Football and army: Aland receives exceptional attention throughout Finland

Finnish Defence Minister suggests an end to islands' demilitarized status in the face of possible external threats, referring to Russia · As debate goes on, Alandic team unexpectedly emerge Finnish league champions

IFK players lift Finand league trophy.
IFK players lift Finand league trophy. Author: Alands Radio TV.
The Aland Islands are unusually receiving a lot of attention these days in Finland after two unrelated events are placing the Swedish-speaking archipelago under media focus. On the one hand, a proposal by the Finnish Defence minister to consider the militarization of the, so far, entirely demilitarised archipelago against possible threats from Russia. On the other, the emergence of an Alandic football team as new Finnish league champions.

Yesterday was a historic day for modest IFK Mariehamn, which has only been a professional team since 2009, and had never won before the league of Finland.

The town of Mariehamn has just over 11,000 inhabitants, The stadium where IFK plays its home matches, the Wiklöf Holding Arena, has a capacity of 4,000 seats. Aland amounts a mere 0.5% of Finland's population. But their team has been able to defeat more powerful clubs, such as Finnish capital Helsinki's HJK.

In Finland, IFK's feat is being compared to Leicester's, who won the English league against all odds last season.

But Aland is attracting Finland-wide attention not only because of their sporting performance. For over a year now, Finnish Defence minister Jussi Niinistö has been putting into question one of the pillars of the islands' autonomy: their demilitarized character.

Located in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden, Aland is an autonomous region of Finland since 1920, even if its demilitarization -which nonetheless has been since violated several times- stems from the 1856 Treaty of Paris provisions, that put an end to the Crimean War, which pitted Russia against an alliance made up by the United Kingdom, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire.

The debate over the archipelago's demilitarisation has somehow something to do, again, with Crimea. After the annexation of that peninsula by Russia in 2014, several voices in Finland began to express their concern about eventual threats from their mighty neighbour, with which the Nordic country shares a 1,340 km-long border.

Niinistö's in one of those voices. His Finns Party (formerly the True Finns) is a nationalist, conservative and Eurosceptic party often described as right-wing populist. The Finns Party joined government for the first time in 2015, the junior member of a center-right coalition.

After being appointed minister, Niinistö expressed his doubts about Finland's current defense policy as regards Aland. "Finland must be prepared for any potential situations and defend all of its territory. We have to consider how we would provide official assistance to the Alands," he said.

Niinistö last week insisted on the issue, suggesting once more that Finland should perhaps rethink the fact that Aland cannot host any military personnel or equipment. Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and President Sauli Niinistö ruled out terminating the demilitarization of Aland.

Media linked to the Kremlin say Niinistö's opinions must be understood under "anti-Russian hysteria" existing in Scandinavia. The Swedish army decided last month to permanently place troops on the island of Gotland, which is also located in the Baltic, quoting "deteriorating external factors in the world."