An interview with Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, former minister for foreign affairs of Iceland, by Linas Jegelevicius.

Eftirfarandi viðtal birtist í sumarútgáfu Baltic Times 28. júní, 2018.
Baltic Times er gefið út á ensku í Riga og nær til 10 þúsund lesenda í Eystrasaltslöndunum þremur.

Q. On the cover of your new book „The Baltic Road to Freedom – Iceland´s Role“ the publishers say that you „took the lead in soliciting support for the Baltic Nations´ restoration of independence“. Isn´t this an exaggeration,forgive my bluntness?

A. To answer this question I prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. Western reaction to the restoration of independence of the Baltic states was first officially put to the test at a CSCE-conference in Copenhagen in June 1990. In attendance were all the foreign ministers of Europe and North-America. This was one of a series of high-level meetings on disarmament and inter-state relations after ending the Cold War. The foreign ministers of all three Baltic states (Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas) had been invited to plead their case. When they arrived the Soviets said: „Get them out – or we are out“. The Danish hosts capitulated. The only foreign minister of the 37 present to protest and take up the Baltic case was the Icelandic one. My spontanious speech is in the book. This was the first time I lent my voice officially to theirs, which had been silenced. I continued to do so in international fora, not the least within the UN, NATO and CSCE – till the very end. In January 1991, when Moscow had decided on a crack-down by force, Landsbergis issued an appeal to NATO foreign ministers to arrive in Vilnius to demonstrate support. I was the only one who responded and arrived on the scene. In August 1991, after the attempted coup d´état in Moscow had failed, there was a power vacuum in the Kremlin and confusion in the West. I used this window of opportunity to invite Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas to Reykjavík, where we formalised Iceland´s recognition of the Baltic States´ independence. If Iceland didn´t lead, other states certainly followed. The US managed to do it a day ahead of the Soviet Union.

Q. Are you saying the Western leaders at the time were against independence of the Baltic States?

A. Not necessarily. But they had a different agenda. They were negotiating the end of the Cold War in partnership with Gorbachev. There certainly was a lot at stake, including the peaceful reunification of Germany. Western leaders made the fateful mistake of staking the success or failure of their policy exclucively upon the political fate of a single individual, Mr. Gorbachev. When his vaunted reforms failed to materialize, the only thing left for him to do was to try to keep the Soviet Union together at all cost. That was incompatible with Baltic independence. That´s why leaders of the independence movements in all three Baltic countries were urged to settle for a compromise with their colonial masters, without preconditions. And president Bush sr. appealed infameously to the Ukranians in Kyiv „to keep the Soviet Union together“ in the name of peace and stability. Obviously, Western policy was in tatters.

Q. Why didn´t the Icelandic government follow the leaders, as small nations are supposed to do?

A. That is explained at lenght in my book. But part of the explanation is personal. I stem from a very political clan in my country. I am the third generation of socialdemocratic leaders, who have had to fight with Moscow- oriented communists in our movement right from the beginning (1916). Under the motto „know thy enemy“ my eldest brother studied in Moscow and did postgraduate work in Warshaw with Kolakowsky. I, myself, did postgratuate work at Harvard on comparative economic systems, including the Soviet economy. We knew it was in a mess. We soon realized that Gorbachev didn´t have any reform plan. We were well connected with dissidents in Eastern Europe. Our conclusion was that the Soviet Union was in an existential crisis, just like Western colonial powers had been in the post-war era. There was no need to postpone Baltic independence nor to sacrifice their aspirations for freedom in order to prolong the Soviet-Union´s death throes. Yeltsin proved our case.

Q. You claim that politicians in the West seem to be „chronically illiterate“ when it comes to understanding Russia. What is wrong about their perception of Russia?

A. I had in mind Churchill´s famous dictum about Russia as „an enigma, shrouded in mystery..“ Also the transcripts of the conversations of „the big three“ in Teheran ,when they were deciding upon the fate of the post-war world. Roosevelt comes across as weak-minded, superficial, ineffective. The only thing that seems to matter to him was how he could get the ethnic East-European vote in the US at the next elections. He appealed – to Stalin of all people – for help. Cynically, Stalin assured him of his sympathy! Churchill, having betrayed all his commitments to the Polish government in exile, consoled himself, it seems, by irrevelant rhetorical flights. The only one who was focused on the issues was the imperturbable grand master, generalissimo Stalin. He got everything he wanted, outmaneuvering his adversaries on almost every count.

I must admit that in the early nineties, after the fall of the Soviet Union, most of us were overly optimistic, believing that Russia would somehow manage to emerge from the chaos and the turmoil as some sort of a democracy, even with free press and an independent judiciary. We should have known better. Russia has definitely reverted to her past, as an authoritarian state under an all powerful leader, shielded by a kleptocracy. The slavophiles have completely thrashed the westernisers. The ideology is about a Eurasian utopia on restored Empire. The battleground is in the Ukraine.

Q. Isn´t it naive to expect Russia to pull out from Eastern Ukraine or the Crimea? If so, does it make any sense to keep the economic sanctions against Russia in place indefinitely?

A. Well, the imperialists in the Kremlin know that without Ukraine there is a slight chance that Russia will succeed in restoring her empire. They don´t want an allout war of annexation. Insted they are ready to wage a long drawn-out pseudo-war of attrition, in the hope that Ukraine will disintegrate from the strain. Then they will absorb the pieces. This is going to test the will and the political stamina of Western leaders. If they don´t have the stomach for it, there is no sense in continuing sanctions. If, on the other hand,the majority of Ukrainians really don´t want to be absorbed into the Eurasian quagmire, but wish to join the European Enlightenment, they have to act resolutely. In this they can learn from the Baltic states. They will have to depend upon firm longterm support from the West. A major Marshall plan for economic restoration as well as firm security guarantees. Is that likely? With a corrupt businessman in the White House, who thinks NATO is obsolete and with a motherly Chancellor in Berlin, who is a typical „wait-and-see politician“? Your guess is as good as mine. Is the Budapest memorandum of 1994 completely forgotten? In it Russia, the US and the UK „guaranteed Ukrainian borders“, when Ukraine agreed to give up all her nuclear weapons – the greatest act of nuclear disarmament in history. All for nothing?

Q. What can the Western world learn from the Baltic States in dealing with Russian aggression?

A. Your restored independence has by now lasted more than a quarter of a century – longer than the interwar period – and so far you have withstood the pressure. Why? Because having gained independence, there was a strong consensus across the political spectrum on how to consolidate it. By taking out an insurance policy in terms of security by joining NATO; and to return to the European family of nations in a democratic sphere of prosperity – The European Union.This has been successful so far. This is what the Ukrainians have to learn from your experience. And what Western leaders have to learn from their own post-war experience, is that deterrence worked. This success story was based on the foundations of the trans-Atlantic partnership. Russia, after all, is no match for a united front of the US and European Union, be it in terms of economic or military might. Admittedly, if we can no longer depend upon American leadership, this alliance is fatally weakened. But the Europeans will have to „take their fate into their own hands“, in the words of Chancellor Merkel. But is the European Union up to it?

Q. It seems however that the Baltic States lack unity and solidarity in acting as a single region. How do you see the issue of individuality and solidarity?

A. Look at Nordic cooperation. What you see is unity in diversity. Both Finland and Sweden claim non-alliance in terms of security (but increasingly work with NATO behind the scenes, because of Russian aggression). Norway, Denmark and Iceland are NATO-members. Norway and Iceland are outside the EU, but have access to the inner market through the EEA. Sweden and Denmark are EU-members, but outside the Euro-aerea. Only Finland is fully integrated in the EU cum EMU. Despite this diversity, our cooperation is very close on many levels: governments, parliaments, regions, municipalities, education and research, professional associations, youth organizations etc…. And by the way: the Nordic model is the only socio-economic model which emerged from the ideological conflicts of the last century into the globalized era of the 21st with flying colours. It is in the top rank. It is a good example to follow. I firmly believe in extending Nordic cooperaton at any level to the three Baltic neighbouring states. Together we have the means to maintain a thriving region which can successfully deal with the challanges that lie ahead.

Q. Do you believe the Baltics will flourish unscathed by the belligerent neighbour, Russia, during the next century and beyond? How is Russian aggression likely towards the Baltic in the future? In other words, can Russia turn into a Western-type democracy ever?

A. Last question first. Give them a millennium or so. But let us not overestimate the menace. In many respects Russia is a strangely backward country. I remember vividly a story told by president Mauno Koivisto of Finland. During the Stalinist industrialization frenzy in the thirties, Koivisto went as a young student hitch-hiking in the North-western region of Russia, where there are many Finno-ugric speaking people. He came to a village, completely untouched by what was going on in the industrial regions: No train, no roads, no electricity, no water, no sewage system. Nothing. Since then we have had a world war, industrialization projects, and technological revolutions, that have changed the face of the earth. Koivisto made it his habit during his long life to visit this village every ten years or so. Nothing changed. Nothing at all to the end of his days in a new century. end of Russia is vast. Who is going to fill up the empty spaces of Siberia during the rest of this century? The rise of China is going to affect Russia drastically. Can Russia stand alone? Or does she need allies in facing the challenges of the future? Putin´s current foreign policy is revanchist, but not rational in the long term. Among Russia´s choices is to make amends with the European Union. But then Russia will have to discard dreams of empire and settle for the existence of a normal country, which is not a threat to its neighborus. Until then, her neighbours will have to stick together and contain the bear by effective deterrent.

Q. Do you still keep in touch with the leaders of the independence struggle of the Baltic countries?

A. Landsbergis and Meri became friends for life. Without mentioning names I maintain contacts with politicians who are still active, mostly in Lithuania and Estonia. Less so in Latvia, perhaps because of the frequent changes in government there. But also because I have accepted invitations to teach at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Vilnius and at the Tartu University in Estonia. I taught masters degree courses on small nations in the international system and special courses on the Nordic model in comparative economics. This gave me an opportunity to gain deeper insights into their societies, in Lithuania and Estonia. Perhaps I feel most at home in Vilnius because the City Council has made me an honorary citizen – with free transport, tax-excemption and free burial ground, when time is up.