The Aland Islands are a self-governing region off Finland’s southwest coast. The Swedish-speaking archipelago has existed as an autonomous, demilitarised territory of Finland for many years, and has been characterised by peace. Aland is made up of 6,700 tiny islands, yet only 60 of them have a population of over 30,000 people. The town of Mariehamn, which is one of Aland’s 16 municipalities, is home to more than 40% of the population. As you can see, a major portion of the archipelago is still unexplored.
The recent push for NATO membership by Finland and Sweden has heightened tensions between these islands. There has never been a war or battle in the region. As a result, the region is rarely mentioned in the media. However, islanders are now fearful that Finland’s annoyance would lead to confrontation or invasion.
Aland Islands wants happy days back
Although it is unclear what Finland’s NATO membership will imply for Aland Islands, residents of the Swedish-speaking islands are already concerned about their way of life. Their prized independence from Finland may be jeopardised. The islands were granted self-government and designated as a demilitarized, politically neutral zone last year. However, as tensions with Russia in the Baltic region have escalated, some islanders have questioned the wisdom of retaining strategically crucial islands between Finland and Sweden affiliated with NATO, arguing that their unique position may be compromised. Additionally, island residents are concerned about Aland’s ability to defend themselves in the case of a Russian invasion.
But, the authorities have a different view on the issue. The head of Aland’s government Veronica Thornroos disagreed with the argument that the islands’ neutral status would be scrapped and pointed to Helsinki’s assurances that it would not be affected majorly by Finnish NATO membership.
All is not well for Finland
Finland was a long-time neutral Nordic country with close Russian borders. When Russia took Crimea in 2014, it occurred to Helsinki for the first time rethought its defensive security because they believed the boundaries with Russia on the other side were becoming more porous.
However, since Finland requested for NATO membership, a slew of hurdles have erupted. Turkey had previously opposed Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. Mr Erdogan has stated that Turkey’s objection stems from Sweden’s — and to a lesser extent Finland’s — perceived support for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an armed group in Syria that Turkey views as an extension of the PKK.
The Aland Islands could be the latest to oppose Finland’s NATO membership. Aland’s 30,000 population, the most of whom live on the main island, are proud of their long-standing neutrality. As a result, any attempts to alter the status quo may backfire on the Finnish authorities.
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The irritation of the Aland Islands over Finland’s NATO membership could raise a box of worms. To avert Russian assault, the archipelago may begin to echo separatist views. Time will tell how Helsinki responds to Aland’s worry. With Turkey’s protests and Russia’s growing scepticism of Sanna Marrin’s decision, Aland Islands could become a new thorn in Finland’s side.