The Åland Islands, or Landskapet Åland in Swedish, or Ahvenanmaan maakunta in Finnish-language, are an autonomous, demilitarised, monoligually Swedish-speaking administrative province of Finland. The Åland Islands consist of a Main Island, Fasta Åland, with 90% of the population and east thereof an archipelago of more than 6,500 skerries and islands at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. Fasta Åland is separated by open water from the coast of Sweden, 40 kilometers to the west. In the east, the Åland archipelago is virtually contiguous with the Finnish Archipelago Sea.
By reason of Åland's autonomous status, the powers exercised at provincial level by representatives of the central state administration in the rest of Finland are here largely in the remit of the Government of Åland (Ålands landskapsregering).
Autonomy of Åland
The autonomous status of the islands was affirmed by a decision made by the League of Nations in 1921, and in a somewhat different context reaffirmed in the treaty on Finland's admission to the European Union. By law, Åland is politically neutral and entirely demilitarised. The islands were granted extensive autonomy by the Eduskunta, Finland's legislative assembly, in an Act on the Autonomy of Åland of 1920 (last revised in 1991).
In connection with Finland's admission to the European Union a protocol on the Åland Islands provides, among other things, that provisions of the European Community Treaty shall not force a change of the existing restrictions for foreigners (i.e. persons who do not enjoy "regional citizenship" (hembygdsrätt) in Åland) to acquire and hold real property, implying a recognition of a separate nationality.
See also: Special member state territories and their relations with the EU.
The Åland Islands were among the territory ceded to Russia by Sweden under the treaty of Fredrikshamn in September 1809; they became part of the semi-autonomous Grand duchy of Finland.
When the islands were ceded to Russia, the Swedes were unable to secure a provision that the islands should not be fortified. The issue was important not only for Sweden but for the United Kingdom, which was concerned that a military presence on the islands could threaten their security and commercial interests.
During the Civil War in Finland, 1918, Swedish troops intervened as a peacekeeping force between the Russian troops stationed on the islands, and White and Red troops arriving over the ice from Finland. Within weeks the Swedes were replaced by German troops occupying by request of the Finnish "White" government.
From 1917 the residents of the islands aimed at having the islands ceded back to their mother country, Sweden. A petition for secession from Finland was signed by 96.2% of Åland's native adults (those working or living abroad excluded, although serious questions were later raised regarding this extraordinarily high figure). Swedish nationalist sentiments had grown strong particularly in the face of anti-Swedish tendencies in Finland, Finnish nationalism fuelled by Finland's struggle to retain its autonomy, and the Finnish resistance against Russification. Also the conflict between the Swedish speaking minority in Finland and the Finnish speaking majority, which since the 1840s had been prominent in Finland's political life, contributed to the Åland population's fear for its future in Finland. (See: Åland crisis)
However, as Finland was not willing to cede the islands, they were offered an autonomous status instead of reannexation. The residents did nevertheless not approve the offer, and the dispute over the islands was submitted to the League of Nations. The latter decided that Finland should retain the sovereignty over the province, but the Åland Islands should be made an autonomous territory. Thus Finland was under an obligation to ensure the residents of the Åland Islands a right to maintain the Swedish language, as well as their own culture and local traditions. At the same time, an international treaty was concluded on the neutral status of Åland, under which it was prohibited to place military headquarters or forces on the islands.
In the course of the 20th century, the Finnish sovereignty has been perceived as benevolent, and even beneficial, by increasing numbers of the islanders. Together with disappointment over insufficient support from Sweden in the League of Nations, Swedish disrespect for Åland's demilitarised status in the 1930s, and to some degree a feeling of shared destiny with Finland during and after World War II, this has resulted in a changed perception of Åland's relation to Finland: from "a Swedish province in Finnish possession" to "an autonomous part of Finland".
The Åland Islands are governed according to the Act on Åland Autonomy and international treaties, which guarantees autonomy and demilitarized status. The Government of Åland, or Landskapsregering, is dependent on the Parliament of Åland, or Lagting according to the principles of parliamentarism.
In 1634 Åland was made part of the Åbo and Björneborg County as a part of the grand administrative reforms initiated by count Axel Oxenstierna. In 1918, following dominant separatist opinions on Åland in connection with Finland's independence and the Civil War in Finland, it was separated into its own administrative entity. The League of Nations' resolution of 1921 left Åland under Finland's sovereignty, but with a high degree of autonomy and some exclusive rights for the nationals of Åland.
Åland has its own national flag, has issued its own postage stamps since 1984, has its own police force, and is a member of the Nordic Council. The islands are demilitarised and the male population is exempted from conscription. Parliamentarism has been the custom since 1988. The Åland autonomy preceded the creation of the Regions of Finland, but the autonomous government of Åland also handles what the regional councils do.
The sovereignty over Åland belongs to Finland, and Åland is thus not independent. The Åland Islands is guaranteed representation in the Finnish parliament, and elects one representative.
The State Provincial Office on the Åland Islands has a somewhat different function from the other Provinces of Finland due to its autonomy. Generally a State Provincial Office is a joint regional authority of seven different ministries of the Government of Finland. In Åland the State Provincial Office also represents a set of other authorities of the central government, which in Mainland Finland has separate bureaucracies. On the other hand duties, which on Mainland Finland are handled by the provincial offices, are transferred to the autonomous government of Åland.
Main article: Geography of Åland
The Åland Islands occupy a position of great strategic importance, commanding as they do both one of the entrances to the port of Stockholm and the approaches to the Gulf of Bothnia, in addition to being situated near the Gulf of Finland.
The Åland archipelago consists of nearly three hundred inhabitable islands, of which about eighty are inhabited, the remainder are merely some 6,000 skerries and desolate rocks. The archipelago is connected to Turku archipelago in the east (Finnish: Turunmaan saaristo, Swedish: Åbo skärgård), the archipelago adjacent to the southwest coast of Finland.
The surface of the islands is generally sandy, the soil thin and the climate keen. There are several excellent harbours, most notably at Ytternäs .
The islands' landmass occupy a total area of 1,512 km². Ninety percent of the population live on Fasta Åland (the Main Island), which is also the site of the capital town of Mariehamn. Fasta Åland is the largest island in the archipelago, extending over more than 70% of the province's land area, stretching 50 km from north to south and 45 km from east to west.
During the Åland crisis, the parties sought support from differently looking maps over the islands. On the Swedish map the most densely populated main-island dominated and many skerries were left out. On the Finnish map, a lot of smaller islands or skerries were for technical reasons given a slightly exaggerated size. The Swedish map made the islands appear to be closer to the mainland of Sweden than to Finland; the Finnish map stressed the continuousity of the archipelago between the main-island and mainland Finland, while a greater gap appeared between the islands and the archipelago on the Swedish side. Although both Finns and Swedes of course argued for their respective interpretations, it's in retrospect hard to say that one is more correct than the other. A consequence is however, the oft repeated number of "over 6,000" skerries, that was given authority by the outcome of the arbitration.
Main article: Economy of Åland
Åland's economy is heavily dominated by shipping, trade and tourism. Shipping represents about 40% of the economy with several international carriers owned and operated off Åland. Most companies outside shipping are small companies with less than ten employees. Farming and fishing are important in combination with the food industry. A few, but high profile, technology companies contribute to a well-off economy.
The main ports are Mariehamn (south), Storby (east) and Långnäs on the eastern shore of the Main Island.
The abolition of tax-free sales on ferry boats travelling between destinations within the European Union made Finland demand an exception for the Åland Islands. The exception allows for maintained tax-free sales on the ferries between Sweden and Finland, but has also made Åland a different tax-zone, meaning that tariffs must be levied on goods brought to the islands.
Unemployment is well below that of surrounding regions, 1.8% in 2004.
Main article: Demographics of Åland
Most inhabitants have Swedish (the sole official language) as their mother tongue: 93.5% in 2001, although Finnish speakers' rights are safeguarded. In the rest of Finland, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages. The majority of the population, 94.8%, belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The issue of the ethnical belonging of the Ålanders, and the correct linguistic classification of their language, remains somewhat sensitive and controversial. They may be considered Ethnic Swedes or Finland Swedes, however their language is closer to the adjacent dialects in Sweden than to adjacent dialects of Finland-Swedish.
Main article: Culture of Åland
Last updated: 05-10-2005 02:42:19