By Paul Goble
Now that Finland is a member of NATO, a growing number of Finns are demanding that the Russian consulate on the Aaland Islands be closed. Helsinki has not responded officially but even the discussion of this possibility has infuriated Moscow (euractiv.com/section/politics/news/growing-number-of-finns-want-russian-consulate-in-aland-closed/ and ritmeurasia.org/news–2023-06-13–sudba-konsulstva-rossii-na-alandah-visit-na-voloske-mogut-vydvorit-66910).
On the one hand, this back and forth is simply a continuation of a trend that saw Russia in May freezing the bank accounts of the Finnish embassy in Moscow and closing Finnish consulates in Murmansk and Petrozavodsk. But on the other, it reflects both the special status of the Aaland Islands and Helsinki’s wish not to violate international law even if Moscow does.
The Aaland Islands, it will be recalled, are the most prominent surviving success of the League of Nations which settled a conflict between Finland and Sweden in the 1920s by decreeing that the islands were under Finnish sovereignty but were to have broad autonomy reflecting their overwhelmingly Swedish population.
Any closure of the Russian consulate on the Aaland Islands threatens to raise questions about the broader 1947 treaty between Finland and the USSR and also about relations between Finland and Sweden. NATO examined this issue before Finland became a member and did not identify the Russian consulate at Marieham as a problem.
But the problem isn’t about to go away, not least of all because the Russian consulate on the Aaland Islands is clearly involved in non-diplomatic activities. In October 2014, Moscow demanded and Helsinki agreed to hand over to the consulate a 1.78 hectare of land in Mariehamn (yle.fi/uutiset/kantselyariya_prezidenta_rf_vladyeet_zemelnym_uchastkom_na_alandskikh_ostrovakh/7527422).
This land, some former Finnish officials suggested, was far larger than the consulate needed for its work; and the real reason Moscow wanted the parcel was to have land next to military and other strategic sites in Finland, according to Estonia’s Postimees newspaper (postimees.ee/2952947/venelased-ostavad-soomes-strateegiliste-objektide-lahedusse-maad).
The Tallinn paper said that the Russians involved in the purchase of this kind of Finnish property have links to the Russian security services and to Vladimir Putin personally, an indication that what is really at Mariehamn now almost certainly is a Russian listening post masquerading as a consulate and directed against NATO (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/10/window-on-eurasia-moscow-takes-some.html).
What Helsinki and the Finnish people may have felt compelled to accept before the country became part of the Western alliance is now something ever fewer of them are likely to be willing to do. Consequently, once again, the Aaland Islands which typically exist as a historical footnote are likely to become a cockpit of East-West diplomatic conflict.