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Vadovu Klubas: 15 year anniversary, Church of St. John´s Vilnius University, June 6th, 2013

On June 6th "Vadovu Klubas" - an association of business leaders in Lithuania - celebrated their 15 years anniversary in St. John´s Vilnius University. The president of Lithuania, Dalija Grypauskaité - a former Minister of Finance and commissioner of finance - addressed the assembly. I was invited to give a key-note speech on the " Peaceful, Baltic Road to Freedom" and the response to it by the international community.

Since capitalists worldwide are this year celebrating the 300 years anniversary of the Scottish philosopher/economist Adam Smith, my Edinburgh University background came in handy to give my audience a few warning words on the dangers of unrestrained markets, supported by wise words from the social-democratic thinker, Tage Erlander, and the recently erected pope Francis (a former priest in the slums of Buenos Aires). While in Vilnius this spring, teaching at the university, the Lithuanians celebrated the 25 years anniversary of Sajudis, their independence movement. On June 3d, LRT (the Lithuanian public television channel) showed a new documentary on that occasion. This included an interview with me, focusing on the main events 1988-91. (This can be approached on the Internet).

Here is the text of my speech given in the Church of St. John´s, Vilnius University, on June 6th.


It is June 6th, 1990, 23 years ago to the day. The foreign ministers of all European states – along with the US and Canada – are assembling in Copenhagen. This meeting was one of a series, convened to end the Cold War. On the agenda was disarmament and arms´control; cooperation instead of confrontation in interstate relations. Respect for the principles of human rights and self-determination of nations.

The political landscape of Europe was undergoing profound change. The year before, in November, the Berlin Wall had come tumbling down. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe had cast off the yoke of foreign domination. In Polland there was „Solidarity“; in Prague there was the „Velvet Revolution“. The peaceful reunificaton of Germany was ongoing. „Glasnost“ and „perestroika“, the political trade mark of Mr. Gorbachev, were understood by many as catchwords for democratic reform within the Soviet Union.

At long last, the Second World War, was coming to an end in Central- and Eastern Europe. The Copenhagen conference was held three months after Lithuania´s declaration of restored independence, March 11 that year. National reawakening and the rebuilding of democratic institutions was well advanced in Latvia and Estonia too. Two images from the Baltic road to freedom had caught the imagination of the world. One was the „Singing Revolution“ of June 1988; the other was the „Human chain“, showing people holding hands across borders from Tallinn in the North to Vilnius in the South. It was a powerful symbol of national identity and grass-roots democracy.

But sometimes the gap between political rethoric on the one hand and realpolitik on the other, is almost unbridgeable. In their speeches, leaders of Western democracies spoke in glowing terms about human rights and self-determination. In reality the major powers had a different agenda. The US had invested a lot of political capital in Mr. Gorbachev´s remaining in power. There was a lot at stake: The hope for domestic reform within the Soviet Union; the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe, without resorting to force; major agreements on nuclear disarmament and reduction of conventional forces.

For Mr. Gorbachev, end of the arms race could release resources for improving poor living conditions at home. For the West disarmament offered the welcome asset of a peace dividend. For the Germans, the peaceful reunification of Germany seemed to depend entirely on the goodwill of Mr. Gorbachev. For both, the Americans and the Germans, Mr. Gorbachev was a partner in ending the Cold War and building a new security structure in Europe. The conventional wisdom was that nothing should be said or done by Western leaders that could undermine this new partnership between the USA and the Soviet leadership, or endanger Mr. Gorbachev´s position in power. Were he to be deposed, the hardliners would be back. In the worst-case scenario that could mean not only a return to the Cold War, but even outbreak of armed conflict.

That is why Mr. Bush sr. went to Kiev in the Ukraine and appealed to the Ukrainians not to succumb to“ extreme nationalism“, but to keep the Soviet Union together , in the name of stability. That is why his foreign secretary, Mr. Baker, visited Milosovich, in Belgrade to deliver the same message on keeping Yugoslavia together. That is why, Chancellor Kohl, and President Mitterand, wrote a letter to President Landsbergis, asking him to postpone the coming into effect of the declaration of independence and to accept negotiating with the Soviets without preconditions. And that is why, when the newly appointed foreign ministers of the three Baltic States arrived in Copenhagen for the CSCE conference on human rights, they were denied access. They were not even allowed the right of self-expression – at a conference on human rights – lest the Soviet representatives would boycott the conference and throw the peace process into jeopardy.


When political expediency, or the mutual self-interest of major powers, prevails in such a way over fundamental principles of international law and justice, it is time for small nations to try to give meaning and relevance to the concept of „solidarity of small nations“. That is why, when it was my turn to speak, I set aside my prepared text and tried to lend my voice to yours, which had been silenced. According to the transcript from the Danish Foreign Ministry I said i.e. the following:

„We are talking about political leadership. It so happens that the President of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev, is acting out the potentially greatest role of any statesman of the Post-War era. He has been the initiator of change, the pioneer of peaceful reform. His refraining from the use of force to halt the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe actually made it all possible. But every step he takes from here onwards is wrought with dangers. The long delayed economic reform within the USSR may bring social upheaval on its way. The use of force in repressing the legitimate claims to independence of the Baltic nations would destroy our confidence in our supposedly common commitment to the universal human values of the rights of nations to independence and sovereignity.

We cannot pretend that the problem of the Baltic states can be glossed over or forgotten, lest we endanger the peace process. The simple fact is: Human rights and the rights of nations are indivisible. These universal human values cannot be handed out as privileges to be enjoyed by some of us, but denied to others. The undisputed historical fact is that the Baltic nations were independent states, recognized as such by the international community. During the war they suffered the fate of military occupation and illegal annexation. The illegality of this act of war has been recognized by the Soviet congress of deputies, which has declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact null and void“.

When I stepped down from the podium, a man jumped up and embraced me saying: „What a privilege it is to be the representative of a small nation and be allowed to speak the truth“. This was Max Kampelmann, a renowned sovietologist and a US negotiator. As I headed for my seat, a burly heavyweight shook his fist at me, declaring: „Shame on you, Mr. Hannibalsson; there was not a word of truth in what you said about the Soviet Union in you speech“. This was Mr. Yuri Rhesetov, the soviet expert on human rights in the Geneva negotiations. – With the US representative ashamed and the Soviet one angry, I knew I was on the right path.


January 1991 was a crucial time – a turning point. At a secret meeting within the walls of the Kremlin on January 8th, it was decided that the imminent secession of the Baltic states from the Soviet Union would have to be stopped, by use of force if necessary. The plan was to create incidents, to justify military intervention and emergency rule from Moscow, in the name of protecting national minorities and to restore law and order. I remember vividly being awakened in the middle of the night by a telephone call from President Landsbergis saying in essence: „If you mean what you have been saying in our support, come immediately to Vilnius to demonstrate your personal commitment to our cause. The presence of a NATO foreign minister matters“. The formality of getting a visa from the Soviet Embassy delayed my arrival for a few days. I stayed for a week and visited all three Baltic capitals on the way.

I shall never be so old as to forget those days, in the squares and streets of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn in January 1991. There I personally witnessed nations, unarmed and virtually alone, ready to defy military might, in the name of human dignity, freedom and self-respect. It was a privilege to be allowed to be with you during those fateful days. I came away convinced, that if the Soviets would have applied full force to follow up on their original plan of regime change, it would have resulted in a terrible bloodbath.

Would Western leaders have intervened? The leaders of your independence movements were under no such delusion. On January 16 the US started „Operation Desert Storm“, to drive Sadam Hussein out of Kuwait. It is neither the first nor the last time, when oil has turned out to be a potent motivation for action. The Soviet Union was an ally of the Irakis. To the US it was imperative that the Soviets would let be, or at least not actively oppose, the operation. Soviet cooperation on that score depended on maintaining the Gorbachev partnership.

When the Icelandic government protested against the use of force in the Baltic countries, and called for the UN Security Council to immediately address the issue, the Soviets showed their displeasure by withdrawing their ambassador from Reykjavík. That is usually the last step before severing political relations. The Icelandic ambassador in Moscow was called on the carpet and handed a strongly worded note, protesting Iceland´s interference into the domestic affairs of the Soviet Union. This gives me an opportunity to make two observations:

It is a widely held belief, expressed by many, that Iceland, as a faraway country, could act without any risk of suffering severe repercussions. Not so. After Finland, Iceland was number two in Western Europe in terms of its share of foreign trade with the Soviet Union. When Great Britain, back in the fifties, put a trade embargo on Iceland in protest against the expansion of our EEZ in stages up to 200 miles – the Soviets stepped in and offered to buy all the fish products Iceland could sell. All fuel, for our fishing and mercantile fleet, airoplanes and transportation – the life blood of any economy – came from the Soviet Union. Our action was therefore certainly not without risk, although we had secretly taken precauton to find other suppliers and markets, if need be.

The other point is this one: When the Soviet Union protested Iceland´s interference into the domestic affairs of the Soviet Union, I decided to tackle the issue head on. I put together a team of legal experts (with an important input from Estonia) who produced a document, where the case of the illegality of the Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltic states, was presented in detail. The argument was presented with reference to Soviet obligations under international law (specifically the Helsinki Final Act of 1975) and major multinational treaties and court precedents. We clinched the argument by reminding the Soviet government of the fact that the Soviet Congress of deputies had itself accepted the case by declaring the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact null and void. Needless to say, we never received any response from the Soviets to this sophisticated piece of scolarship.


On August 19th, 1991, started a sequence of events, which ended in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the recognition by the international community of your restored independence. The scene began on the barricades in the streets of Moscow; it ended in a modest ceremony in Höfði-House in Reykjavík, less than a week later, August 25th. Five years earlier this modest villa – a former British Embassy in Reykjavík – had been the venue for the Reagan-Gorbachev, summit, that later turned out to have marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Now it was to be the venue for the recognition of your restored independence – a process that turned out to be unstoppable and irreversible. Let me briefly retrace the sequence of events:


If I remember correctly the response to my speech was less than enthusiastic. On my return home I „occupied“ the Icelandic embassy in Copenhagen. For many hours and late into the night, I was in telephone contact with Reykjavík and the Baltic capitals. My message was simple: In politics timing is everything. The time to act is now. I issued formal invitations to the foreign ministers of the Baltic states to come to Reykjavík as soon as possible. There and then we would formally sign the relevant documents, restoring full diplomatic relations between Iceland and the Baltic states and appointing ambassadors and general counsuls on a mutual basis. This would soon, I argued, be followed up by others. This was a situation when we had to act resolutely for the sequence of events to gather momentum – irreversibly.

The foreign ministers, Lennart Meri of Estonia, Janis Jurkans of Latvia and Algirdas Saudargas of Lithuania, arrived in Reykjavik on August 25th. On August 26th in Höfdi House, the venue of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1986, the four of us signed the relevent documents and made brief statements on the significance of the event. The news had hardly been spread by international media, before the invitations started to pour in; could the three foreign ministers be persuaded to visit European capitals, as soon as possible, to repeat what had been done in Reykjavik. The process had become irreversible. For me that was „mission accomplished“.

The rest is history.


Your „Singing Revolution“ – the Peaceful Baltic Road to Freedom – helped make the World a better place. It signaled the end of the Second World War. It sounded the death knell of 20ieth century totalitarianism. It ushered in a new era of freedom and democracy. For more than two decades you have been building a new society on those foundations.

I understand that my hosts wish to celebrate the 15 year anniversary of „Vadova klubas“ by honoring the prophet of free markets, the Scottish philosopher/economist, Adam Smith. As a young man I studied at his old University of Edinburgh. There I learnt to understand how individual freedom can unleash creative power – that of the profit motive – for the benefit of all – if markets are kept open and competitive.

I did my post-graduate work at Stockholm University, where I studied the Nordic model. Nordic social-democrats – and I am the third generation of the species – understood well the creative power of free markets. But we were not blinded by their inherent tendency for extreme inequality, as well as socially painful booms and busts – if they were left to their own devices. The role of the democratic state, in our view, is to keep greed – the profit motive – under social control. As Tage Erlander – Sweden´s social-democratic PM for a quarter of a century and, arguably the greatest social reformer of his time – famously said: „The market is a useful servant, but an intolerable master“. It is exactly the failure to heed this advice, which is causing all the troubles in America and parts of Europe, these days.
We are here in a place of Catholic worship, associated with an ancient university, dedicated to freedom of thought and expression. I therefore ask you – in conclusion – to listen to the wise words of his holiness, Pope Francis, in a message delivered to the ambassadors of the World, accredited to the Vatican. He said (May 16), and I quote:

The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of financial markets, which are faceless and lacking any humane goal. – Money has to serve, not to rule“.

When a social-democratic practitioner – and he was, by the way, both a physicist and a theologician – and the spiritual leader of the Catholic faith, agree upon the fundamentals – I think it is time for the rest of us to listen.

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson The author was Iceland´s Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade in the years 1988-´95. He has served as guest-lecturer at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Vilnius during the spring semester 2013.

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