Q: Why Iceland?
A: The first contacts were made in early 1989. I assumed the post of Minister for foreign affairs and external trade in September 1988 – a position I held until mid-year 1995. The Estonians came first. Endel Lippmaa, a distinguished biophysicist was the first one. Next two representatives from Sajudis, Emanuelis Zingeris, a long time chairman of the Seima‘s foreign affairs committee and Ramunas Bogdanas, special foreign affairs advisor to Landsbergis, came to Iceland, having first solicited support in Norway. They were well received.
Through our conversations we realised that they were facing a dilemma: Western leaders – President Bush, Chancelor Kohl, President Mitterrand and the Iron lady Mrs Thatcher – were utterly preoccupied with ending the Cold War in partnership with Gorbachev. The mainstream view and the repeated mantra was: Don‘t say or do anything that may endanger Gorbachev‘s hold on power, because then the hardliners (meaning real communists) will return. Then everything will be lost. This policy – if we can use that word about this attitude – excluded the possibility of the annexed Baltic nations breaking out of the Soviet Union. The Baltic independence movements were therefore potential „spoilers of the peace“. They were told to settle for a compromise with their colonial masters, strengthened home rule, yes, but Western support for restored sovereignty, no.
On this, all Western leaders were unanimous. Most of the leaders of other Western nations followed the herd in following the leaders. There were two exceptions: Myself and the Danish foreign minister Uffe Ellemann Jensen. I thought it was unwise, to say the least, to put all the stakes of the success of Western policy on the political fate of a single individual. Not the least when it should have been obvious to all that Gorbachev‘s reform attempts were going nowhere and he was becoming increasingly dependent upon the hardliners themselves.
Our dissent was first put to the test at a CSCE conference in Copenhagen in June 1990. This meeting was specifically on human rights, one of a series of meetings, with the aim of ending the Cold War and laying the foundations for a new security order. My Danish colleague, Mr Jensen, had invited the newly appointed foreign ministers of all three Baltic countries – Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas – to plead their case at this conference. They were already seated at their tables when the Soviet representative gave an ultimatum. „Throw them out or we shall leave – and then you are responsible for the consequences.“
Our Danish hosts capitulated and they were shown the door. Out of the 37 foreign ministers from all European countries and N-America, I was the only one to stand up and protest. I spoke spontenaously solely on the Baltic issue. I said that under no circumstances would it be acceptable to sacrifice the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Baltic nations, which had suffered the most from the consequences of the Second World War, having been invaded, occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviet and finally illegally annexed into the Soviet empire. Political gain in negotiations between the super-powers would never justify this.
At this meeting I lent them my voice, since theirs had been silenced. I continued in this role, specially within NATO, until the very end. This was not merely an emotional reaction against injustice. This was a strategy based on a different analysis of the internal situation within the Soviet Union and hence Gorbachev‘s hold on power. My analysis turned out to be right. Theirs turned out to be wrong.
January 1991 was a turning point. Gorbachev, increasingly dependent upon hardliners‘ support decided to prevent the break-up of the Soviet union and calculated he had the support of Western leaders for such a policy. Landsbergis, the leader of Sajudis, appealed to foreign ministers of several NATO countries, to demonstrate their solidarity with Lithuania‘s legitimate claim to independence by arriving in Vilnius. I was the only one to do so. I visited all the three capitals at the time. At the last moment the Nobel peace prize holder Gorbachev backed off. In doing so he saved his soul and reputation. But at the same time it was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
Q2: Was there unanimity in the Icelandic coalition government for this policy?
A: Icelanders are never unanimous on anything. Of course there were those who felt I was risking important business interests in our bilateral trade with the Soviet Union. But this criticism was mostly behind closed doors, because among the general public there was strong support for the cause of the Baltic nations. Being a small and recently independent nation, Icelanders tend to support David in any conflict with Goliath. Also, I had solid support from our then prime minister Mr Steingrimur Hermannsson.
Q3: Was it your idea to pursue this policy – or were the Lithuanians asking you?
A: As I said previously, both Estonians and Lithuanians had sent emissaries to solicit support from the Western democracies, but it seems they met with more positive welcome in Reykjavík then in most other places. Was it my idea? Yes, it was. Why? Well, the answer is both personal and political. I was the leader of Iceland‘s Social-Democratic party at the time. In my early youth I was attracted to Marxism but having studied the situation in the Soviet Union, I rejected that illusion early on. Being the third generation of social-democratic leaders in my extended family, we have had to battle Moscow oriented communists for a long time.
To do so successfully you have to know your adversary. Two of my elder brothers studied in Russia and Eastern Europe, Poland and Czechoslovakia. They had close contacts with leading dissidents against communist rule. That explains why I was better informed about the domestic situation inside the Soviet empire than most of my colleagues. Also, I had done post-graduate work at Harvard on comparative economic systems. As a consequence I knew that the Soviet Union was bankrupt. I realised that Gorbachev, although well-meaning, didn‘t have a clue how to reform the system. The only way for democratic reform to succeed in Russia would have been through massive support by the West for the real democratic forces inside Russia.
Q5: Wasn‘t this a risky policy to pursue for Iceland against the Soviet superpower?
A: Indeed it was. Specially since the Soviet union was our major trading partner. Iceland was number two, after Finland, with the second highest percentage of foreign trade with the Soviet Union. This came about as a consequence of our Cod Wars with Great Britain. In the early 50s Iceland, in an informal alliance with a group of coastal states, started a long struggle to extend control over our marine resources to coastal states, by extending their exclusive economic zone from 4 to 200 miles, in stages. Everytime we extended our fishing limits from 4 to 12, 12 to 50 and ultimately to 200 miles (1976), the British sent in the Royal navy to protect their fishing fleet. We responded with a guerilla warfare, our small gunboats cutting the fishing gear from their vessels‘ behind, under the noses of her majesties commanders.
We won and the British lost. There are several explanations. One is that we played the Cold war poker game. We used our position within NATO to press the US to restrain the weakened British colonial power, threatening to expel a NATO naval base from Iceland. Another explanation is that the Soviet Union offered to buy all the fish we could sell them, to break the British sanctions and supply us instead with oil and fuel for our fleet, airplanes and internal transport. Admittedly, the significance of this trade deal was rapidly diminishing in the early 90s due to the Soviet Union‘s decline. Nonetheless we had to make arrangements behind the scenes to secure replacements if the Soviets would have stood by their threats to cancel this trade.
Q6: Were you personally subjected to Soviet pressure, not to go through with recognising Lithuania‘s restored independence?
A: Of course the Soviet Union applied pressure, as was to be expected, politically. They threatened to cancel the trade deal, as I said previously. At one point they recalled their Ambassador from Reykjavik which is usually a prior move before cancelling relations. I took this very seriously. I put together a team of legal experts – with a strong input from Estonia – and presented the Soviet government with a position paper. The essence of the legal argument was that we were not interfering in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union.
The annexation of the Baltic countries had been illegal and the recently elected Congress of People‘s deputies had itself recognised this by declaring the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with its secret protocols, null and void. But this pact between the dictators, Hitler and Stalin, was the original justification for the annexation. We also argued that on the basis of the Helsinki final act in 1975 and other international treaties, the Soviet Union had accepted the obligation to respect the borders of other countries. In conclusion we said: „In particular, it should be viewed in the context of the democratic revolution that the European political landscape has undergone; a revolution rendered possible primarily by the policies of the Soviet Union“. Finally, the Icelandic government offered its services to act as a mediator between the democratically constituted governments of the Baltic countries and the Soviet government, in settling this dispute.
Needless to say, we never received an answer to this generous proposition.
Q7: Do you now believe that the Soviet Union could have been salvaged?
A: No, I don‘t think so. And as a matter of fact the restoration of independence of the three Baltic nations turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. It simply collapsed of its own dead weight, peacefully – not with a bang but a whimper. And it was not due to Ronald Reagen – as many Americans seem to believe – but to Mikhail Gorbachev, and to the legacy of the failing system which he inherited and tried, half-heartedly, to reform. Ironically, he was ultimately swept away from power, by the tumultuous changes he had initiated.
But the failure of Western leadership, in facing the collapse of the Soviet Union, is there for all to see and confirmed by subsequent events. Specially, it is obvious that president Bush was utterly unprepared to deal with the situation. He failed to seize the opportunity which the collapse opened up for trying to implement democratic reform in Russia. To prove it there is his infamous „chicken-Kyiv-speech“ given in the Verkovna Rada (Parliament) in Ukraine 1st August 1991. This was three weeks before the declaration of independence of Ukraine and exactly 145 days before the collapse of the Soviet Union. What was his message? He appealed to the Ukrainians not to succumb to nationalism but to keep the Soviet Union together – in the name of peace and stability. A collossal misjudgement of an historical opportunity, if ever there was one.
If we wanted to seize the opportunity to democratise Russia, what was needed was a new Marshall-plan. It had to be comparable in scale and implementation to the one which helped rebuild Europe from the ruins of the Second World War. The Yavlinsky-plan was such a plan. To implement it, it would have cost ca. $150 billions over a period of 5 years. Not to be sunk into the black hole of a bankrupted system, but to seize the opportunity to help the democratic forces in Russia to „help freedom take root in Russia and Eurasia“.
Could we have succeeded in laying the foundations for a new „Eurasian-Atlantic-Security-system“ for the future? I don‘t know. No one knows, because this was a lost opportunity. But beforehand there was no reason to believe that this was a mission impossible. In a recent article, to be published in the Baltic Times, I present the economic arguments why this should not have been deemed impossible beforehand. But the consequences of doing nothing are grave. After the chaos and disintegration of Yeltsin‘s years, Russia has returned to her past as an authoritarian state with imperial ambitions, „claiming a sphere of influence“ over her neighbouring countries, dreaming of a restored empire. Thus, Russia has again become dangerous to her neighbours. The war of attrition against Ukraine is there to prove it.
The high hopes we had at the time of a „new world order“, based on solid foundations of a social-market economy, democracy and the rule of law, have not been realised. We have swung from one extreme to the other; from the inefficiency and shortages of the centralised command economy to the rampant inequality of market fundamentalism out of social control. The rising oligarchies – both in the US and in Russia – have become a threat to genuine democracy.
Q8: Did you consult with Scandinavian colleagues prior to Iceland‘s recognition of Lithuania‘s restored independence?
A: I and my Danish colleague, Mr Uffe Elemann Jensen, were allies in this struggle. He kept the argument running within the councils of the European Union, were I had no access. Also, I consulted with my personal friend, Thorvald Stoltenberg, the Norwegian minister, who was very supportive behind the scenes, although the political situation did not allow him to take the lead.
Q9: How did other Western leaders react towards your initiative?
A: After the failed coup d‘état in Moscow in August 1991 – which signified the end of Gorbachev‘s rule – Western policy towards the collapse of the Soviet Union, if we could ever use that word for their attitude – was in tatters. For a while, there was a political vacuum in Moscow and total confusion in the West. This was the „window of opportunity“ that I used, to take the initiative. After a meeting in the North-Atlantic council (NATO foreign ministers), two days after the coup, I appealed to my colleagues to respond to Yeltsin‘s call for support for the democratic forces inside the Soviet Union. The democratic forces were nowhere as strong as in the Baltic countries.
Receiving no response, I therefore seized the opportunity to invite the Baltic foreign ministers, Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas, to Reykjavik to formalise Iceland‘s recognition of their restored independence. In political terms that was already an accomplished fact, but this act set the example. Subsequently, what had been initiated in Reykjavik was repeated in most European capitals. In the end the US managed to be a day ahead of the Soviet Union. That was mission accomplished. I consider this to be a good example of the solidarity of small nations. It can succeed when the leadership of major powers fails. It did succeed in achieving the Law of the Sea Convention in 1982 and it succeeded in this case. After all, establishing rule of law and peaceful solutions to international conflicts, rather than raw power, is in the vital interest of small nations. Why not assert it?
Q10: What do you believe is the essential of your recognising the restored independence of Lithuania?
A: The solidarity of small nations against major power‘s failure of leadership.
Q11: Do you see any threats now?
A: Yes unfortunately I do. Our failure at the time in responding effectively to the collapse of the Soviet Union explains why the world is a more threatening place now. The rupture in the Trans-Atlantic relationship – which was the ultimate deterrent during the Cold War – caused by the corrupt clown in the White house, is another. The total lack of leadership and subsequent malaise of the European Union, is yet another. The rampant increase in inequality caused by market fundamentalism run amock, out of social control, is the fourth. The threat of an unreformed system against our environment is the gravest.
The forces of authoritarianism in the hands of privileged oligarchies are advancing. Genuine democracy is in full retreat. Is there any hope? Yes, there is always hope. „It is not the acts of the malvolent that is the worst; it is the silence and passivity of the good-willed.“ In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. So speak up.