew to become a proud, democratic, and prosperous entity.
      The islanders still speak Swedish almost without exception, but interestingly enough, as many as 80% of the population of 26,000 cheer for the blue-and-white Lions and not for the blue-and-yellow Tre Kronor whenever Finland meet Sweden in an ice hockey international.
      At least this is the estimate of
Nya Åland, a local newspaper in Mariehamn.
For its part, Zanzibar decided in 1964 to join with Tanganyika to create the United Republic of Tanzania. This took place under the current President's father, Abeid Amane Karume, who was subsequently assassinated in 1972.
      Multi-party elections were held in Zanzibar (population around 1 million) for the first time only as recently as 1995.
      In recent months, there have been reports of political unrest in Zanzibar ahead of the elections to be held there in October.
Karume and his party present a lot of questions about subjects from taxation through urban planning and on to the division of power, and about the political relationships between the islands and mainland Finland.
      "Could the Ålanders accept as a Governor a Finn who does not speak Swedish?" asks Karume.
      Provincial Governor Peter Lindbäck shakes his head and says it is hardly likely. He points out that Åland is actually the world's most Swedish-speaking area. On the islands, some 93% of the population speak Swedish as their mother tongue, more than in Sweden itself, with the large influx of foreign immigrants there. Interestingly, while Finland is a bilingual country, Åland officials do not have to consider official correspondence coming from the mainland in Finnish. Only Swedish will do here.
A former senior Finnish government official snorts that Åland should not be marketed to anyone, as it has been "ethnically cleansed" of Finns. "There has long been a wish to protect the inhabitants from Finnish-language television programming."
      Those who move to the islands get the all-important right of domicile - which carries with it the right to vote in and stand as a candidate in Lagtinget elections, to own land, or to set up companies - only after a five-year wait and after first learning Swedish.
      Lauri Hannikainen, a professor of international law from the University of Turku, who has long studied "the Åland case", does not use such strong terms as ethnic cleansing, but he also believes that the protection accorded the Swedish language is "a little unnecessarily strong", when one considers the Finnish-speakers who have moved to the islands.
      Elisabeth Nauclér, the chief of staff of the Åland Administration, who has addressed seminars and symposia all over the world on the subject of self-government, is quick to reject the claims of an all-powerful position for the Swedish tongue.
      She points out that it is a question of compensation given to the Ålanders who had wanted to be re-united with Sweden.
"And the truth is that anyone can move to Åland, buy a place to live, and work... When you consider the relative smallness of the area, it is not so much a question of privilege but more of compensation", she argues.
      In the view of Nauclér, who has made it her job to examine many different forms of self-government, Åland can be said to enjoy strong legislative and cultural autonomy, but on the economic side things are a great deal weaker than in examples found elsewhere in the world. The Finnish State levies taxes, customs duties, and other tariffs on Åland in just the same way as it does in the other parts of the Republic, and a 0.45% lump-sum disbursement from the total revenue accrued nationally is fed back to the government coffers in Mariehamn.
      The islanders would like to see more economic power to determine their own affairs, and Finland's membership of the EU from 1995 has only served to increase local concerns about their ability to influence their own fate.
      EU worries are in Nauclér's view the biggest single factor behind the recent popularity of the Ålands Framtid (The Future of Åland) grouping, which advocates independence from the mainland. The party now has two seats in the 30-member Parliament
Hence it is only natural to explain to the group from Zanzibar - many of whom would like to see more authority over their own financial affairs relative to Tanzania - whether Åland has any ambitions to become independent.
      Roger Jansson, who now sits in the Finnish Eduskunta in Helsinki as the Member of Parliament for Åland, says that recent opinion polls indicate independence is sought by around 10%, while 90% are satisfied with autonomy and its continuing development.
Evening comes on in Åland, and the Zanzibar party have time to relax in the villa formerly belonging to the famous Åland shipowner Gustaf Erikson (1872-1947), the last man to turn a profit on deep-water sailing vessels. Erikson's 4-masted barque Pommern is moored in Mariehamn harbour as a museum ship.
      The Zanzibar Minister of Transport, Brigadier-General Adam C. Mwakanjuki, announces that he is still somewhat in the dark as to how exactly the division of powers between Finland and the Åland Islands is worked out.
      The minister could be forgiven, since according to Elisabeth Nauclér the Finns themselves do not know very much about Åland, and the Swedes know even less.
      "And yet when I was in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and I told them that I was from the islands between Sweden and Finland, they asked me: 'Oh, do you mean Åland Islands?'"
      There is undoubtedly a good deal of interest abroad, but it is probably wise to ask whether anyone anywhere has actually adopted the Åland model of self-government, or even parts of it.
According to Nauclér, there are few examples to choose from. The Åland Delegation, a commission that exists to arbitrate any disputes between Åland and Finland, on which there are civil servants from both camps, has in some form or other been lent to the Faeroe Islands, Greenland, and Hong Kong. The setting up of local police forces in the Palestinian territories could be seen as partly inspired by Åland, but Nauclér is not sure about this one.
      Is that it?
      The answer comes unanimously from the experts: Åland is not a model, but it can provide a spark of inspiration.
      We should not forget, either, that Åland has itself borrowed ideas from elsewhere, particularly from the Faeroes and Greenland. Self-governing regions like this all over the world learn from each other: the minnows have to swim together.
"It is not our intention to offer up any ready-made model... we know from history that it is not possible to transfer an individual solution from one location to another. But Åland is a small community, and hence it is easy to examine it and to see all the details in one go", comments Robert Jansson, Director of the Åland Islands Peace Institute.
      Elisabeth Nauclér says that Åland should be a source of pride, and she thanks President Tarja Halonen for the fact that when she was Finland's Foreign Minister she encouraged officials to present Finnish experiences to audiences from abroad.
      Professor Hannikainen comments: "These self-governing areas, there are quite a few of them, and in those terms Åland is just one solution among many... It may well be that we in Finland have a bit too much of an urge towards breast-beating on this subject, but then again this is the oldest example and in objective terms it has worked well over the years."
So, Åland for Aceh, then? Not quite. Hannikainen says that the biggest reason for the success of the Åland Islands arrangement is that Finland and Åland have acted together in good faith and in a good spirit for decades - and this is by no means a given in other parts of the globe.
      "We can't just shift this over, for instance to the Indonesians and the Acehenese. Then the entire model would start to look a bit flimsy."
The Zanzibar delegation's day in Mariehamn is nearly over. In an interview that he seemed reluctant to grant, President Karume says that he has been impressed particularly by the attractive buildings and the urban design.
      Karume loses his composure somewhat when the talk turns to the claims of the Zanzibar opposition party, the CUF (Civic United Front), which has insisted that the President's ruling Party of the Revolution (CCM) cannot win in the October elections in a free and fair vote. During the campaign in 2000, around 100 people were killed in violent clashes
      The accusations by international observers that the election was a shambles and that there were widespread cases of ballot-rigging are also denounced by Karume as lies.
      In his view, both the 2000 election and that in 1995 were "free, fair, and transparent".
      Shortly afterwards, the President stops taking questions and gets up angrily from the table.
      His advisor Haroub S. Mussa says that the Zanzibar opposition has done a brilliant job of getting its black propaganda to the attention of the outside world. "Now you know the truth", he says.
The flight back to Helsinki leaves on schedule at 8 p.m. The Finnish civil servant arranging the visit says with a hint of disappointment that the group from Zanzibar did not seem to be awfully interested in the Åland way of building democracy.
      "I'm always a bit suspicious when visitors avoid human rights questions and discussion about free and fair elections. But, hey, they were coming to a development aid donor country."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.3.2005

More on this subject:
 Åland has been presented to a wide international audience

  The Åland Islands
  Virtual Finland: The Autonomous Regime of Åland
  Åland´s Parliament, the Lagtinget
  BBC News: Zanzibar
  United Republic of Tanzania: Zanzibar

PEKKA MYKKÄNEN / Helsingin Sanomat

  22.3.2005 - THIS WEEK
 Suomi-Finland Presents: The Åland Show

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