In his article and accompanying interview 08.04.05 on the Council on Foreign Relations web page Mr. Uffe Elleman-Jensen, the former Danish Foreign Minister maintains:
(1) That he “moved forward alone” in restoring diplomatic relations with the Baltic states and by his action he made Denmark “the first country” to do so.
(2) That Iceland was somehow in a different position and therefore does not count in “the story”.
(3) That the Bush 1 administration was a stalwart supporter of the restoration of the Baltic countries when their fate was decided 1988-91.
I regret to say that on all counts Mr. Jensen is wrong.
In the Seimas building in Vilnius there is a photo gallery of persons who, according to Lithuanian history, had a role to play in the nation´s struggle for reclaiming independence. The first photo is of the Foreign Minister of Iceland (not Denmark) with a text explaining that he was the first foreign minister to formally recognize the restored independence of Lithuania. For the same reason, the Vilnius City Council made the Icelandic Foreign Minister at the time an honorary citizen of Vilnius and renamed a street in the heart of Vilnius Iceland Street on the same occasion.
In the Latvian Occupation History Museum in Riga the exhibit ends by showing a photo of the same Icelandic Foreign Minister and his letter to Foreign Minister Jurkans, with a text confirming that Iceland was the first country to grant formal recognition to the restored independence of Latvia.
In Tallinn the square outside the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Estonia was renamed “Islandi Valjak”– Iceland square – and at the brief ceremony held on the occasion, it was said to be in recognition of the fact that Iceland had been the first country to formally recognize the restoration of independence of Estonia.
This indicates that the authorities of all three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, seem to be unaware of Mr. Jensen´s claim to have “moved forward alone” and “been the first” in granting them their deserved recognition.
On the ten year anniversary of the proclamation of independence of Lithuania, in March 2000, the Seimas held a seminar to commemorate the event. Mr. Jensen and myself were both invited. I was introduced as the first foreign minister to have formally recognized the restoration of Lithuania´s independence. Mr. Jensen, who spoke later, did not disagree with our hosts´ version of history.
On the 15th anniversary of Latvia´s declaration of independence, the Latvian Foreign Ministry, in association with others, held a scholarly seminar on the Baltic Road to Freedom. I was invited and introduced as the first foreign minister to have formally recognized the restoration of independence of Latvia, and asked to speak on the issue of the independence of the Baltic States on the International Agenda, 1987-91. (My speech on that occasion is attached).
In Vilnius at a solemn sitting of the Seimas in March this year to commemorate Lithuania´s declaration of independence fifteen years earlier, the president of the Seimas, Mr. Paulauskas, specially adressed the Foreign Minister of Iceland and thanked him for having been the first foreign minister to formally recognize the independence of Lithuania.
Can all those authoritative persons be so consistently wrong about one of the most important events in tier history? Can they all be so grossly unfair to Mr. Jensen personally and to his country? That is hard to believe.
To be or not to be.
In order to enhance his stature Mr. Jensen refers to Iceland as having been somehow in a different situation from Denmark. “She was part of the Danish realm back in 1921 and had thus not recognized the three countries”, says Mr. Jensen. He is wrong again. Iceland became independent from Denmark in the year 1918, but with the Danish King as head of state. This independent status of Iceland included relations with other countries. Denmark, for example, recognized Lithuania´s independence on September 30, 1921. The Icelandic government did the same by a separate decision on January 21, 1922, and made bilateral trade agreements with Lithuania in 1923 and 1930. Iceland was therefore in the same position as the US, Denmark and most West-European countries in having recognized the independence of Lithuania in the early twenties and not having recognized de jure Lithuania´s occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. In 1990, having declared their independence from the Soviet Union, the three Baltic countries were still de facto part of the USSR. The question was: Would the international community recognize their restored independence?
Mr. Jensen refers in this context to Mr. Yeltzin´s letter of August 24, 1991, “acclaiming”, as he says, the independence of the Baltic States. Mr. Yeltzin´s letter was certainly politically significant as was his appeal to Red Army soldiers, not to obey orders by their superiors to use force against the unarmed population of the Baltic countries in order to suppress their independence movements. Mr. Yeltzin was at this time President of the Russian Constituent Republic of the USSR. His letter was therefore de jure no substitute for formal recognition nor is it considered as such by the Balts. But I agree with Mr. Jensen on the positive role of Mr.Yeltzin in those days. Let us hope that History will reward him.
What really happened.
January 1991 was a crucial time – a turning point. Then the oligarchs in the Kremlin, sensing that they were on the losing side of the historical tide, made one desperate effort to remove the democratic governments and dissolve the parliaments of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.
I remember vividly a telephone call in the middle of the night from President Landsbergis, saying in essence: “If you mean what you have been saying, come immediately to Vilnius to demonstrate personally your commitment, in our hour of peril. The presence of a NATO foreign minister does matter”. In response I immediately set off on a visit to the capitals of all three Baltic States, a few days after “Bloody Sunday” in Vilnius.
I shall never be so old that I will forget those days in the squares and streets of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. There I witnessed nations unarmed and virtually alone, ready to defy any military might, in the name of human dignity, freedom and self-respect.
Next it was the turn of those, who in January 1991 wanted to drown the newborn independence movements in blood, to meet their Day of Reckoning in the hot streets of Moscow in August of that year. That was their beginning of the end; but the end of the beginning of the Baltic fight for freedom.
The scene that began on August 19 on the barricades in Moscow ended in a modest ceremony in Höfði-House in Reykjavík, where the four of us, the foreign ministers Meri, Jurkans, Saudargas and myself signed the relevant documents, confirming the unqualified restoration of diplomatic relations between Iceland and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Two days after the attempted coup d´etat in Moscow a NATO ministerial meeting was held in Brussels. The meeting was held in the shadow of the attempted coup. When the proceedings started there was still some measure of uncertainty as to the question of the success or failure of the coup. During an interval Secretary General, Manfred Woerner, was requested to try to reach direct contact with Boris Yeltzin in Mowcow and report back to the meeting. After less than half an hour the Secretary General returned with the following message from Yeltzin: The coup had failed. Mr. Yeltzin and the democratic forces were by now firmly in control. Yeltzin urged the NATO foreign minister to do everything in their power to support the democratic forces that were now in control of the situation.
The Moral Imperative
After the interval I set aside my prepared text and appealed directly to my colleagues to give serious consideration to the totally changed situation. I referred to what I had been saying on so many previous occasions: That there was no way that the West could reach an overall settlement with the Soviet Union on the unsolved consequences of the Second World War, without solving the Baltic issue.
Reunification of Germany and the liberation of Central- and Eastern Europe had already been achieved. What remained to be done was to reach a settlement on the restoration of independence of the Baltic nations. They were for more than half a century the victims of the Second World War. They had suffered a military invasion, occupation and annexation into the Soviet Empire, as a direct consequence of the Stalin-Hitler (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact, which now had been declared null and void.
The Baltic nations had borne the full brunt of Soviet imperial suppression through repeated deportations and application of a Russification policy. All this was in flagrant breach of the basic principles of international law and the code of conduct in interstate relations, that now was in the process of being negotiated. The West therefore had a moral obligation to insist on the restoration of justice for these nations, as well as other Central and East-European nations.
Politically speaking it was in my mind at the time imperative to act positively towards Yeltzin´s appeal for support for the democratic forces. The democratic forces were nowhere as strong as in the Baltics. The restoration of Baltic independence was therefore a powerful impetus to restoration of independence of other states, that had been incorporated by force into the Soviet Empire.
According to my memory the response to my speech in the North Atlantic Council was lukewarm, to say the least. On my return home from this meeting I “occupied” the Icelandic Embassy in Copenhagen. For many hours and late into the night I was in telephone contact with the capitals of the Baltic States. My message was simple: 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. We would then and there formally sign all the relevant documents, restoring full diplomatic relations between Iceland and the Baltic States and appoint ambassadors and general consuls on a reciprocal basis. This would soon, I argued, be followed up by others. This was a situation when we had to act incisively for the sequence of events to gather momentum irreversibly.
The foreign ministers, Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas arrived in Reykjavík on August 25th. On August 26th in Höfði-House, the same building that had housed the Reagan-Gorbachev summit-meeting in Reykjavík in 1986, five years earlier, and signaled the end of the Cold War, the four of us signed the relevant documents and made brief statements on the significance of what was being done.
Almost immediately the invitations started to pour in for the three foreign ministers to please visit European capitals to repeat what had happened in Reykjavík. The day after they headed for Copenhagen at the invitation of Mr. Jensen. The process had become irreversible. That was “mission accomplished”. The rest is History.
The picture Mr. Jensen chooses to draw up now and present to American and international readers of the Bush 1 administration´s policy vis a vis the Baltic independence struggle does not fit the facts either. Despite what he says about “ disscussions” at the highest level in the US about applying US military force to deter the planned Soviet crack-down in the Baltics, it remained just that – idle talk. In reality there was not the remotest chance that the US would have confronted Soviet power at that time, as the Baltic leaders knew full well in January 1991. I was there – the only Western foreign minister to visit Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn at that time – when they expected the worst. I knew from extensive discussions with the top leaders of all three countries at the time that they were under no such illusions.
On the contrary. They were under considerable pressure from the US “at the highest level” to settle for a compromise. They were repeatedly asked not to persist in their demands for full independence, lest it might undermine Gorbachev and bring back the hardliners. I know now what I did not know at the time, that the Estonian leaders were even asked to consider a sort of “Aaland-islands arrangement” for Estonia. And there were insidious attempts to sow discord within the ranks of Sajudis (the independence movement), by trying to picture Landsbergis as an irresponsible fanatic, with whom it was impossible to do business.
This was actually in line with official US policy. Remember President Bush´s “chicken-speech” in Kyiv, when he appealed to Ukrainians to keep the Soviet Union together, in the name of stability? And Secretary Baker´s trip to Yugoslavia appealing to Milosovich to do the same? It is not a coincidence that the US became nr. 48 among nations in recognizing the fact of the Baltic countries´ restored independence. It reflects their policy - or rather the lack of it.
We should not forget that at this time ( 1990-91) Boris Yeltzin was looked upon with suspicion and disapproval, if not outright hostility, by the Bush administration (for undermining Gorbachev) and even publicly humiliated during his visit to the US. The fact remains that the Bush 1 administration was visibly unprepared for the collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and had no coherent policy in place to deal with the dilemma, that the Baltics´ demands for independence presented to them.
Recently I have been repeatedly asked by my Baltic friends in leading positions if there is any truth in what US emissaries are now telling them, i.e. That Iceland´s action on the Baltic issue was actually US-inspired? Since the US was in a difficult position to speak up (the Gorbachev-partnership and the Gulf War in January 1991) they prompted Iceland to act on their behalf and with their tacit approval. I don´t know if Mr. Jensen acted on their behalf. But in the case of Iceland this is simply a fabrication, invented later on to try to make the US look better.
As for Mr. Jensen, I considered him – and still do – as an ally in a good cause. We did a good job. He has therefore no need to try to belittle his ally in order to preserve his legacy. He is in my opinion a hell of a good politician in his own right. And that noone can take away from him. Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson (The author was leader of The Icelandic Social-democratic Party 1984-96. He was Minister of Finance and Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade in three successive governments in 1987-95. He led Iceland´s negotiations with the EU on the European Economic Area 1989-93 and was the first foreign minister to formally recognize the restored independence of the Baltic States. He is an honorary citizen of Vilnius, Lithuania. His political biography, Tilhugalíf (Honeymoon) became a best-seller in Iceland in 2002)