Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Of Secession & Less-Drastic Means–Do the Åland Islands Hold Any Lessons for the Crimea Crisis?

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Of Secession & Less-Drastic Means–Do the Åland Islands Hold Any Lessons for the Crimea Crisis?

[Rhodri C. Williams is a US human rights lawyer living in Sweden and working for the International Legal Assistance Consortium. He writes on human rights issues on his own blog, TerraNullius.]

In the crisis triggered by Russia’s poorly concealed incursion in Crimea, there are plenty of grounds to believe that Moscow’s international law arguments are largely a smokescreen, albeit one arguably enabled the West’s own blurring of legal lines in the course of two decades of liberal interventionism. Lying behind Russia’s normative protestations, however, are concrete assertions of political interest that will have to be addressed in order to achieve a sustainable resolution. In this sense, an emerging normative challenge relates to the extent to which international law and practice on self-determination would facilitate such a process.

Russia’s has a number of arguable political interests in the Crimean peninsula. The most obvious relate to security, and Crimea’s role as a warm water port of longstanding strategic significance to the Russian Navy. However, a far broader claim relates to Russia’s asserted right to protect both its citizens and Russian speaking minorities throughout a “near abroad” corresponding to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Like any country, Russia has a legitimate interest in the fate of its citizens and an arguable interest in supporting kin minorities. However, the unilateral and open-ended imposition of Russia’s own “protection” in a neighboring state is taken by many in the region as a thinly veiled excuse for a new round of post-Soviet revanchism. Indeed, comparisons have inevitably been drawn to “Hitler’s substitution of ethnicity for state borders” in the lead-up to World War II.

The issues raised by Russia’s “ethnic” claims in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and beyond play on debates about the alignment of states and nations that have been with us since the 19th century, but which gained an explosive new life since the end of the Cold War. Ironically, the original political emergence of these issues arguably came with the Crimean War of the 1850s, in which France and Britain sought to prevent Russia from encroaching on Ottoman Turkish-held territories in the Balkans. However, while both Ukraine and the Balkans have subsequently provided spectacular examples of the failure to peacefully manage diversity, the Åland Islands of Finland – the little known northernmost theatre of the Crimean War – give some grounds for hope.

The “Åland example”, as described in a recent book by the Åland Islands Peace Institute, has significant resonance for Crimea. Perhaps most obviously, Åland, like Crimea, occupies a strategic location in a region long troubled by ethno-linguistic cleavages. Åland is an archipelago in Finland that projects toward Sweden across a narrow strait in the Baltic Sea. Like the rest of Finland, Åland was part of Sweden until 1809, when the country was incorporated into Russia. Eager to consolidate an outpost within striking distance of Stockholm, the Russians built a fortress at Bomarsund on Åland.

Thus, the issue of strategic location arose early, with the British and French war aims focused on destroying both Bomarsund and Sevastapol in Crimea, and preventing them from being militarized again. Since the Crimean War, Åland – in contrast to Sevastapol – has remained demilitarized, in a local regime rooted in the 1856 peace settlement. The “ethnic issue” on Åland remained dormant for another 60 years until 1917, when Finland became independent. Until then, the tiny Åland population had aligned itself with the minority of mainland Finns (at the time about 10%) that spoke Swedish as their mother tongue, but that would quickly change.

In 1918, the first Finnish Constitution granted the Swedish language formal equality with Finnish, paving the way for an enduring cultural autonomy that has guaranteed linguistic and cultural rights for Swedish-speakers without granting them either political veto powers or control over their territories. Meanwhile, the Ålanders had already begun to agitate for secession to Sweden and succeeded in bringing their case to the newly founded League of Nations. The result was a 1921 compromise solution in which sovereignty was retained by Finland, but on the condition that Åland was to be granted an extensive territorial autonomy, or local self-rule. In order to assuage Sweden’s security concerns, Crimean War-era demilitarization was affirmed and expanded.

As described in the Peace Institute’s book, all this led to a surprisingly durable regime, sanctified by international law obligations (compiled here), but fundamentally anchored in consent. The authors attribute the longevity of Åland’s arrangements to a number of factors. A key departure point was the astute balance of dissatisfaction set by the original League of Nations decision. Finland was granted sovereignty without control, Åland self-rule without self-determination, and Sweden security guarantees without territorial gains. This may have contributed to a dynamic whereby all parties acted on “the basic premise of accepting a compromise and learning to live with it” (196).

Fundamentally constructive approaches have, in turn, facilitated the development of a living, breathing political regime, mediated through a number of key institutions linking Åland with Helsinki, and expanded in scope through successive, agreed legislative amendments. Moreover, the fact that the Åland case combines autonomy, cultural and linguistic protections and demilitarization has arguably had a number of beneficial effects. The demilitarization regime in particular has served not only to make Åland an interesting example for post-conflict countries, but has also served as a point of pride and an impetus for political mobilization by ordinary Ålanders.

Some similarities between Åland and Crimea stand out. Both share historical antecedents in Imperial Russia and strategic geographical locations. Both are also home to local majority populations separated by a political border from their ethno-linguistic kin-states (Sweden and Russia), and distinguished by location from “kin-nationalities”, e.g. the Swedish and Russian-speakers that constitute minorities in mainland Finland and Ukraine proper. Strong secessionist urges in both communities were curbed with autonomy regimes, albeit more recently and less successfully in Crimea. Finally, the Åland case, like today’s Crimea, presented a rare opportunity to resolve a thorny geopolitical conflict at a point when major bloodshed had not yet occurred and a significant reservoir of latent trust remained.

However, many of these similarities can be distinguished away. Beyond the general differences of political culture arising from historical context, a number of specific distinctions stand out. First, the full demilitarization of the Crimean peninsula will not be acceptable to Moscow, with its extensive naval bases. Second, while international mediation and guarantees were crucial to the establishment of the Åland regime, little scope exists for multilateral institutions to play a role in the Ukraine crisis. Thus far, Moscow’s veto has left the UN Security Council on the sidelines, while a UN Special Envoy was chased out of Crimea by armed thugs and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) repeatedly denied access.

Perhaps the most overlooked difference is that the Crimea issue involves third parties. Most notably, the Crimean Tatars, deported en masse during World War II but returned in significant numbers since Ukrainian independence. Tatars may now make up 15% of the population of Crimea and have proved understandably skeptical regarding the merits of secession. Where the Åland case fundamentally involved Swedish and Finnish-speakers, both Crimea and Ukraine more generally are characterized by a greater degree of ethnic, religious as well as linguistic difference.

All this said, however, the respective parts of the Åland example – if not their sum – should remain of interest for a solution to the crisis in Ukraine. In a recent comment in the Washington Post, Henry Kissinger argued that the resolution of the Ukraine crisis must can only come through de-escalation between Russia and the West: “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them”. He then sets out principles for a solution that are very much in the spirit of Åland, including avoiding NATO membership (if not demilitarization) and employing enhanced autonomy to defuse the Crimea dispute.

At this stage, it may already be too late for such a tidy solution. But even an untidy solution will not hold unless it can be founded on the calculus fundamental to Åland’s solution, expressed by Kissinger as a requirement not of absolute satisfaction but “balanced dissatisfaction.” So what more specific implications can we draw from the Åland experience? First is the need for political solutions to ethno-linguistic conflicts to be accompanied by measures, such as demilitarization, that address security concerns. Here, the bad news for Ukraine is that this would imply future willingness to uphold the leases of Russia’s Crimean bases despite Moscow’s own flagrant breach of their terms.


While some observers have proposed leasing the entire peninsula to Russia, such proposals are justified neither by any credible security considerations, nor by Russia’s ethnic claims. Similarly, commentators such as Robert McCorquodale have pointed out that either a Crimean secession or a Russian annexation would involve highly dubious interpretations of the right to self-determination under current circumstances. However, proposals to allow Crimea an expanded autonomy have been framed as a means of preserving Ukrainian sovereignty while providing guarantees that Russia’s stated concerns about political oppression or cultural assimilation of its Russian-speaking “compatriots” are not borne out. Here it is worth considering the function of different types of autonomy.

Typically, territorial autonomy, or political self-rule is a solution adapted to the needs of “national minorities” or indigenous peoples. In theory, these are compact groups with a long tradition of managing their own affairs in a particular territorial homeland within a larger state. The Åland Islanders’ fit of this description, for example, motivated the League of Nations’ recommendation that Finland provide an enhanced territorial autonomy regime that could guarantee protection of Ålanders’ culture, language and land against demographic pressures from the mainland.

In contrast to the “external” exercise of self-determination (in the form of secession) now being entertained in Crimea, territorial autonomy involves “internal self-determination”, or the grant of functions of statehood without the right to actually form or join a separate state. Beyond protections related to land and language, for instance, Åland has its own parliament, government, postal system, flag, and national anthem. Internal self-determination was endorsed in the UN General Assembly’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which accords such peoples “the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs” (Article 4), while reserving “their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State” (Article 5).

As noted above, while the Crimean Peninsula has long been ethnically mixed, the community with the most meaningful historical claim to national minority status is the Tatars. Thus, while some form of Crimean self-rule may be a political imperative in negotiating an end to the crisis, it is not clear that it is a necessary or even germane response to the needs of the local Russian-speaking population, who neither have an exclusive claim to the Peninsula nor face concrete threats to their status or existence there. Such measures would, however, have to be carefully crafted so as not to further marginalize the vulnerable Tatar minority.

In fact, the needs of the Russian-speakers in Crimea are arguably better served by ensuring their inclusion in a durable cultural autonomy encompassing all the Russian-speakers of the Ukraine, as well as the speakers of other significant minority languages. Despite shrill Russian allegations of a fascist coup in Ukraine, there are scant grounds to fear political oppression of Russian speakers (including non-ethnic Russian minorities such as Jews). However, early threats to remove Russia’s status as an official language provided the sole credible evidence of any systematic anti-Russian animus on the part of the interim Ukrainian government.

The recognition and protection of minority languages is a particularly well-established norm in Europe, and one that would bear virtually no costs as between Russian and Ukrainian, two languages described by Marina Lewycka as “mutually comprehensible, and closer than, say, Italian and Spanish.” Where sole reliance on cultural autonomy has not always served the Swedish-speakers in mainland Finland well, this can in part be attributed to the fact that they began with an unusually small demographic base and speak a language that bears virtually no relation to that of the majority. For a large Russian minority with longstanding linguistic and cultural ties to a fundamentally sympathetic Ukrainian majority, cultural autonomy should be an intuitive part of any solution.

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Adam Baum
Adam Baum

The fact that you ignore or just plain can’t admit is that the revolutionary interim self appointed thugs broke Ukraine’s Constitution and also breached the civil agreement made in accordance with Internationally witnessed signatories. This even after they were promised immunity on their current relevant rioting charges. Now that proof shows that Ukrainian officials hadn’t given any orders to use live rounds, as a peaceful agreement had been signed, the 3rd party hired agitators took it on their own to begin the Coup. The illegitimate people assigned in these posts have run to their real leaders now to protect and support them from justice.
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