‘If the Russians come our whole lives will change’

Recent claims that Russia rehearsed a military takeover of Gotland stirred up fear among Swedes – but how do people living here feel? The Local asked islanders what life is like in the bullseye of Sweden.

'If the Russians come our whole lives will change'
What's on the horizon for Gotland? Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

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

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 members


Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

What's Sweden talking about this week? In The Local's Sweden Elects newsletter, editor Emma Löfgren rounds up some of the main talking points ahead of the Swedish election.

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

In an interview that could have jeopardised his job a decade ago, Social Democrat Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman’s suggestion in DN that there should be a 50 percent cap on non-Nordic immigrants in troubled areas of Swedish cities showed how the debate has shifted in recent years.

That said, his comments did not go without criticism. The Left Party slammed them as “racist”, the Greens and the Centre Party also criticised them, and so did the Moderates and some within the Social Democrats.

Ygeman himself said that he had been misunderstood, that he had never meant it as an actual proposal, and that factors such as crime and unemployment were far more important in terms of integration.

“But of course segregation is not just class-based, it also has an ethnic dimension. If you have areas where almost everyone is from other countries, it’s harder to learn Swedish, and if it’s harder to learn Swedish, it’s harder to get a job,” he told public broadcaster SVT.

What do you think? Email me if you want to share your thoughts.

Campaign posters and a new poll

The centre-left Social Democrats and the Moderates, the largest right-wing opposition party, both unveiled their campaign posters last week, which I guess means that the summer holiday lull is officially over and the election campaign is now definitely under way. Just over a month to go.

It’s interesting that the Social Democrats are clearly trying to turn this into a “presidential” style campaign, taking advantage of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s overwhelming popularity compared to the Moderates’ Ulf Kristersson, whose reception among voters is lukewarm.

A poll by the DN newspaper and Ipsos a month ago suggested that 37 percent of voters want to see Andersson as prime minister, compared to 22 percent who preferred Kristersson (12 percent preferred the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson, and the other party leaders did not get more than four percent each).

Andersson is in the unique position where voters like her way more than they like her party – a new opinion poll by Demoskop suggests that 28.7 percent would vote for the Social Democrats if the election was held today (the Moderates would get 20.3 percent). The same poll has all the right-wing parties with a slight majority compared to the left-wing parties.

Anyway, the Social Democrats’ campaign posters cover pensions, schools (specifically, limiting profit-making free schools), crime and law and order. Climate change is conspicuously absent, but a party spokesperson told reporters it will be more prominent in its social media campaigns.

When Kristersson, on the other hand, spoke at his party’s event to kick off their election campaign, he emphasised how he’s got a viable coalition on his side – a jibe at the Social Democrats, who will struggle to get their partners (specifically the Centre and Left parties) to collaborate.

He also reiterated his praise for the Sweden Democrats, and The Local asked several experts if the Moderates are the same party that fought the 2018 election, when Kristersson promised Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried he would not cooperate with the Sweden Democrats after the election.

Election pledges

The Local’s Becky Waterton has looked at the election pledges of Sweden’s four main parties, the Social Democrats, Moderates, Sweden Democrats and Centre Party. Click here to read her guide, it’s a really useful roundup.

And what about Covid? Is Sweden’s handling of the pandemic not going to be a talking point in this election? No, at least not if the parties have their way. The Social Democrats run the government, but most of the regions (who are in charge of healthcare) are run by right-wing coalitions. So from a strictly realpolitik perspective, no party is able to attack another without putting themselves at risk of becoming a target. Best forget about it.

In other political news…

… a Sweden Democrat member of parliament has been accused of sending unsolicited dick pics to women, the Moderates want to legalise altruistic surrogacy in Sweden, the Christian Democrats want a national scheme to improve maternity care, the Liberals want to make it harder for people with a criminal record to become Swedish citizens, and Centre Party leader Annie Lööf hit the campaign trail just before the weekend by pledging to reject any proposal for raised taxes after the election.

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column plus several extra features as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.