1. Ending the Cold War
Let me at the outset present you with two quotations – just to start us thinking. Here is the first one:
„The dissolution of the Soviet Union is the greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the 20th century“.
From the point of view of a KGB officer in occupied Germany, Putin´s lament for the fate of the Soviet Union is understandable. After all, didn´t British, French and Spanish colonialists firmly believe in the civilizing mission of their empires?
Here is another quotation – perhaps a bit more surprising:
„I appeal to you – the people of Ukraine – not to succumb to extreme nationalism, but to keep the Soviet Union together – for the sake of peace and stability“.
Who was this firm believer in the peaceful mission of the Soviet Union? Well, he was was none other than the president of the United States – the founder of the Bush dynasty – addressing the Verkovna Rada in Kyiv in 1991, a few months before the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
I bet this would have sounded like music to the ears of Mr. Putin, had it been repeated one of those days, perhaps on the occasion of the May 9 victory celebrations in the Red Square.
This raises some sobering questions. What was the Cold War all about? Freedom vs. Totalitarianism? How come, that during the last lap of this arms race, everything had been turned upside down? Here was the leader of the democratic West, appealing to the captive nations, to accept their fate – so that we might enjoy peace and stability.
2. The Baltic Road to Freedom
The Baltic road to freedom signaled not only a national reawakening. Those three small nations wanted to restore their independent states, which had suffered invasion, military occupation and annexation into the USSR. But it was a democratic revolution as well. Your leaders therefore had every reason to expect, that they would be welcomed back into the family of European democracies.
But they were in for a rude awakening. They were, as a matter of fact, treated as unwelcome intruders, admonished for irresponsibility and even labeled as „spoilers of the peace“. They were told to settle for a compromise with their Kremlin masters, without any preconditions.
Why? Because your exit from „the evil empire“ – in the words of Reagan – could endanger the peace. If you were to be „allowed“ to leave the Soviet Union, the sequence of events was often pictured like this: Mr. Gorbachev – our partner in ending the Cold War – would not survive the break-up of the empire. Then the hardliners would be back. That would mean a return to the Cold War. In the worst case scenario, it could even mean the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe, to prevent the captive nations from breaking free.
Western leaders were right on this score – there was a lot at stake: The liberation of the nations of Central- and Eastern Europe; the peaceful reunificaton of Germany; disarmament agreements, both nuclear and conventional; reduction in armed forces and witdrawal of occupation troops.
In short: Those were indeed serious issues involving war or peace. And it all depended – it was presumed – on the political fate of a single individual – Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev. He had therefore to be kept in power , at all cost. If that meant to keep the Soviet Union together, so be it. Should the leaders of the West allow unknown rebels on the margin of the Soviet empire to put all of this at risk?
By breaking out of the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations placed the Western leaders squarely on the horns of a dilemma of their own creation. This was the (logical) consequence of theirs´ having put all their stakes on the fate of a single individual. What a fateful mistake!
This is why president Bush gave his infamous „Chicken Speech“ in Kyiv.
This is why Chancellor Kohl and Mitterand wrote a joint letter to Landsbergis, urging him to postpone the implementation of Lithuania´s declaration of independence .
This is why the leaders of your restored democracies were turned away from conferences, dealing with the „New World Order“ to be established after the Cold War, and not even allowed to plead their case.
This is why the official rhetoric about democracy, national self-determination and the rule of law contradicted the realpolitik actually pursued by the major powers.
And this is why Iceland – in the name of solidarity of small nations – tried to solicit support among the small nations for the Baltic cause, since the leaders of the Western alliance were obviously beholden to a different agenda.
3. January 1991
January 1991 was a crucial time – a turning point. The hardliners in the Kremlin – on whose support Mr. Gorbachev increasingly depended – decided to take Bush at his word and prevent the imminent secession of the Baltic nations from the Soviet Union – by force, if necessary.
The justification given at the time sounds familiar today, in light of current events in Ukraine. 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.
The tanks started rolling. Special troups occupied strategic positions. The killing machine started doing its job. Everything was set for a crack-down on the democratic forces and „regime change“ – imposed by Moscow.
I was the only foreign minister from a NATO country to respond to an appeal to arrive on the scene to demonstrate solidarity in your hour of peril. I visited all three capitals during those crucial days. There I personally witnessed your captive nations, unarmed and virtually alone, ready to defy military might, in the name of human dignity, freedom and self-respect.
Why did the Soviets chicken out at the last moment? Because, belatedly, they realized that those nations would not give up. This demonstration of political will and solidarity was enough to convince the Nobel peace-prize laureate in the Kremlin that his moment of truth had arrived. By averting the bloodbath at the last moment, Mr. Gorbachev saved his soul – and his place in history.
It was proven the hard way, in the streets of the Baltic capitals that, contrary to Western perception, the Soviet Union could only be kept together by force. That was hardly a contribution towards peace and stability. From then on Western policy on the Baltic issue was in tatters.
History has taught us, that when the power elite of a dictatorship, or a totalitarian police state, has lost its appetite for violence – it means the beginning of the end.
4. The end of empire.
On August 19th 1991, started a sequence of events, which ended in the recognition of your restored independence by the international community and – in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The scene began on the barricades in the streets of Moscow; it ended in a modest ceremomy in Höfði-House in Reykjavík, less that a week later, August 26th. 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. Let me briefly retrace the sequence of events those fateful days:
The attempted coup d´état in Moscow began on August 19th.
Two days later the North Atlantic Council met in Brussels. The meeting was held in the shadow of the attempted coup d´état. When the proceedings started, noone knew for certain, who was in charge in Moscow. During an interval, secretary general Manfred Woerner, was requested to reach direct contact with Boris Yeltsin in Moscow.
Within less than half an hour the secretary general returned with the following message from Yeltsin: The coup had failed. The democratic forces were firmly in control. Yeltsin urged the NATO foreign ministers in Brussels to do everything in their power to support the democratic forces in the Soviet Union.
When it was my turn to speak, I set aside my prepared text. I appealed directly to my colleagues to give serious consideration to the totally changed situation. The old refrain, that nothing should be said or done that might undermine Gorbachev and bring back the hardliners, was no longer valid. The hardliners had already tried their hand and failed.
President Gorbachev, who by now had the sole remaining aim to keep the Soviet Union together under a new constitution, had also failed. The new leader was Boris Yeltsin. He had already, as president of the Russian Duma, appealed to Russian soldiers not to use force against the unarmed population in the Baltic countries.
The Congress of Peoples´ deputies of the Soviet Union had already declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact null and void. Thus, the new Russian leader had acknowledged, that the occupation and annexation of the Baltic nations into the Soviet Union, had been illegal.
The Baltic nations had borne the full brunt of Soviet imperial suppression, through repeated deportations and enforcement of a russification policy. This was in flagrant breach of the basic principles of international law and the code of conduct in interstate relations, which now was being negotiated. We therefore had a moral obligation to insist on the restoration of independence of the Baltic nations, no less than for the other Central- and East European nations.
5. Mission accomplished.
The response to my speech was polite silence. 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 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, where we would sign the relevant documents, restoring full diplomatic relations between Iceland and the three Baltic states. This would soon, I argued, be followed by others. Now we had to use this window of opportunity 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 Reykjavík on August 25th. On August 26th in Höfði House, the venue of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit five years earlier, the four of us signed the relevant 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 – who had formerly been turned away from diplomatic gatherings as potential „spoilers of the peace“ – be persuaded to visit European capitals as soon as possible, to repeat what had been done in Reykjavík?
The process had become irreversible. For me that was mission accomplished. The US managed to follow suit a few weeks later, just ahead of the Soviet Union. A few months later the Soviet Union no longer existed.
6. An impertinent question.
When recounting this story, almost a quarter century later, many questions remain unanswered. One of them is this one: Were the leaders of Western democracy really so callous as to be ready to sacrifice your legitimate claims to restored independence – for political gain in dealing with the Soviets? Although it looks like it, it is perhaps a little more subtle.
Keep in mind that the Baltic nations had dissappeared from the political radar screen for almost half a century. In that sense they had become „ forgotten nations“. I remember, when pleading the Baltic case with one of my colleagues in the NATO ministerial council, he answered: „ Haven´t these peoples always belonged to Russia, anyway“?
If this was really the accepted view in the chanceleries of Europe, Western leaders were, presumably, not thinking in terms of sacrificing anything. Bear in mind that most of those major powers in the West – the U.K., France, Spain and even the US – were all ex-colonial powers. The US suffered a devastating civil war to prevent the break-up of the union. The United Kingdom today is in the grip of existential crisis, in mortal fear of the break-up of the union. Colonial powers – think of the British and the French empires – have fought ferocious wars trying to prevent the break-up of their empires.
The leaders of major powers with a colonial past are not to be expected to be at the forefront in defending the rights of small nations to national self-determination. Rarely, have small nations been liberated by a benevolent act of major powers. They simply have to liberate themselves. Under such circumstances, the concept of „solidarity of small nations“ may have some practical relevance, against all odds.
7. Why Iceland?
Sometimes I am asked: How come Iceland plucked up the courage to go against the „conventional wisdom“, accepted by all the major Western leaders, on an issue which, seemingly, did not concern our national interest? Well, various commentators have given a number of explanations.
There are those who say that far-away Iceland, unlike e.g. neighbouring countries, sharing a border with the Soviet Union, could act with impunity, not having to fear any repercussions. This hypothesis is patently untrue.
Since the time of the Cod Wars against the British (1954-76), when Iceland was, along with other small coastal states, fighting for extending the EEZ of coastal states to 200 miles and Britain reacted by both naval intervention and a trade embargo on Iceland, the Soviet Union intervened. Since then all the fuel for our fishing fleet, as well as land-and air transport – the life blood of any economy – came from the Soviet Union. We therefore had to take a calculated risk. But admittedly, due to the economic decline of the USSR and the openess of other more lucrative markets, the risk was smaller than it seemed.
Then there is another explanation, given ex post facto by the US State Department. When explaining the awkward failure of Western policy vis a vis Baltic independence, US emissaries recount the global obligations of the superpower in pursuing the end of the Cold War – in partnership with Soviet leaders. But now they say they acted more firmly, behind the scenes, by directing their client state – Iceland – to do what it did.
In other words: Iceland is said to have been a US-pawn in the endgame of the Cold War. The only fault with this hypothesis is, that although, during my seven years as foreign minister of Iceland, I worked with four secretaries of state (George Schultz, James Baker, Larry Eagleburger and Warren Christofer), not a single one of them ever even discussed the Baltic issue with me.
Thinking back I realise that the real reason for my action was different. It simply was my deep conviction that the Western infatuation with Mr. Gorbachev was illconceived and dangerous and based on a fundamentally faulty analysis of political reality inside the Soviet Union.
I was convinced that the Soviet system itself was in the throes of an existential crisis, for which their leaders had no solution. The empire was in the process of falling apart, just as had been the fate of the British and French empires after the World War II. Contrary to Putin, I was convinced that the dissolution of the Soviet Union should be welcomed as perhaps the most beneficial event of the 20th century. If it needed a little push from the Baltic nations, so much the better.
What had the Cold War been about if not the liberation of the captive nations? I was appalled listening to Western leaders preach to the subjugated peoples that they should accept their fate as captive nations – so that we in the West could enjoy peace and stability. To my ears this was both a shameful betrayal – and a blatant mistake.
8. What can be learnt from all this?
Looking back, over the time-span of a quarter century, what are the most important lessons to be learnt from the Baltic post-independence experience?
The lessons of history are deeply rooted in the psyche of the Baltic nations. When the Second World War broke out, you were left alone and unprepared to deal with your fate. That is why it was uppermost in the minds of your political leaders, right from the start, to take out a trustworthy insurance policy against external threats in the future; and to consolidate your fragile independence by returning to the European family of nations.
This meant joining the European Union and NATO at the earliest possible opportunity.
During the crucial period of transition from a centralized command economy to a diversified market economy; and from a totalitarian state to a pluralistic democracy – it is invaluable, if you can rely on positive external support. When formulating policy and making important decisions, you had an overall guiding principle: Would this policy or that decision fulfill the entrance requirements for the EU and NATO, or not?
Although the EU is not a military organization, nontheless it provides the member states with the „soft power“ projected by the most important player globally in international trade.
NATO, on the other hand, is a military alliance, open to democratic societies and providing them with collective security vis a vis external threats. During half a century of Cold War this US-led military alliance proved sufficiently strong to deter any aggression. I bet it still is.
This, to my mind, is the most important lesson to be learnt from the Baltic post-independence experience: Right from the start, the political leadership stood united, across all political deviding lines, behind the long-term goal of joining both the EU and NATO.
Those ultimate goals enjoyed solid support among the majority of the populations. This unity of purpose gave your domestic politics – despite the political turmoil and social upheaval of the most difficult transition period – the internal discipline needed to push through and stand by difficult, and even unpopular, decisions. This steadfastness of purpose and long-term strategy, helped all three Baltic nations to pull through.
This has helped make the Baltic post-independence experience a success story.
Despite ethnic devisions, economic hardship and political strain, you have managed to build functioning democratic institutions. You have shown the self-discipline required to fulfill the entrance qualifications of both multi-national organizations, the EU and NATO. Your economies have successfully been integrated into the inner market of the European Union. You are well on your way of catching up with your more prosperous neighbours.
As fully fletched members of the North Atlantic Alliance you have the full force of NATO behind you in standing up to hostile military threats to your security.
This is a success story from which others can learn a lot.
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian political elite, failed utterly in securing and consolidating their newborne independence by implementing structrural reforms, making them fit for membership in the Western alliance.
Now it is time that you, the Baltic leaders, exert your influence within the EU and NATO in support of the Ukrainian people, who are now engulfed in an existential crisis. You have the knowledge and the experience. You speak the language and share the experience of having had to cohabit with your overbearing neighbour. You are the experts. Now you have to share your post-independence experience with the Ukrainians on how to make the transition from totalitarianism to democracy.
You know how to do it. Now it is time for you to help those who need it.