Armenia, Azerbaijan Mull the Åland Model

Could the Finnish-Swedish arrangement for the Åland Islands work for Nagorny Karabakh?

Armenia, Azerbaijan Mull the Åland Model

Could the Finnish-Swedish arrangement for the Åland Islands work for Nagorny Karabakh?

Thursday, 28 September, 2006
Finland’s Åland Islands, an archipelago mainly populated by ethnic Swedes, enjoy extensive self-government that makes them effectively independent of Helsinki. It is an example that has long been proposed for the resolution of the Nagorny Karabakh dispute, yet never found universal acceptance.

A visit to the islands by a group of Armenian and Azerbaijani IWPR journalists, supported by the Åland Islands Peace Institute, highlighted the success of the formula of autonomy found for the islands themselves as well as lessons for the unresolved Karabakh dispute.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is that Finland and Sweden never went to war over the cluster of more than 6,000 islands and islets in the Baltic Sea. The heavily wooded region was for centuries part of the Swedish Kingdom before being incorporated into the Russian Empire (along with modern-day Finland) in 1809. Its overwhelmingly Swedish-speaking population demanded reunification with Sweden as the empire crumbled and Finland became independent in 1917. The Finns rejected these demands and turned to the League of Nations for support.

Under a compromise solution forged in 1921, the islands were declared part of Finland but granted a considerable degree of independence. As Peter Lindback, the territory’s Helsinki-appointed governor, puts it, “Åland is not an autonomous region. It’s a partly independent state.”

In line with its internationally-guaranteed status, Åland has an elected legislative assembly, Lagtinget, that forms the local government responsible for economic development, education, healthcare, and policing. Even the region’s governor, whose powers are largely ceremonial, cannot be named by the president of Finland without the assembly’s consent. With Swedish being the islands’ sole official language, few locals speak Finnish or have social or cultural links with mainland Finland. Three-quarters of young Ålanders choose to get higher education in nearby Sweden. Ethnic Finns now make up just five per cent of the 27,000-strong local population.

The picturesque archipelago is also a demilitarised zone, meaning that Finnish troops cannot be stationed there in peacetime. Furthermore, international treaties signed by Finland have to be ratified by Lagtinget if they are to have a legal force on the islands. Finland, for example, had to negotiate a special membership “protocol” for Åland when it joined the European Union in 1995.

Ålanders, who are not just at peace but also prosperous, readily share their success story with visitors, while stressing that their status is not necessarily a blueprint for conflict resolution. “Åland is not a model. It’s just an example,” Robert Jansson, director of the Åland Islands Peace Institute, told visiting IWPR journalists.

Mediators trying to resolve the Karabakh conflict first tried to use the example of the islands when the war was still raging. In December 1993, with the support of the Finnish government, a symposium was held in the islands’ capital Marienhamn for parliamentarians from the region.

Later, a representative of the Peace Institute attended the talks that led to the May 1994 ceasefire and in 1995, Finland, as then joint mediators with Russia of the Karabakh dispute, invited the parties to negotiations in the Åland Islands.

Three years later, the American, French and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group clearly drew on the example of the islands when they presented a new peace plan under which Azerbaijan and Karabakh would form a “common state” made up of two essentially equal entities. Karabakh would be able to maintain a “national guard” and police force independent of Baku, establish direct ties with foreign states, block the entry into force of any Azerbaijani law on its territory, issue internationally- recognised passports and even have its own currency.

The Armenian authorities in Yerevan and Nagorny Karabakh accepted the proposed deal with some reservations at the time, while Azerbaijani leaders rejected it, saying they are only ready to give the Karabakh Armenians a high degree of conventional autonomy.

However, some are still inspired by the detailed formula for peaceful co-existence provided by the Åland Islands.

“Even twelve years after the end of fighting in Karabakh, the Åland model has not lost its meaning as a symbol of resolving disputes through reason and not through bloodshed and as an intellectual rebuke to those who call for new bloodshed,” Russian diplomat Vladimir Kazimirov, who negotiated the 1994 ceasefire, wrote recently.

“We should use accumulated international experience to settle the Karabakh conflict, taking into account the preservation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” said Fuad Mustafiev, deputy leader of Azerbaijan’s opposition Popular Front party.

Azerbaijani opposition political analyst Zardusht Alizade told IWPR that the principles of the Åland Island dispute “can create a basis for both peoples - Armenians and Azerbaijanis - to get themselves out of the trap we have been driven into”.

Alizade argues that the Åland model would benefit the Armenians by giving them a guarantee of permanent democracy and would suit Azerbaijan in so far as everything would be decided within a legal framework, “Besides Karabakh will not be detached from the territory of our state. The international community will act as a guarantor of security. And most importantly, peace will be established.”

However, some Azerbaijanis see the Åland model as a betrayal of Azerbaijan’s basic interests.

“I am categorically against using the possibility of using any models of autonomy in relation to Karabakh,” Vafa Guluzade, formerly Azerbaijani state foreign affairs aide, told IWPR. “It is Azerbaijani land and there are four UN resolutions on the occupation of our territory.”

And most Armenian politicians are also sceptical, holding out for an even higher level of sovereignty for Nagorny Karabakh.

“In the case of Karabakh, anything falling short of full independence is unacceptable to us,” said Armen Rustamian, a leader of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (or Dashnak) party who heads the foreign relations committee of Armenia’s parliament.

Karabakh Armenians, who remain deeply distrustful of Azerbaijan, argue that the Caucasus is very different from the Baltic.

“May be I would agree to this model if the democratic level in our countries was the same as in Scandinavia for example,” said Karen Ohanjanian, head of the Helsinki Initiative-92 group in Karabakh, calling it a “step backwards”.

“Azerbaijan is no Finland, and Azerbaijan’s demands and actions have been very different from Finland’s,” said Arman Melikian, a Yerevan-based senior aide to Arkady Ghukasian, leader of the unrecognised Nagorny Karabakh Republic (which is still internationally-recognised Azerbaijani territory.)

In his turn former Azerbaijani foreign minister Tofik Zulfugarov responded to the statement that “Azerbaijan is not Finland,” by saying, “And the Armenians are not Swedes.”

Melikian claims that the Åland model would also not work in Karabakh because of the often conflicting interests of major world powers tussling for influence in the South Caucasus. “The Åland islands were not of strategic importance to Finland, Sweden or any external power,” he said. “The Karabakh problem has much more far-reaching regional ramifications.”

The most recent proposal to resolve the issue of the disputed status of Nagorny Karabakh proposes a different path. It is for a referendum on self-determination in Karabakh that would be held years after the liberation of most of the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding the disputed enclave.

However, this plan is now in trouble following the breakdown of the latest peace talks and the final status of Nagorny Karabakh seems as elusive as ever.

Emil Danielian is a Yerevan-based journalist at Radio Liberty Armenia; Kenan Guluzade is editor of Zerkalo Newspaper in Baku. Nagorny Karabakh journalist Karine Ohanian contributed to this report.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists