|Saila Heinikoski is a researcher in the research project “Demilitarisation in an increasingly militarised world. International perspectives in a multilevel framework – the case of the Åland Islands”, funded by the KONE foundation. In the project, her research focuses on Finnish and EU politics in relation to the demilitarisation and neutralisation of Åland.|
Recently, there was a heated public debate in Finland about the demilitarised status of the Åland Islands after the Defence Minister questioned the status from a defence policy perspective. The debate calmed down after the Government and the President of the Republic assured that no changes to the status were being planned. Abolishing the demilitarised and neutralised status of the Åland Islands would indeed transform the entire foreign and security policy of Finland. The Åland question cannot be looked at only from the perspective of defence policy, since it is inseparably linked to the continuity and identity of Finland’s foreign and security policy.
For instance, and as also became visible in the debate, Finnish leaders’ approach to the demilitarisation and neutralisation of the Åland Islands was primarily as a question of international law. The arrangement has been considered beneficial for international security and has been confirmed in several international legal agreements, which I will briefly introduce here. Actually, demilitarisation of the region stems from great power politics. After the Crimean War in 1856, Russia, Great Britain and France concluded a convention on the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands. At the time, Finland and the Åland Islands were part of Russia, but became independent in 1917. At that time, Ålanders wanted to join Sweden, but with a decision of the League of Nations in 1921, the Åland Islands remained part of Finland. However, they were guaranteed autonomy and a demilitarised and neutralised status. Demilitarisation means that no military equipment or personnel may be present during peace time, whilst neutralisation stipulates that the Åland Islands can neither be used for any direct or indirect war activities during war time. In addition to Finland and Sweden, the signatories to the 1921 decision included Baltic Sea coastal states Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and Denmark as well as European great powers of the time, Great Britain, France and Italy. Soviet Russia had not at that time been recognised nor accepted as a member of the League of Nations, therefore it was not a party to the agreement.
After the Winter War in 1940, Finland concluded a treaty with the Soviet Union on the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands. The treaty did not, however, mention neutralisation. One can still consider that neutralisation is part of international customary law, in which case it also binds present day Russia. The treaty also established a Soviet, and later Russian, consulate in the Åland Islands, intended to monitor compliance with the provisions on demilitarisation. After the Second World War, demilitarisation was confirmed in the Paris Peace Treaty. The status of the Åland Islands has also subsequently been confirmed in several agreements. For example, Finland renewed the 1940 agreement with the Soviet Union in 1992. Upon Finland’s accession to the European Union, the international legal status of the Åland Islands was confirmed in the 2nd Protocol of the Accession Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007, stated as well that the 2nd Protocol would continue to be valid, and Finland’s permanent representation to the EU also provided a unilateral statement on the permanent demilitarised and neutralised status of the Åland Islands.
In addition to these international agreements, the Åland Islands are often mentioned in connection with Finland’s international defence cooperation, assuring that the status does not prevent such cooperation. In the 21st century, the European Union has intensified its defence and security cooperation, inter alia, through a European Defence Agency and the introduction of a mutual assistance clause. According to the Finnish Government, the defence cooperation has not weakened the status of the Åland Islands or hindered Finland’s participation in international defence cooperation. These aspects are also often mentioned in the Finnish Government Reports on Security and Defence Policy. During the past twenty years, the reports have not always mentioned the Åland Islands, but at least the one Ålandic MP in the Finnish Parliament has always asked for confirmation in the parliamentary debates. In connection to the reports, the government has most often confirmed its intention to hold onto the status of Åland. If the status has not been mentioned in the reports, Finnish political leaders have had to explain the absence to Ålandic politicians. An understandable explanation has been that no changes in the status are foreseen, which makes it unnecessary to mention the issue. Since 2009, the reports, including the Foreign and Security Policy Report published in June 2016, have emphasised the international legal status of the Åland Islands and the fact that it does not hinder Finland’s international defence cooperation.
The latest reports indeed mention that the status does not decrease Finland’s leeway in defence cooperation. It seems that during Finland’s EU membership, leeway has been in the centre of security and defence policy. Finland gave up its Cold-War neutrality policy before joining the Union and has later redefined the concept of military non-alliance as “non-membership of a military alliance” without giving up on the need for an adequate and self-reliant defence capacity. The foreign policy stances of Finland thus seem to have had mainly an instrumental value in different political circumstances. During the Cold War, it was beneficial for Finland to rely on neutrality policy, which allowed both staying outside conflicts and accession in international organisations. As a member of the European Union, Finland has not deemed it functional to stay outside the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy but to ensure that the Finnish restrictions related to military alliance do not prevent EU cooperation. This has required Finland to revise foreign policy concepts, something which actually might contradict such defence cooperation. Finland presents itself as a promoter of international law, and demilitarisation can be considered a part of Finland’s foreign policy identity, where agreements are to be complied with. Demilitarisation is, indeed, more than a choice of concepts made by the political leadership. As stated in the Government Report on Foreign and Security Policy published in June 2016, “Finland’s security and prosperity require a secure and stable international operating environment in which the activities of states, businesses and people are governed by international law and subsequent commonly agreed rules, rights and obligations”. It is thus considered that international law increases Finland’s security and prosperity.
In addition to leeway, continuity has also been an important principle in Finnish foreign and security policy. When the concepts describing Finnish foreign policy stances have changed, the governments have sought to assure that the contents of the foreign policy stances still remain the same. Before EU accession, it was considered that the core of neutrality was in military non-alliance and independent defence. Those opposing to EU membership maintained that Finland cannot stay even militarily non-allied as a member of the Union. However, under the current stance, Finland can remain a non-member of a military alliance as long as the EU is not defined as a military alliance. In connection to the changes of concepts, it was assured that no essential changes in foreign policy would take place. This is also visible in the fact that the use of the old concepts is rarely corrected. Utilisation of the old concepts can be justified by claiming that the change is only semantics or otherwise insignificant for the citizens. The new concepts have, however, provided Finland with more leeway while not having to totally give up the old stance. This has, at least ostensibly, guaranteed continuity in foreign policy, which leading Finnish politicians seem to consider a foreign policy virtue.
While talking about continuity, the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands is perhaps the oldest part of Finnish foreign policy. It is older than Finnish independence, and similar concept twisting is not possible. Agreements have, nevertheless, been reinterpreted. For example, Finland has interpreted the 1921 agreement as enabling Finland to permit each foreign power to have one military vessel at a time in the demilitarised zone. This interpretation related to the organisation of Tall Ships Races, i.e. not operative military vessels.
As part of Finnish pragmatic foreign policy, the Åland question also relates to Finland’s position as a mediator in international conflicts. The Åland Islands are often utilised as an example of a successful solution to a territorial dispute. The example is utilised in conflict resolution activities conducted both by the state and by organisations, because the Åland solution uniquely took into account autonomy, minority rights, demilitarisation and neutralisation. Demilitarisation can be considered an important part of various aspects of Finnish foreign and security policy, its continuity and pragmatic nature as well as foreign policy identity as a promoter of international law. Therefore, the Åland Islands cannot be only regarded from the defence policy perspective – the status is part of the totality of foreign and security policy.
‘Finnish Security and Defence Policy Reports 2001–2012’. Ministry of Defence. Available at: http://www.defmin.fi/en/publications/finnish_security_and_defence_policy.
’International Treaties and Documents Concerning Åland Islands’. Åland Culture Foundation. Available at: http://www.kulturstiftelsen.ax/traktater/eng_fr/ram_right-enfr.htm.
Poullie, Y. (2016). ‘Åland’s Demilitarisation and Neutralisation at the End of the Cold War – Parliamentary Discussions in Åland and Finland 1988–1995’. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 23(2), 179–210.
Prime Minister’s Office Finland. (2016). Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy 6/2016. Available at: http://formin.finland.fi/public/default.aspx?contentid=348060.
Spiliopoulou Åkermark, S. (ed.). (2011). The Åland example and its components: relevance for international conflict resolution. Mariehamn: The Åland Island Peace Institute.
 A previous version of this blog entry was published in Finnish at politiikasta.fi on 1 Nov 2016. Available at: http://politiikasta.fi/ahvenanmaan-asema-puolustuspoliittinen-kysymys/.