The Aaland Islands model and Kashmir

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Dr. Ghulam Nabi Fai
There are some disputes in modern history that one might take lessons from in understanding the wisest course to take in resolving the Kashmiri dispute.
The Aaland Islands is a case in point, as are South Tyrol, Trieste, Andorra, and Northern Ireland, each of which was contested by neighboring countries.  Finland and Sweden both coveted The Aaland Islands; South Tyrol was in dispute between Austria and Italy; Trieste was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia; Andorra is a small principality. Virtually all of these cases, the country in question was seized or split in two in the course of war between neighboring countries.
Understanding the Aaland Islands means seeing its problems in the larger context of Finland, Sweden and their political and social milieu. Finland had been an integral part of the Kingdom of Sweden for six centuries. They had shared a common culture together, Finns spoke Swedish and Swedes spoke Finnish. But the Finns and the Swedes were different. The Swedes were of Germanic origin, of Viking stock, as were the Norwegians and Danes, imposing as they did one of the earliest empires in history on Northern Europe, and dominating other cultures in the region. They were agrarian, settled and lived from what they grew, not from what they found or captured. But despite having a common monarch, Sweden was Sweden and Finland was Finland.
Finnish people are often called the white Eskimos. They have a nomadic oriental heritage (by some historians regarded as “the lost tribe of the Mongols). They shared common heritage with other people who had settled around the Baltic Sea, including Estonia and Hungary, known as the Finn-Urgics, whose origins were rooted in the Ural Mountains of Russia in a marriage, literally, by Ghengis Khan, leader of the Mongols, to a young teenage Hun bride.  The Ural Mountains had been settled by the Mongols during the rein of Ghengis Khan, occupied then by the Huns, a people who had migrated north from the Middle East, a people said to have originated in one of the Abrahamic tribes.
The languages of Sweden, Norway and Denmark are of Indo-European origin. However, they have virtually nothing in common etiologically with the language of the Finns. The Finns were mystical, pantheistic, with shamanistic practices.  The Swedes followed the Pope.
In 1808, things changed.  After six centuries of Swedish rule, Finland was invaded by Russia in a war against Sweden, seeking greater access to the Baltic for greater military and economic strength.  Finland’s eastern border is shared by Russia. Its western border was primarily the Gulf of Bothnia, gateway by way of the Aaland Islands to the Baltic Sea.
A little more than a year later, Russia forced Sweden to secede Finland on September 2, 1809 in the Treaty of Fredrikshamn. Under the Russians, Finland became the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, allowing them a certain amount of political power in return for the advantages of access to the sea. The Aaland Islands, occupied by Swedish people, was severed from its ties to family and relatives, and made a part of the duchy.
However, such a deal could not have anticipated the overthrow of the Russian monarchy and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when Finland declared independence. Under the Swedes, Finland had also enjoyed some autonomy, so her independence with the downfall of the Tsar and major upheaval going on in Russia was a default instinct.
That declaration created then a new power struggle and civil war in Finland to fill the vacuum between conservative pro-Finnish “Whites” and a communist faction in the labor movement that was pro-Bolshevik and pro-Russian who were known as “Reds.”  Aside from such political differences, independence had also been spurred by Russian Tsar Nicolas II’s plan for the “Russification” of Finland, which imposed serious cultural, language and religious restrictions on Finnish traditions from 1905 on. Russia’s attitude toward the Finns was identical to current Indian attitudes toward Kashmir.  The tsar intended to abrogate their autonomous status and incorporated them fully into the Russian state.
Finland’s resistance led finally to full independence from Russia. But it was not through war.  With the Tsar overthrown, the new government already had its hands full, and the Bolsheviks had already announced that any ethnic groups that were not Russian were free to choose their own course through self-determination. Finland chose to do just that.
The Aaland Islands had already petitioned the Russians to secede from Finland and join Sweden. The cry for independence in Finland set in motion Swedish aspirations to be among their own, to secede from Finland and join Sweden as they had been little more than a century earlier.
By means of a petition and supported by more than 96% of the population, they then petitioned the new government of Finland and proposed seceding from Finland, joining Sweden, to come under Swedish government control. The Swedish government, however, was not uniformly excited by the prospect or concerned about the Aaland Islanders or their interests for reasons having to do with internal politics more than anything else.  The ideological struggles taking place in Russia and Finland were causing disarray in execution of policy in Sweden as well.  As such their support for the petition was weak, and as a result it was less of a dispute between Sweden and Finland than a dispute between the Aaland Islands and Finland.
Britain had submitted the Aaland Islands issue to the League of Nations rather than either Sweden or Finland.  Britain believed that international peace was at stake in a matter that was seen by Finland as an internal dispute. (Sounds familiar: “Let me state unequivocally that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and will always remain so.” Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs of India. September 26, 2016). The Aaland Islands had been the subject of numerous international disputes over the issue of keeping it demilitarized due to its strategic location in the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia, the large body of water separating Sweden and Finland.
When the League agreed to consider the dispute, Finland immediately declared that the matter was outside the scope of the authority of the League of Nations since it was a matter to be resolved internally by the country itself.  Procedurally, the League would then have submitted the matter to the Permanent Court of International Justice for review to determine the legality of Finland’s claim over the Aaland Islands, but since the Court was just then in the process of formation, a panel of three jurists, the Aaland Commission of Jurists, having international repute was selected to adjudicate. The Commission consisted of Ferdinand Larnaude, Dean of the Law Faculty of Paris and president of the Commission, Max Huber, a University of Zurich professor of international law, and A. Struycken, a Dutch politician and councillor of the Netherlands’ government.
The panel determined that, given the nature of Finland’s recent independence from Russia and questions remaining regarding its legal statehood, and the separate struggle of the Aaland Islands in respect to both Russia and Finland, Finland’s sovereignty over the Islands was not set in stone and therefore subject to consideration by the League. “The Aaland question is one that extends beyond the sphere of domestic policy,” they said.
Following the report of the Commission of Jurists on the question of jurisdiction, the Council appointed a second commission, known as the Commission of Rapporteurs, to advise the Council further on the merits of the dispute. Their decision is quite significant in understanding the issue of how and when, in the international community, self-determination is regarded as a legitimate demand.
One would think that the autonomy the Aaland Islands had enjoyed under the Grand Duchy of Finland would have been substantial reason alone to have granted them their wish to join Sweden.  They needed autonomy under Finland because they wanted to be ruled by Swedes and Swedish laws in a culture of a Swedish making. The overwhelming opinion by a 95 percent majority expressing such a will was another factor that should have been given more weight. The notion that Finland had been a state for a century, to be treated as any other sovereign state, was a useful distortion of fact and legal trickery, clearly challenged by the Commission of Jurists, particularly since sovereign control of both Finland and the Aaland Islands had not been held by Finland but by Russia. The Commission of Rapporteurs obviously ignored the facts and chose to parade the views of tyrants whose positions in power were used to advance a narrow agenda not of the people but of state largesse. State, to them, was land, not people. The people were victims of whatever ambitions and greed provoked the state.
(Second part of the article would be published in next edition. Dr. Fai is the Secretary General of Washington-based World Kashmir Awareness Forum and can be reached at 1-202-607-6435 or gnfai2003@yahoo.com)