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.