When the news of the Seimas declaration on the restoration of Lithuania´s independence reached Reykjavík, our parliament – Alþingi, the oldest parliament in the world – spontaneously adopted a unanimous resolution, supporting the declaration. An unequivocal message of this kind from the legislative body of one state to another is of course de facto recognition, if not de jure. It shows that Iceland was already at that time ready to accord full recognition to Lithuania´s independence. But that is not the point. In order to make the act of recognition politically significant – and irreversible – we had to make sure that other states followed suite. The purpose, of course, was to ensure the recognition of the international community, in order to enhance the security of Lithuania´s statehood.
January 1991 was crucial – a turning point. Those in charge at the Kremlin had decided to make one last desperate effort at a crack-down, using force to remove the Seimas and suppress the independence movement at whatever cost. I happened to be the only representative of a foreign government who responded to president Landsbergis´ appeal to arrive on the scene and demonstrate moral support. During those fateful days I visited all three of the Baltic capitals. I realized that should the Soviets apply military force, the result would be a bloodbath. Perhaps secretary Gorbachev realized this in time, before he was accorded the Nobel peace prize in Oslo. But I also realized that the leaders of the independence movements of the Baltic countries stood alone in their fateful struggle. Germany concentrated single-mindedly on the peaceful reunification of Germany for which they needed Gorbachev´s cooperation. For the US at the time the top priority was to solicit Gorbachev´s support or tacit acquiescence in “operation desert storm” – the first Gulf War. As a matter of fact the Bush One administration was strangely unprepared for the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Empire. They declared secretary Gorbachev to be a partner in democratic reform. They warned against anything that might undermine Gorbachev. President Bush gave his famous “chicken speech” in Kyiv where he appealed to the Ukranians, to keep the Soviet Union together in the name of stability. Secretary Baker gave the same message to Milosevich in Belgrade. This was clearly not the correct timing for securing firm Western support for the peaceful and democratic revolution in the Baltic countries
The hardliners in the Kremlin came to our rescue. The failed attempt at coup d´Etat in Moscow August 19th, 1991, brought Boris Jeltsin to the fore and meant the end of the Gorbachev era. At a Nato ministerial meeting in Brussels, I appealed strongly to my colleagues to seize this opportunity to support the democratic independence movements in the Baltic States. There was no immediate response. But at this time I was absolutely convinced that the time to act was now. This was the window of opportunity for which we had been waiting. We had to act now for the sequence of events to gather momentum irreversibly. I issued invitations to Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas to come to Reykjavík as soon as possible. On August 26th in Höfdi-House, the same building that had housed the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in 1986, five years earlier, and signaled the beginning of 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. The day after they headed for Copenhagen at the invitation of my colleague, Mr. Jensen, to repeat what had happened in Reykjavík. The process had gathered momentum irreversibly.
Concerning Western policy at the time vis-à-vis the restoration of the independence of the Baltic countries some countries, not the least the US, feel the need to rearrange the facts and to improve the image. The facts are that the Bush One administration had no coherent policy in place to deal with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Support for Gorbachev (the status quo) took precedence over principled support for democracy and national self-determination. This may explain why US emissaries are, I am told, now maintaining that Iceland acted as it did as a US proxy. I can tell you, sincerely, that this has nothing to do with reality but everything to do with image repairing.
It would be very impolite of me to try to interpret the policies of other Nordic States at this time vis-à-vis the struggle for restored independence by the Estonians, the Latvians and the Lithuanians. I prefer to leave it to themselves to explain their analysis and their policies. But I noticed in reviews of Edgar Savisaar´s biography in the Finnish press that the critics thought that Iceland´s contribution was vastly overrated, since Iceland acted without risk and was located far away. Well, they forget that the Soviet Union was a major trading partner with Iceland and sole supplier of oil and gas. The Icelandic fishing industry, the mainstay of the economy, was totally dependent upon it. When Moscow recalled their ambassador in March 1991 and threatened to cut off their supply of oil the leaders of the Icelandic fishing industry certainly thought that Iceland´s support for Baltic independence was in fact not entirely without risk. But then again Iceland is geographically far away from the Baltic Sea and such details may pass unnoticed.
March 11th, 2006,
Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson