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'If the Russians come our whole lives will change'

Emma Löfgren · 2 Jul 2015, 14:20

Published: 02 Jul 2015 12:07 GMT+02:00
Updated: 02 Jul 2015 14:20 GMT+02:00

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Strolling along Visby's narrow cobbled streets, watching the Baltic Sea's crystal blue waves come rolling in, it is hard to believe that this picturesque 3,187 square kilometre island off Sweden's east coast is the same place that has been at the forefront of the world's attention lately.

The Local is on Gotland for Almedalen -- Sweden's annual festival of power politics -- where outgoing Supreme Commander Sverker Göransson on Monday revealed that Russian planes had shot flares at Swedish jets in just one of a series of recent near-incursions of Scandinavian airspace.

READ MORE: Russia warns of risks should Sweden join Nato

Swedish Jas Gripen aircraft are passing over our heads. They are just taking part in standard exercises, but the noise from the jet engines has sends a shiver down many visitors' backs. The reporters around us in the press centre laugh nervously.

"Are the Russians coming?" says one.

He's joking, of course, but the past year has been one of heightened tensions between Sweden and its eastern neighbour, riddled with spy allegations, submarine hunts and claims Russia rehearsed a military invasion of Gotland, strategically located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, back in March.

Increased Russian military activity has caused jitters in Sweden, prompting Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist to announce that Sweden would be stepping up its military power, including stationing 230 Swedish troops on Gotland from 2018 in a bid that would effectively make the island Sweden's first line of defence to the east.

Mainland visitors taking a break from Almedalen Week in Visby. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

"That's just bullshit, I'm not one bit frightened," says Gail Swenson, who has lived on Gotland for 28 years.

She tells The Local she does not believe a word the pundits say. As far as she is concerned, it is scaremongering and nothing more.

"But it's like two camps," she admits. "Some people want a greater military presence here to protect us and others, like myself, think it is completely unnecessary."

We meet her on the outskirts of Visby, away from the media hustle and bustle of Almedalen. Gotland's largest urban centre, the walled medieval city only boasts a population of just above 22,000. 

Not an Almedalen visitor in sight in these parts of Visby. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Swenson, a 53-year-old who was born in the US and has since lived in Växjö, Umeå and now Gotland, opened a new business here three weeks ago, selling traditional Swedish fried herring from a hole-in-the-wall caravan. 

If her 'Strömmingsvagnen' was situated in Stockholm, it would be called a food truck and serve a large crowd of hipsters. Here, outside the local co-op, the main clientele is a constant flow of locals, entering the store with rattling trolleys and grabbing some fish on the way home.

"We just opened three weeks ago and we've got quite a few regulars already. It would maybe have been ideal to be down by the beach where the tourists are, but we weren't allowed to choose our location and this is were the council put us," says Swenson, who doesn't really seem to mind being off the beaten track.

"I love living here, there's a lot more humility than on the mainland. No putting your nose up at others. And even at the height of tourist season you can actually find beaches deserted enough to go for a skinny dip. You wouldn't think so, but it's true!" she laughs.

Gail Swenson does not believe Gotland needs increased defence. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Swenson is angry that all the talk about defending her adopted island is stealing focus from issues she believes need it more.

"It's better to invest in Gotland, cultivate the land and improve accessibility -- that's what really is a concern here. If you're going abroad for example, you first have to take the ferry to the mainland and then the train or bus to Stockholm before you even able to leave the country. Those are the important things, that's what should be focused on," she says.

IN PICTURES: Nine fun things to do on Gotland

Some five hundred metres away, people are tending to their apple trees and strawberry bushes in a garden lined with a series of private allotments. Here, Mona Siltberg is helping a tiny blackbird who has crawled into a downpipe and got stuck.

"Come on, out you go," she urges him.

The Swedish pensioner welcomes the Social Democrat-Green government's renewed focus on strengthening Gotland's strategic defence. She does not believe Russia would attack Sweden, but reasons that it is better to be safe than sorry.

"I wouldn't say I'm scared, but I am aware that we are incredibly vulnerable. It takes a few hours to get here. If Gotland is attacked we obviously don't stand a chance. You have to be a bit practical and realise that," says Siltberg.

READ MORE: Did Russia rehearse invasion of Gotland?

Back in central Visby, after walking through the gates of the medieval stone wall surrounding the city, it feels like a different world. Suddenly the streets are full of politicians, ministers, journalists, pundits and even Swedish sport stars, all visiting from the mainland to attend Almedalen.

"I'm pretty busy. I'm organising an event later with a bunch of lobbyists who want to learn how to make glass. But do sit down -- you can have a beer if you'd like?" says Christer Mattsson.

The 57-year-old is a craftsman to the core, a glassblower, who opened his own workshop in Visby in 1996. He has lived here since 1983 and has seen the end of the Cold War as well as the renewed tensions between Sweden and Russia.

But the military war games seem to have little impact on Mattsson's daily life.

"Personally I don't think about it, but I can comprehend the strategic situation. My pacifist youth speaks against having more military presence here, but I understand the reasoning. I just can't ignore the contradiction in terms of seeing rearmament as a peacekeeping measure. But at the same time, if anything does happen I guess it's too late to suddenly jump on the bandwagon then," he says.

Russia does not play a big part in Christer Mattsson's life. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Story continues below…

Almost next door to Mattsson's workshop, Gertrud Lindby, 63, runs Krukmakarens Café. The name means 'The Pot Maker's Café' and is named after the pot makers who used to practise their craft in the historic building. Born on the island, she only returned last winter, after four decades working on the mainland.

But she fears the quiet charm of her home city (when the Almedalen conference isn't on) may not last. 

"When I grew up in the 1950s, our parents used to threaten us with Russia if we didn't behave. 'If you don't finish your dinner the Russians will get you.' That threat is here again now, in real life. We are after all rather vulnerable out here in the Baltic Sea," she says.

Gertrud Lindby runs Krukmakarens Café in Visby, Gotland. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Despite having lived most of her adult life away from the island, Lindby seems the very essence of a Gotlander: Hardworking, friendly, and fond of her home. But despite its industrious people and vibrant local crafts industry, there is no doubt that Gotland depends on tourism for its economic survival. Around 870,000 hotel nights are booked by visitors every year, according to the local authority.

It's easy to wonder how long it might take before the perceived threat of Russia -- be it real or imagined -- starts to stop visitors from travelling to what is painted globally as the most threatened spot in Sweden. But Lindby says it does not worry her. She is confident people will always want to come to Gotland.

"And frankly, if the Russians do come our whole life will change. Tourism or business won't matter any more. Things will be on a more human level if you know what I mean?"

She shakes her head at her own fears and seems to want to take back her words, almost as if scared she will bring about misfortune by speaking of it.

"I know it's pretty unrealistic and that it's probably not going to happen," she says. "But Russia... it is a threat. And it is always there at the back of your mind."

The Almedalen Park in central Visby. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

For more news from Sweden, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Emma Löfgren (emma.lofgren@thelocal.com)

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