The Baltic road to freedom in the late 80s and early 90s coincided with the endgame of the Cold-War. It signifed both a national reawakening and a democratic uprising. The outside world was impressed by the emergence of powerful grassroots movements, which demonstrated their capacity to mobilize the will of the people – remember the human chain in August 1989? This was democracy in action. The leaders of the independence movements had therefore every reason to expect, that they would be welcomed with open arms back into the family of European democracies.

But they were in for a rude awakening. Instead they were admonished for irresponsibility and even labeled as „spoilers of the peace“. They were told to behave responsibly for the greater good of all. And advised to settle for a compromise with their colonial masters, without any preconditions. Wouldn´t some form of home-rule within the USSR be good enough?

1. Spoilers of the Peace?

Why spoilers of the peace? Because if you were „allowed“ to leave the Soviet Union – which you never joined legally – the most likely sequence of events was often pictured like this: Our partner in ending the Cold War – Mr. Gorbachev – 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 Europe, since the hardliners would not hesitate in applying military force to keep the Soviet Union together.

There was a lot at stake. Western leaders were right on this score. Major disarmament agreements, both nuclear and conventional, were at stake; Reduction in armed forces, withdrawal of occupation troups and end of the arms race – the peace dividend itself was at stake. Also the peaceful reunification of Germany and acceptance of united Germany´s continued membership in NATO. The liberation of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe. At long last the second World War was coming to an end in Eastern Europe. A New World Order was in the making. There was indeed a lot at stake.

All of this – it was presumed – depended on the political fate of a single individual, Michael Sergeivich Gorbachev. Nothing should be said or done that could undermine his position as our partner in ending the Cold War. This mantra had somehow become official Western policy. If that meant keeping the Soviet Union together, so be it.

By breaking out of the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations placed the Western leaders squarely upon the horns of a dilemma of their own creation. This was inevitably the (logical) consequence of theirs having put all their stakes for the success of their policy for ending the Cold War, on the political fate of a single individual. – What a fateful mistake!

This is why president Bush gave his infamous „Chicken speech“ in Kyiv. In it he appealed to the people of Ukraine“not to succumb to extreme nationalism“, but to keep the Soviet Union together – for the sake of peace and stabilty. I bet this message would have sounded like music in the ears of a man named Putin, had it been offered one of those days!

This is why Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterand wrote a joint letter to President Landsbergis, urging him to postpone the implementation of Lithuania´s declaration of independence of March 11, 1990.

2. An impertinent question.

When recounting this story, almost a quarter century later, many questions remain unanswered. The leaders of the West found themselves facing a tough choice. Should all the afore-mentioned benefits of ending the Cold War be sacrificed by supporting the small Baltic nations´dreams of restored independence? Or should they – in the name of maintaining peace and stability – sacrifice the dreams of those small nations – at least for the time being? Although it looks like it, it may be a bit more subtle. Perhaps those leaders were not thinking in terms of sacrificing anything of importance?

Keep in mind that the Baltic nations had disappeared from the political radar screen of the outside world 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 ministeral council, that he countered by asking: „Haven´t these peoples always belonged to Russia anyway?“

If this was really the accepted view in the chancelleries 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 also the US – were all ex-colonial powers. The US suffered a devastating civil war to prevent the break-up of the union. I am not for a moment suggesting that the American Civil War, with the aim of emancipating the slaves, should be compared with imperial aggression with the aim of enslaving free nations. But, preventing the break-up of the union was nonetheless the common principle.

The United Kingdom today is in the grip of an existential crisis – as is Spain – in mortal fear of the break-up of the union. Colonial powers – think of the British, the French and the Spanish 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, just as you did. But under certain circumstances the concept of „solidarity of small nation“ may have some practial relevance, against all odds, when the high and mighty fail.

3. The two faces of Mr. Gorbachev.

As already indicated, it was the conventional wisdom among Western leaders that all the vaunted benefits for ending the Cold War were dependent upon Gorbachev´s remaining in power in the Kremlin. Anything that might endanger his position, was therefore to be condemned. If your breaking away from the Soviet Union was incompatible with Gorbachev´s remaining in power, it had to be avoided or postponed. Thus, the fate of the three small nations had to be given up into the hands of the Tsar in a big power game – for the greater good.

In Germany, in particular, „Gorbamania“, as it was called, was all the rage. German leaders were all agreed that the peaceful unification of Germany and united Germany´s continued membership of NATO, were entirely dependent upon Gorbachev´s good will. The German government had paid millions of deutsche marks into the Kremlin´s empty coffers to pay for the relocation of the Soviet occupation troups from German soil. Mr. Gorbachev´s popularity among Germans had reached such hights, according to opinion polls, that he could have been voted as chancellor of Germany, had he been a candidate. Without him everything would be lost.

In this context we should acknowledge that the Singing Revolution could hardly have gathered momentum, were it not for Gorbachev´s policy of glasnost and perestroika – his signatory trade-marks for opening up and structural reform. Even if the opening up was both timid and limited and the structural reforms never really materialized, Mr. Gorbachev, by ultimately refusing to use force to keep the Soviet Union together, made it all possible. But, by doing so, he also sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Why? Because the Soviet Unon could only be kept together by force.

For a while, in January 1991, Mr. Gorbachev was teetering on the brink of starting a terrible bloodbath in the capital cities of the Baltic states. At the very last moment he retreated back from the brink, admittedly after his troups had committed cold blooded murder of unarmed civilians in Vilnius and in Riga. But by yielding he saved his soul and his place in history as a man of peace. For this very same reason he is venerated in the West, but at the same time detested in his home country. He is even considered by many Russians, who share Mr. Putin´s dreams of restoring the empire to its former glory, almost as a traitor.

4. How to make history.

Let us compare for a moment the fate of two communist leaders who, at first glance, had little in common. Both were inheritors of tyrants. And both came to power facing economic paralysis and political turmoil.

Mr. Gorbachev dreamed of being able to reform the communist system by tinkering with it here and there at the margins. It turned out to be impossible. He failed utterly. The centralized command economy was disfunctional, wasteful and inefficient. There was no driving force to keep it going. It lacked the dynamics of technological change. It was non-competitive. Weak attempts at imitating the dynamic market economies in the West, proved to be futile. The system was unsustainable. A relick of the past. It couldn´t deliver the goods.

The political system was rotten to the core by corruption. The power elite itself – the nomenclatura – had lost the appetite for applying brute force. And in the absense of enforcement and suppression, there was nothing to keep the union together. This was in the end Mr. Gorbachev´s domestic legacy. Political turmoil, economic stagnation and ideological bankruptcy. Ordinary Russians, in their daily lives, were left with poverty, shortages, empty plates – and political humiliation, to boot.

Deng Xiao Peng, like all Chinese leaders, shared the mortal fear of the dissolution of the Middle Kingdom. But he possessed the uncanny wisdom from long experience, that “it does not matter if the cat is black or white, if it still catches the mice“. He insisted on keeping the centralized system of coercion and control intact. But he introduced economic reform in stages. He started with the peasants, giving them back de facto control over the land they cultivated and the marketing of their products. Then he established free enterprise zones, opening the gates for foreign direct investment and technological transfers.

It worked. Now, for a quarter of a century, we have observed the greatest economic experiment of all time, which has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese from poverty to middle-class living standards in less than three decades. Deng assumed that political reform – meaning democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights – would come later with greater prosperity and higher standards of education. That remains to be seen, but the experience, so far, has proven, that Deng was right. Whether the Middle Kingdom can in the long run contain the tensions inherent in such a gigantic transformation, also remains to be seen. But this comparison with post-communist Russia is undeniably in China´s favor.

5. Why Iceland?

I am often asked why Iceland didn´t simply accept the conventional wisdom of the leaders of the West on the Baltic issue? Certainly there was no vital national interest involved. On the contrary: Iceland was dependent upon the Soviet Union for oil and gas – the life blood of any developed economy – since the British placed an embargo upon Iceland during the Cod Wars in the fifties. And didn´t we know that small nations are supposed to seek shelter with and follow the leadership of the major powers?

All of this is well known. But nonetheless we were reluctant followers. The leaders of the West were obviously pursuing their own agenda. Apart from the envisaged benefits of ending the Cold War, the US needed Soviet acquiescence for the invasion of Irak (which was a Soviet ally) in January 1991. For the German government the peaceful unification of their country was naturally paramount. If that agenda did not include the restored independence of the Baltic nations – that was bad luck for them. There was simply too much at risk – it was held – by allowing the restoration of independence of the Baltic countries to disrupt the Gorbachev partnership. On that score, Western leadership was more or less united.

We simply disagreed.When it had become the declared policy of the Western democracies on ending the Cold War, that the Soviet Union had to be kept together at all cost – in the name of peace and stability – it should have dawned upon thinking persons, that something was seriously wrong. What was wrong? First, this naive infatuation with Mr. Gorbachev was both ill-conceived and downright dangerous. It was absurd to stake the success of our policy for ending the Cold War upon the political fate of a single individual. It could not be taken for granted, that the hardliners would be returned to power, even if Mr. Gorbachev were to be deposed. Subsequent events were soon to prove us right on that score.

We were convinced that the Soviet system itself was in the throes of existential crisis, for which their leaders had no solutions. The empire was in the process of falling apart, just as had been the fate of the British, French and other European empires after World War ll. The political life expectancy of the Soviet system was greatly exaggerated. It was not a question of if the Soviet Union would fall apart – the only question was when.

How come that we dared assume that we had a more reliable take on political reality within the Soviet system than the CIA? Well, it so happens that my elder brother was a graduate of Moscow University and had done graduate work in both Warsaw and Krakow. Another brother of mine had studied for some time at Charles University in Prague. Both had maintained contacts with dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic countries. I myself had, as a Fulbright-scholar, had done research in the field of comparative economic systems at Harvard, in the late seventies. We were all convinced that the Soviet system itself was unsustainable. Its demise was only a question of time.

Contrary to Putin – who is on record saying that „the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the 20th century“ – I was convinced then – and I still am – that the dissolutin 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 all 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 not only a shameful betrayal – but also a blatant mistake.

6. On the solidarity of small nations.

This is why, when in June 1990 the newly appointed foreign ministers of the restored Baltic states, were denied access to an OSCE-conference on human rights in Copenhagen, that I lent my voice to theirs, which had been silenced. I spoke only on the Baltic issue. According to a transcript from the Danish Foreign Ministry I said i.a.the following:

„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 rights of nations are indivisible. Those universal human values can not 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 now been recognized even 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 embrazed 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 in Geneva. As I headed for my seat, a burly heavyweight shook his fist at me, shouting: „Shame on you, Mr. Hannibalsson – there was not a word of truth in what you said about the Soviet Union in your speech“. This was Mr. Yuri Rhesetov, a Soviet expert on human rights – if that is not an oximoron – and later Russian ambassador in Reykjavík. With the US representative ashamed and the Soviet one loosing his temper, I felt I must be on the right path!

This is also why, in January 1991, I responded, alone among NATO foreign ministers, to the appeal of Landsbergis to arrive on the scene in Vilnius, to demonstrate moral support. During this visit I came to the capital cities of all three countries, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. The tanks were on the move. Special troups had occupied buildings deemed to have military significance.

Having been with you during those crucial days and nights, I realized why the Soviet military retreated back from the brink at the very last moment. It was because of the unified response by the people, standing there unarmed, in the name of human dignity and freedom, facing the barrels of their guns. If the Soviet army would not have been restrained at the last moment , there would have been a terrible bloodbath in the streets of the Baltic capitals. At the last moment the Nobel-peace prize winner saved his soul and his place in history. At the same time he proved, that the Soviet Union could not be kept together, except by force. And, by the way, henceforth, Western policy on the Baltic countries´ restored independence, was in tatters.

Later on, I am told, US emissaries have explained their persistent belief in the peaceful mission of the Soviet Union by refering to the global commitments and responsibilities of the super-power. But in spite of appearances to the contrary, they had supported the Baltic independence struggle – behind the scenes – by directing their client state – Iceland – to act on their behalf. I take this back-mirror history to be a belated recognition that we were right but they were wrong. Nonetheless, I must confess, that this attempt at political remote control, somehow, passed my notice at the time.

7. Can small nations change the world?

I have never been serioulsy afflicted by a minority complex for being a representative of a small nation. During my political carrier, I have often had the opportunity to observe the leaders of major powers at close quarters – without being overly impressed. I also know several examples of how small nations can think big. In conclusion here is one example:

During the latter half of the 20th century many coastal states – all of them small states – gradually came to realize that freedom of the high seas was threatening the future of fisheries and the preservation of marine resources.

The principle of the freedom of the high seas was regarded as being of vital interest by the major naval- and colonial powers. It was meant to secure free passage by warships on the high seas and to give them access to far-away places on the globe. In fact the three mile limit, then almost universally accepted, took measure of the reach of the cannon on board of British gunboats. Hence „gun-boat diplomacy“. The British declared this to be international law.

After the SecondWorld War fishing fleets on the high seas had expanded enormously and their catch-capacity multiplied. Many fish stocks were in danger of extinction. The oceans were increasingly being turned into dumping grounds for industrial waste and urban refuge, endangering vital eco-systems. Scientific research and growing consciousness of the need to protect natural resources, added impetus for the claims of coastal states to an extended economic zone.

If coastal states obtain jurisdiction over their exclusive economic zones, it becomes their vital national interest to protect the marine resources themselves. They will have an incentive to pursue sustainable fisheries. This is based on the theory of the „tragedy of the Commons“. This stipulates that if access to natural resources is open to all and noone is, in the name of property rights, responsible for protection and maintainance, then exploitation will continue until the resource is depleted. Thus everyone loses. This has been happening on the high seas for a long time. And remember that the oceans are almost three quarters of the surface of the earth and the lungs of our eco-system.

Iceland was one of the few coastal states whose vital national interest was to pursue sustainable fisheries. A few small states which shared those interests formed an informal alliance within the framework of the United Nations. They fought for the expansion of their exclusive economic zones in stages up to a 200 mile limit. Iceland began in 1954 by extending its jurisdiction from 3 miles to 4. In 1958 from 4 miles to 12. In 1972 from 12 miles to 50. And finally in 1975 from 50 to 200 miles. On every occasion the British sent in her Majesty´s navy to protect their illegal fishing fleets.

In 1954 the British imposed a trade embargo on Iceland. As a consequence – in the context of the Cold War – the Soviet Union became an important market for Iceland´s exports and Iceland became dependent for oil and gas on the Soviet Union. This conflict between Iceland and the UK became known under the name of the „Cod Wars“. Our membership in NATO and the NATO alliance´s security interests in the North Atlantic, during the Cold War, sufficed to prevent the British from applying full force.

In the end this informal alliance of small states on four continents, which was up against the deep rooted interests of major naval- and colonial powers, achieved victory against all odds by having the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) adopted by a majority of member states in the UN General Assembly in 1982.

When the foreign ministers of the majority of UN- member states came together in Kingston, Jamaica, to confirm the Law of the Sea Convention as the binding internatonal law, this informal alliance of small states could declare victory against the high and mighty. This is no doubt the most significant inernational law so far, based on thorough scientific research, to protect a vital part of the earth´s eco-system. We still have to wait and see if the Paris-accords on climate change will turn out to be a binding obligation rather than yet another piece of wishful thinking.


I cite this as an example of how small nations dared go against the conventional wisdom of major powers, concerning an international issue with wide reaching ramifications. The same thing happened when small nations got together in support of your independence struggle, when political leadership of the major powers failed. In both cases the world was a little better for it.

There is no need for small nations to shield themselves behind some sort of a minority complex. When it comes to international comparison on vital issues such as the quality of life, good governance, absence of corruption, access to health care, access to unspoilt nature, standards of education and equality of the sexes as well as of income and wealth, small countries are at the top of the list. And small nations can think big as shown by undeniable examples.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions from the historical record.