It was eight in the morning when the first cabs with thisisFINLAND Foreign Correspondents’ Programme participants arrived at the Turku Harbor. With a take-away cup of strong sugarless coffee in one hand a NY Times magazine in another, young journalists lined up in a queue and prepared to embark on the 1988 Viking Line Amorella ferry. “Next stop – Mariehamn,” the captain said.
Mariehamn is the capital and the largest city of Åland, an autonomous Swedish-speaking region in Finland. Nearly 12,000 people (40% of its total population) reside in the capital; the city has its own University of Applied Sciences, parliament and government buildings, a few shopping streets and, surprisingly, only three traffic lights. Everything on the isles seems so well organized and functioning that even the presence of the traffic lights will question this rule and order of the region. But it has not always been this way.
Together with mainland Finland, Åland Islands were a part of the Swedish Kingdom for around 600 years, until 1809, when the territory was ceded to the Russian Empire. In 1832 Russia made an attempt to fortify the islands by building Bomarsund fortress. Afraid of the growing presence of the Russians in the region, joint forces of Britain and France wiped off the fortress in 1854. Two years later, according to the Treaty of Paris, Åland was demilitarized and remains so until today. “Åland was demilitarized because it did not want to be a threat to anybody, neither Finland nor Sweden,” explains Ms. Susann Simolin, information officer of the Åland Islands Peace Institute. This is one of the pillars, which today comprises the so-called Åland Example.
Another pillar is the phenomenon of autonomy and self-governance. As was mentioned above, Åland is an autonomous region and has its own parliament (of 30 MPs) and government. There are only a few branches of administration, including foreign and security and defense policies, which are regulated by the Government of Finland. The question of autonomy and its importance in socio-political and everyday life was posed a number of times to every Ålander, some of whom the FCP’15 participants met during their visit. Yet, the answer was the same: “Every autonomy right we have is respected and is protected by law.” The autonomy provisions are fixed in the latest 1991 Autonomy Act, which will be replaced by a new Act in 2022.
The last, but not least pillar of the Åland Example is the protection of minority rights. Though legally the region is bound to Finland, its ethnical, social and cultural lives are closely connected to Sweden, while Swedish language remains official on the islands. In fact, only 5% of Ålanders are Finnish-speakers.
These three pillars compose the core of Åland society, serve as bridges between the diversity of opinions and represent an example of peaceful coexistence and wellbeing between Åland, Finland and Sweden.
Though the trip lasted for only two days, it left a very strong impression on me: so strong that I will sign this article with «Åleksandr Guzenko»
Photos: Mohammed Alfaraj, Bruna Passos Amaral, Esha Chhabra