Tag Archives: Finland

How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.

New book review on “the Åland example”: Balancing engagement and exclusion in autonomy regimes

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am very pleased to announce that my review of the Åland Island Peace Institute’s book on “the Åland example” was just published in the Nordic Journal of International Law. The editors at NJIL were quite generous in allowing me seventeen pages to discuss the contribution that the book makes to charting the lessons a distant Nordic language conflict that embraced peace may have for the numerous contemporary ethnic conflicts that evade it.

The review can be downloaded in full here so I will not go into detail in this post. However, it is worth noting that one of the consistent strengths throughout this volume is the emphasis on the process by which an autonomy regime is created and sustained, rather than the substance of its rules, as being crucial to its viability. This echoes one of the fundamental lessons of the ‘new constitutionalism’ described in my earlier research on constitution-building for the Folke Bernadotte Academy, namely that founding documents in ethnic conflict settings should emphasize ongoing dialogue rather than finality in order avoid the recurrence of conflict.

The ironic lesson to be drawn here is that the Ålanders ability to maintain a sustained and constructive engagement with the Finnish authorities in Helsinki has been crucial to securing their highly asymmetrical political status within the Finnish state. However, there is a further irony that will come as little surprise in light of my earlier writings on Åland in these pages. This involves the fact that the strong land rights of the Åland Islanders, including a limited right to exclude outsiders from the rest of Finland from acquiring property, may be a crucial part of the Ålanders bargaining power.

Openness resulting from the right to be closed. Hardly an easy sell in conflict-management settings, but far better than most of the alternatives.

More cold comfort from Åland in advance of the Crimea referendum

by Rhodri C. Williams

Well the ironies are just flying in thick and fast, as the Russian-speaking local majority on Crimea prepare a referendum to pave the way for the mother of all minority rights protections – secession to the kin state.

There is more and more reporting on how nervous this is making Crimea’s real national minority, the Crimean Tatars – see here in the Washington Post or this Globe and Mail comment by Victor Ostapchuk. And for an eloquent appeal by a forlorn Russian-speaking Crimean who thinks he may have seen the forest for the trees, see this New Yorker piece by Natalia Antelava.

But back to the more obvious ironies. How about this, for starters – Russia, having used arbitrary gas price hikes and occasional winter shutoffs as a disciplinary measure against Ukraine for years, now finds itself sponsoring secession by a Crimean peninsula entirely dependent on the Ukrainian mainland for water, electricity and most of its communications and transportation infrastructure.

Or this one – the Russian sponsors of a Crimean referendum transparently without substantive justification and flagrantly in violation of all accepted procedures for negotiating such processes have now set out an implicit casus belli against the rest of Ukraine by finding fault with the technicalities of its 1991 split from the Soviet Union.

Or simply the fact that Russia’s “support” of Crimea has apparently been justified based on an assertion that the right to external self-determination apparently now applies in situations of contested transfers of power. On this basis, one wonders how much of Russia’s current territory might be interested in a review of their sovereignty arrangements after Putin’s controversial reelection in 2012?

But none of that changes the fact that Crimea is racing toward its referendum, blood has been drawn again in street fighting in Donetsk, and Russian troops are once again massed near the border to Eastern Ukraine. A last minute diplomatic scramble is underway, but Moscow is looking intransigent. So, where does that leave things?

First, a caveat. While I think that the Russian handling of the Ukraine crisis has been dishonest, cynical, inflammatory, illegal, foolish and predictable, I do not deny that Russia has a legitimate stake, and must inherently be as much part of any future solution as it is part of the current problem. I also fear that NATO’s ambitions in the region have a significant and insufficiently examined role in stoking the current conflict, and find arguments for “Finlandization” persuasive.

Second, an omission. In my recent Opinio Juris piece, I forgot to mention that one of the most important similarities between the Åland Islands crisis and that in Crimea may be yet to emerge. Specifically, the Åland crisis began with a controversial referendum in which the local population voted overwhelmingly for union with Sweden. Helsinki condemned it as illegal, but all parties refrained from violence, and the conflict eventually found its way to the League of Nations and was resolved there. 

In all likelihood, the Crimeans will have their say on Sunday. Whether it will be free, fair, representative or meaningful is another matter. But if the ICJ said nothing else in their Kosovo Advisory Opinion, they did uphold some kind of freedom of speech in relation to self-determination movements. The real question is whether the referendum will represent the final word. It should not, and if everyone keeps a cool head, it may not.

Guest-posting at Opinio Juris – Åland and Crimea as distant cousins

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am grateful to the editors at Opinio Juris for facilitating my debut there as a late addition in their Insta-Symposium on the Ukraine crisis. My guest-post (accessible here) focuses on the question of whether the settled autonomy and demilitarization regime in the Åland Islands of Finland hold any lessons for the Crimea crisis. As such, it builds both on my ongoing research on the Åland autonomy and on my more recent commentaries on self-determination issues in the Ukraine crisis.

The Ukraine crisis is really only the latest in a series of post-Cold War crises that have unraveled all the constructive ambiguity built into the UN Charter, slinging concepts like territorial integrity, self-determination and non-aggression into one unhealthy mix and shaking vigorously. As pointed out by Thomas de Waal in the Wall Street Journal, the crisis also invokes many of the baroque debates surrounding sovereignty, regional integration, secession and devolution floating around the EU as Scotland and Catalonia contemplate their futures.

It can all seem dispiriting, but in the midst of the gloom it can be helpful to be reminded that there have been ostensibly intractable and potentially catastrophic geopolitical conflicts that have been successfully resolved, such as the Åland Islands question in the 1920s. And curiously enough, the deeper I dug, the more resonances I seemed to find between the Åland case and that of Crimea in Ukraine. But you, dear reader, should be the judge

What can indigenous peoples learn from the Åland Islands land acquisition regime?

by Rhodri C. Williams

This comment is cross-posted from the Åland Islands Peace Institute’s blog with the generous permission of my colleagues there. The Peace Institute is an independent foundation that examines peace and conflict issues from the perspective of the Åland Islands’ special legal status, as recently described in an edited volume on the utility of “the Åland example” in contemporary peace negotiations and peace-building. My below comment gives an overview of the issues I am currently researching with funding from the Åland Islands Cultural Foundation. For an earlier take on these issues, see a chapter I wrote for a 2009 study on “the foundations of the Åland autonomy” while still a guest researcher at the Peace Institute.

The autonomy regime enjoyed by the Åland Islands within Finland is an extraordinary political experiment that has withstood the test of time better than most of its kind. It has the authority of age, dating back to agreements brokered by the League of Nations during the interwar period. At the same time, the autonomy has not merely survived but thrived, having been progressively expanded in scope both during and after the Cold War. Perhaps most tellingly, Åland negotiated a path into the EU alongside Finland in 1994 that not only allowed it to retain the key features of its regime, but also endowed it with the confidence to negotiate hard for further arrangements seen as necessary to prevent its sub-national powers from being rolled over by the supra-national juggernaut in Brussels.

Having lived on Åland full time from 2004 to 2010 and made regular summer pilgrimages from Stockholm ever since, the place has made a deep impression on me and shaped my thinking about the rights and wrongs of minority protection. This is saying something as well, given that I was a skeptic on arrival. As an American raised on melting pot mythology and Brown vs. Board, my instinct was to believe that separate could neither be equal nor desirable. Moreover, having spent the previous five years as part of the international effort to stitch post-war Bosnia back together, I was painfully aware of the extent to which strategies based on entrenching group difference could feed conflict as easily as they could resolve it. But I was impressed from the start by two things about Åland.

First, Åland really did do a good job governing itself. Sure, there were things to complain about, but people got on with it and government delivered. Given that Åland was both tiny compared with other administrative units in the Nordic countries and relatively rich, the archipelago seemed like a textbook case for the subsidiarity-based efficiency arguments for decentralizing power. Second, Ålanders were incredibly interested in their own autonomy. Most outsiders I talk to have a hard time believing 27,000 people manage to support two daily newspapers that between them hardly have time for stories from beyond Kobba Klintar. The identity-based arguments for autonomy clearly applied as well – in other words, Åland has autonomy because Ålanders wouldn’t settle for less.

For reasons not entirely clear to myself, I have long been drawn to questions about land and property. I wrote a masters thesis in Geography long ago on the effect of East German housing policies after unification, and went on to work in Bosnia on the restitution of homes for families that had been forced to flee during the war. As a consultant, I also focused on property issues in post-conflict countries such as Cambodia, Colombia, Cyprus, Liberia and Turkey. Some of my most recent work included an analysis of property conflicts in contemporary Libya. However, even if my early consultancy career was focused on post-conflict countries, my life was being lived in one of Europe’s flagship autonomies. When I had the good fortune to be offered a guest-researcher position at the Åland Islands Peace Institute, I quickly began to realize how important land and property issues could also be in terms of protection and conflict prevention for minorities and indigenous peoples.

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Blood, soil and cinnamon buns

by Rhodri C. Williams

Manos a la obra!I am writing this post having returned unscathed from my sole annual high-risk activity – the raising of the midsummer pole in the fine village of Svartsmara, at the heart of the Åland archipelago in Finland. The process begins benignly enough, with a happy assembly of summer and year-round residents plaiting aspen leaves into twine to be bound in geometric patterns onto the great, recumbent pole. Events take a more dramatic turn around ten, as the Northern sun tacks down to horizon level and a set of crude wooden lifting forks come clattering onto the lawn like medieaval siege instruments.

What comes next will probably have to be the equivalent of bungee-jumping or paragliding in my risk-averse life. The swains of the village assemble around a pile of garden gloves, then almost wordlessly set to with the lifting forks, allocating tasks through terse little debates in the porridge-thick local dialect, and suddenly hoisting through some telepathically communicated assent. Once the current sticks are maxed out, a detachment scrambles for new ones, eventually engaging the pole terrifyingly far below its center of gravity even as the distant top creaks up to meet the last rays of the sun.

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