Demilitarization of the Aland Islands is a historic relic - but a reality of today
Professor Alpo Rusi, Iltalehti (January 4, 2019)
An unofficial translation
Last September, the events in the Turku archipelago raised the question whether a foreign country has managed to buy islands which are critical from the point of view of Finland’s national security. Over 400 border guard and police officers confiscated properties in the villas and islands owned by a Russian business man. The investigation goes on and the police is detaining a Russian citizen based on doubts about money laundering and tax evasion. However, many experts believe the issue is about national security of Finland.
In the Aland Islands, the Russian Federation has a major consulate. Swedish security expert Tomas Ries stated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that the number of the diplomats in the consulate was alarmingly in the rise. ”What are they doing there”, many serious observers are pondering.
Dr. Jukka Tarkka, a veteran security expert, described the problem in 2016: “The status of the Aland Islands, based on the international law, is like a glossy picture decorated with a romantic peace rhetoric which distorts historical realities. In case a war breaks out in the Baltic Sea, a demilitarized Aland Islands has always been fortified again”.
The offensive of the Imperial Russia against the Osman Empire triggered off the Crimean War 1853-56, which almost caused the collapse of Russia. In the Foreign Ministry of Great Britain a memo was drafted in 1854 containing a plan to return Finland back to the Swedish state system. The Crimean war ended with the Paris Peace in 1856 in connection of which the Aland Islands was declared a neutral and demilitarized region within the Grand Duchy of Finland under the Russian rule.
After the independence of Finland in 1917, a dispute emerged between an Finland and Sweden about the ownership of the Aland Islands which was resolved by the League of Nations with the Treaty of Geneva in 1921 in favor of Finland. At the same time the neutral and demilitarized status of the Aland Islands was maintained as agreed in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856. However, the Soviet-Russia was not a signatory country of the Geneva Treaty, but the Soviet Union managed to get involved in 1940.
The defense of the Aland Islands was a tricky issue at the end of the 1930's as a result of the weakening of the European security situation. The Soviet Union felt threatened for the German-British Navy Treaty signed on June 18th, 1935. MP Winston Churchill attacked his own government blaming it for a grave mistake because this way the Nazi Germany became a dominant power in the Baltic Sea. At the same time, Josif Stalin launched a major armament program with the aim to construct the biggest navy in the world and achieve a dominant position in the Baltic Sea, the Black sea and the Japanese sea altogether.
Inside the government of Finland, it was considered that in case anybody should militarily dominate the Baltic Sea, better Germany than the Soviet Union. This view was as short sighted as much as the view of the British government criticized by Churchill. For Finland, the only suitable arrangement would have been a demilitarized Baltic Sea region as a whole. It was understood in Helsinki that demilitarization of the Aland Islands region was a liability for Finland’s defense, but without any doubt also for Sweden’s defense. During the years from 1936 to 1939, the fortification of the Aland Islands was a hot potato in the Finnish-Swedish negotiations. However, no common agreement was achieved and the effort to fortify together was finally over in June 1939 for the lack of interest shown by Sweden.
In the Moscow Treaty that ended the Winter War on March 13, 1940, the Soviet Union did not demand Finland to withdraw militarily from the Aland Islands and not even to destroy the fortifications. Finland had broken the Geneva treaty during the Winter War and fortified the islands. The situation changed in the early autumn as foreign Minister Vjateslav Molotov urged the government of Risto Ryti to sign a treaty about the demilitarization of the Aland Islands. It did not contain any article about neutrality as was the case in the Geneva treaty of 1921. Finland had to sign the treaty which also permitted the establishment of a Soviet consulate to the capital of the islands, Mariehamn.
One could question why the government of Finland did not declare the Moscow treaty about the status of the Aland Islands of 1940 invalid? This could have taken place in connection with the elimination of the 1948 Friendship treaty ("YYA treaty") in 1992.
The official Finnish policy line considers these two treaties as definitive to the status of the islands, while the Geneva treaty of 1921 is more important because it is more specific in details. According to former head of legal department of the Finnish Foreign Ministry Päivi Kaukoranta, the Moscow treaty of 1940 does not limit of adhering to it. She has also referred to the big number of signatory states of the Geneva Treaty and the international common law. However, the presence of the Russian consulate could weaken the demilitarized status of the islands in case the consulate was primarily a legal cover for the Russian military intelligence GRU.
One could question whether the treaty arrangements defining the demilitarized and neutral status of the Aland Islands weaken or strengthen the security of Finland? The question should be raised first of all to the citizens of the Aland Islands, but no doubt the issue cannot be ignored during the Finnish-Swedish talks about security today. Last time a serious exchange of views took place in the Spring 1939 and the issue was discussed between the Finns and the Soviets in the autumn 1939 and again in October 1940.
Why, then, no talks took place in 1992, is one of the examples of the lack of willingness of the leaders of Finland to seize all the opportunities of the post-Cold War changing security situation for the long term interest of Finland. In case the status concerning demilitarization of the Aland islands would be declared invalid at least three consequences would have followed: (1) the Russian consulate would be removed, (2) The region would be an integrated part of Finland’s defense system, (3) No unnecessary speculations about the security of the Aland Islands could take place anymore. It is self-evident that the elimination of a demilitarized status would strengthen Sweden’s security too. The last relic of the cold war era security arrangements would be removed from the Finnish-Russian relations. The demilitarization of the Aland islands is a historic relic, but also a reality of today.
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