Out of Denmark: Gentle nationalism stirs mild island passions

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BORNHOLM - You would not immediately recognise the Danish island of Bornholm as a hotbed of nationalism. Its spruce little towns, neat green countryside and tidy harbours give no sign of conflict. There is no gunfire in the streets, no dark scowls when a foreign language is heard. Yet a form of nationalism is stirring, in a local party that wants independence from the mainland.

Bent Kaas, the vice-chairman of Bornholms Fremtid (Bornholm's Future) is clearly a little unhappy with this idea. 'No, we are not nationalists,' he says. 'I think of myself as a cosmopolitan.' His wife, Dorthe, roars with laughter at the idea that they might resort to bombs or the barricade. 'We're too old for that, we're not anarchists any more,' she says, plonking a bottle of bitters down on the table of their cosy farmhouse.

Bornholm is a good seven hours by boat from Copenhagen, and is nearer to Sweden. Indeed, the map in the Independent office in Brussels colours it Swedish, a mistake that is not popular in Bornholm. 'People are very hurt to be considered as reserve Swedes,' says Susanne Sayers, a journalist with one of the two local papers. In 1658 the islanders shot the commander of the occupying Swedish troops and two years later threw them out. They pledged allegiance to the Danish crown, which gave them a special link to the country. This is not forgotten on Bornholm, though it may have slipped the memory of those on the mainland.

Loyalty to the Royal family continues, even among the separatists. 'We like the Queen,' says Dorthe. However, her ministers are not held in such high esteem. 'Our problem is that we are just too far from the government,' says Bent. 'They forget about us.'

Notably, Copenhagen forgot the island in 1945 when the occupying German troops demanded to be allowed to surrender to an allied representative. None could be found. So the Russians bombed the island, devastating Ronne and Nexo, two of the main towns. Then they occupied the island for nearly a year, and recent discoveries in Moscow archives indicate that they wanted to keep this strategic outpost to underpin their Baltic dominance.

'They didn't behave too well,' says Anne Vibeke Knudsen of the Bornholm Museum, and it was a painful reminder that 'nobody cared about Bornholm'. Fortunately, the local mayor struck up a friendship with the Russian commander based on a common love of alcohol, which moderated the behaviour of the Russian hordes.

Anne Vibeke is not a supporter of Bornholms Fremtid. 'There's a small group which wants to be independent, but it's not the majority view. I don't think it's important.' The party won only 10 per cent of the votes in the last election. But even its opponents agree the movement has brought change. 'It's good for the democratic process,' says Anne Vibeke. The arrival of a new party has galvanised the island's two main political groups and helped inject a little activism into local politics. 'We kick them in the arse all the time,' says Bent Kaas.

The spark for this has been the island's economic problems, which are typical of small islands. Fishing, the main industry, has all but collapsed, agriculture is in deep trouble, and tourism can't expand too much without spoiling the island.

'We saw it before it happened,' says Mr Kaas. 'The danger sign was that the population was declining. That told us something was badly wrong.'

In 15 years, the population has fallen from about 50,000 to 45,000. Young people leave the island for college and many do not return. 'There is a generation missing,' says Ms Sayers. 'If nothing changes, soon we will just be an island of old people and tourists,' says Mr Kaas.

He and his party want autonomy under the Danish crown, freedom from taxes and the right to manage the economy themselves. 'We see the Isle of Man as a good model,' he says, eyeing the rich island's tax status with envy. They would leave the European Community and renegotiate a separate agreement. They would also have discussions with Nato about the forces that are based on the island. If all this sounds like the mouse that roared, think again: the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both Danish possessions, have already done pretty much the same.

Getting any kind of agreement among the islanders is a problem. Like a lot of small islands, Bornholm is ridden with local divisions as strong as those which separate them from the mainland. Tourism officials say they can never get different parts of the island to co-operate. There are five local communes, all jealous of their own independence and identities. When two communes were merged a few years ago, so great was the acrimony over choosing which town would have the town hall, that a new one had to be built.

The vague tinge of nationalist sentiment about Bornholms Fremtid extends to talk of reviving the local language, of local values and culture. But Bornholm's nationalism is a gentle one. It has more to do with autonomy than with dark legends of blood and soil, or ethnic purity.