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Parliament speaker Vanhanen clarifies Åland comments

Vanhanen now says he is not expecting any initiatives on troop movements to come from Åland.

Åland's flag, file photo. Image: All Over Press

Speaker of Parliament Matti Vanhanen (Cen) said on Monday that he has not heard serious discussion about a desire to station military troops on the autonomous and demilitarised island region of Åland, a Swedish-speaking maritime province of Finland.

Newspaper Etelä-Suomen Sanomat (ESS) reported on Sunday that Vanhanen said he hopes Åland will take an initiative to deploy Finnish troops in the province, making the comments at a Centre Party-organised public event in Lahti that day.

ESS reported that Vanhanen suggested that a proposal to change Åland's special status could come in June, when it is set to celebrate a century of self-government.

On Monday he told Yle that he does not expect such an initiative, adding that it was up to the Åland government to decide whether they want to discuss the issue.

Vanhanen said that his statements were not accurately reflected.

"I took part in an event in Lahti yesterday and a member of the public asked a question about troops on Åland. Answering that question, I emphasised that Åland's demilitarised status is based on international agreements. In that context, I stated that it would be easier — from a defence standpoint — to have troops stationed on Åland, but that no such proposal is forthcoming. It is up to the people of Åland to decide whether they want to start a process to change that status," he said, according to Svenska Yle.

The Swedish-language public broadcasting news outlet also reported on Monday that Åland MP Mats Löfström told Åland Radio that Vanhanen's comments on Sunday were misinterpreted.

"I spoke with Matti Vanhanen myself after the comment was published and he said it was a misinterpretation," Löfström said, according to Svenska Yle.

The MP pointed out that the country's security policy was dominating the political debate in Finland.

"It's natural, given what is happening in the world and given that Finland is seriously pursuing discussion on changing its foreign policy line by joining Nato. Therefore, everyone gets very excited about statements that are made," Löfström said, adding that such discussion can get blown out of proportion "because everyone is waiting and wants to hear them."

Vanhanen reiterated to Yle that, in practice, having a military base in the province would make it easier to defend it, but that it was up to the people of Åland to decide if they wanted to change their status.

The province was demilitarised after the Crimean War in 1856. The Treaty of Paris concluded that year stipulates that there can be no military force on the island, however the Finnish Border Guard operates stations there.

When asked whether Åland's security situation should be strengthened during this sensitive time in terms of international affairs, Vanhanen said he trusts the Finnish Defence Forces.

"[Our] agreements make it possible, if the need arises, for Finland to take care of Åland's defence if the need arises. It is the responsibility of the Defence Forces to properly assess required preparedness," Vanhanen told Yle.

Vanhanen also noted that Åland's special status would not prevent Finland from joining Nato.

Åland's Premier Veronica Thörnroos said on Monday that there are no discussions in Åland about changing the status of the islands, but in an interview with Yle she did stress that Finland has the responsibility to defend the province.

Thörnroos was visiting Helsinki on Monday, and met Vanhanen as part of her trip. She said Vanhanen made clear that he had no intention of suggesting a change to Åland's demilitarised status.

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This story was updated at 17:04 on 24 April 2022, to expand Matti Vanhanen's comments and add comments from Åland MP Mats Löfström. _ _