Sunday, February 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Aaland Islands Arrangement Won’t Work for Karabakh, Aaland Expert Says

Paul Goble

Baku, February 10 – Almost since the Karabakh conflict began two decades ago, outside observers have suggested that the arrangements the League of Nations made for the Aaland Islands in the 1920s could serve as a model for the peaceful resolution of the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Given the League’s decision, which has stood the test of time for more than 80 years, it is easy to see why so many analysts and policy makers have done so. After all, it maintained the territorial integrity of Finland while providing almost unlimited autonomy to the Swedish-speaking population of this archipelago.
But in an interview posted on the portal at on Friday, Sia Spiliopoulou Akermark, the director of the Aaland Islands Peace Institute, dismissed those suggestions as unworkable because the two cases are fundamentally different (
To understand his reasoning, it is important to recall the history of the Aaland Islands issue. Sweden ceded these islands to Russia in 1809, and Russia made them part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Twenty years later, Russia began to fortify them, but after the Crimean war, the Treaty of Paris required that they be demilitarized.
Then in 1918, in the midst of fighting in Finland that had used the collapse of the Russian Empire to declare independence, Sweden intervened in the islands to separate Red and White Finnish forces, something an overwhelming majority of the islands’ residents welcomed as a step toward their reincorporation into Sweden.
But Finland objected, and the League of Nations, committed both to the defense of the territorial integrity of states and to the rights of minorities, was asked to resolve the conflict. In one of its few obvious successes, the League directed that the islands should remain part of Finland but be fully autonomous on most issues.
That is how things have remained since that time, with Finland still counting the islands as part of its territory but the islanders allowed to conduct their affairs in their own language, pay their own taxes, fly their own flag and avoid service in the Finnish army. And recently, they even obtained their own Internet domain, dot AX.
Not surprisingly, many view this arrangement as a model for the resolution of a variety of other territorial disputes. After all, it promises to square the circle by giving both sides much of what they want. And in the past, Aaland islanders have not been shy about offering their good offices to those involved.
Indeed, last December, the Aaland Islands Peace Institute conducted a training session for journalists from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Daghestan about how things have been arranged in their territory and what guidance that might provide for others in disputes elsewhere. (See the report on that session at
But now, Sia Spiliopoulou Akermark, the director of that institute, has suggested that what was done by the League 80 years ago for the island chain on which he lives, cannot serve as a model for the resolution of the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh.
“There are hundreds of models of autonomy,” he began, adding that in his view, many of them have been “insufficiently studied.” But he suggested that everyone should avoid the use of the word “model” because that implies that some outside force should impose it elsewhere.
Instead, the Aaland Islands expert said, policy makers should look at these cases as “examples” of how things have been done. If they do that, then they will recognize that no two situations are the same and consequently a solution that worked one place will not work unless local conditions are taken into account somewhere else.
Akermark then pointed to a number of conditions that he said existed in the Aaland Islands that do not exist in the Karabakh situation. First, they are islands and so have a tradition of being relatively isolated; they are not embedded within one country or the other.
Second, the population has long been mono-cultural and mono-linguistic, and its members overwhelmingly want to protect that longstanding situation. If Karabakh is mono-ethnic now, it is so only because of the flight of most Azerbaijanis because of the fighting.
And third, the conflict between Swedes and Finns nearly a century ago “was not so sharp” as the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Their war, he said, not only led to massive refugee flows but also large number of dead and wounded, something that neither side can be expected to forget.
All those differences, Akermark said, make the Aaland Islands “model” less useful for the possible resolution of the Karabakh dispute than many think.
Asked whether he had anything to say to Baku and Yerevan about what they should do, he said that he encouraged them to avoid any future violence and to explore all the autonomy relations that other countries have developed and then come up with one of their own.

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