In the southwest corner of Finland is one of Europe's oddest places: the Ahvenanmaa archipelago (Åland in Swedish). It has about 6,500 islands (about 80 are inhabited). Ahvenanmaa is roughly between the Swedish mainland and the Finnish mainland, but it officially belongs to Finland. But you wouldn't know it when you visit.

Ahvenanmaa or Aland 120+ years ago. It hasn't changed.

That's because if you want to speak Finnish on this Finnish island, then you should take a boat back to the Finnish mainland. We only speak Swedish in this part of Finland.

How did this turn out? In 1921, the League of Nations (the precursor to the UN) said that these islands belong to Finland. However, the island’s inhabitants lobbied the Finnish Parliament to pass the Autonomy Act in 1951 (and amended it in 1993), which granted this archipelago unusual independence:

  • Unlike any other province in Finland, this island province has its own internal parliament, which shares the power with the governor.

  • The Finnish government can’t amend the Autonomy Act without the approval of the island’s parliament.

  • Ahvenanmaa is a demilitarized and neutral territory. Even the Finnish Navy can’t park their boats on these Finnish islands!

  • They collect their own taxes, spend it all on their 25,766 inhabitants, and have practically no financial entanglements with the rest of Finland.

  • To own property, vote, and conduct business on Ahvenanmaa you have to obtain the Right of Domicile. To get that, you have to live on this Finnish island for five years and speak excellent Swedish.

  • If you live off the island for more than five years, you lose your Right of Domicile.

  • Any international treaty entered into by Finland requires the consent of the Parliament of Ahvenanmaa to become valid also in Ahvenanmaa.

  • Ahvenanmaa has its own postage stamps.

  • Ahvenanmaa websites refuse to use the Finnish suffix of .fi. Instead, their websites end with the .ax suffix.

  • The official second language in Finland is Swedish. However, on Ahvenanmaa the official second language, which is obligatory, is not Finnish, it’s English! Learning Finnish is optional on this Finnish archipelago!

  • To drill home the point that the official language on Ahvenanmaa is Swedish, the poor Finnish government has to translate all documents it sends there into Swedish if they want the local parliament to read it.

  • As a final slap on the Finnish face, this province has its own flag.

It’s amazing they don’t use the Swedish currency and carry Swedish passports!

This is wacky! How did the Ahvenanmaa natives get away with all this? To find the answer you have to turn back the clock 200 years. The reason they’re part of Finland and not Sweden is that Russia kicked Sweden’s ass in the war of 1808-09. To end the war, the Swedes agreed to hand Finland over to Russia. Russia said that wasn’t enough, so Sweden tossed them a bone, or, in this case, an archipelago—Ahvenanmaa.

Russia called all their newly acquired territory (including Ahvenanmaa) the Grand Duchy of Finland. Therefore, when Finland declared its independence from Russia in 1919, the Finns thought it was only fair to keep Ahvenanmaa. After all, for the last 110 years it was all part of the same Duchy and Sweden lost that territory fair and square. However, the Ahvenanmaa populace preferred rejoining their Swedish motherland. The Finns, tired of fighting, agreed to a compromise that gave them all the autonomy that they enjoy today.

Lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas That's te longest Finnish word, which means “Airplane jet turbine engine auxiliary mechanic non-commissioned officer student” (with words like that, I might look into Swedish too)

If trying to understand Finland’s history gives you a headache, just you wait. These convoluted situations exist throughout Eastern Europe. Attempting to understand them is hard enough when you speak the local language, so you can imagine the throbbing headaches I had during my travels.

Before I get a bunch of angry Vikings, um, I mean, Swedes on my doorstep, I want to be clear that I truly like the Swedish people. They’ve always been kind to me and one of my best friends is of Swedish descent. In fact, one of my big regrets in life is that I didn’t date more Swedish women.

In the Swedish defense, I’ll admit that many impartial observers believe Ahvenanmaa is an exemplary solution to a minority conflict. Ahvenanmaa is special not just because nobody died fighting for its autonomy, but also because it’s been demilitarized for many years. Ahvenanmaa’s relationship with the Finnish government is truly fascinating. But what’s even more fascinating is that there is relatively little animosity between the Finns and Swedes. As we’ll soon see, Eastern Europeans get worked up over much more trivial issues.

Ahvenanmaa is great to visit during the long summer days. However, you don't need to go there to appreciate its deeper lesson: Finns teach the world how to solve minority conflicts. We ought to learn from them.

This is an excerpt from The Hidden Europe that got edited down substantially. Learn more about what we can learn from Eastern Europeans. If you don't think Finland is in Eastern Europe, read the Introduction to The Hidden Europe.

Article first published as Ahvenanmaa - But Please Call it Ã…land on Technorati. I've added a bit more information that will make sense to readers of the WanderLearn blog.

Ahvenanmaa is great to visit during the long summer days. However, you don't need to go there to appreciate its deeper lesson: Finns teach the world how to solve minority conflicts. We ought to learn from them.

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