Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, the former Foreign Minister of Iceland, in an interview with Taavi Minnik on the failure of Western leadership to establish a sustainable global order.

  1. When did you hear the news of the Coup d´état in Moscow in August 1991? How did you react?
  2. In the news, like everybody else. Two days later I was on my way to a NATO foreign ministers´meeting in Brussels. At that time, noone knew yet who was in charge in the Kremlin.  NATO-secretary general, Manfred Woerner, was asked to contact Yeltsin directly through his secret channels. An hour later, Woerner reported back to us.
  3. Yeltsin had assured him that the coup had failed.  The democratic forces within Russia were now in charge. He, Boris Yeltsin, was now the leader of the democratic forces. He appealed to the NATO foreign ministers assembled in Brussels to give all the support they could muster for the democratic forces.

When it was my turn to speak, I appealed to my colleagues to reconsider NATO policy in view of the totally changed political landscape. The old refrain: Not to do or say anything that might undermine Gorbachevs hold on power, because then the hardliners would return and with them a return to the Cold War, or in the worst case scenario, an outbrake of war in Eastern Europe. Had this ever made any sense, it was now obsolete. The hardliner had tried and failed, and Gorbachev was out with them. The new man to deal with was Boris Yeltsin. He appealed to us to support the democratic forces indside The Sovjet Union. Nowhere, were they as strong as in the Baltic countries. We should, in light of the totally changed situation, respond to Yeltsin´s appeal by doing everyting in our power to support the democratic forces.

If I remember correctly, my passionate appeal was received by polite silence. I was by then used to that. Leaders of major powers need to consult with their beaurocracies. On my way home, I „occupied“ the Icelandic embassy in Copenhagen and worked the phones until late into the night, trying to reach contact with Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. It was difficult, but finally I got through.My message was simple: There is a power vacuum in Moscow and total confusion at the highest level in the West. Rightly so, since Western policy was now in tatters. We should now use this „window of opportunity“ to seize the initiative. I was convinced that it would be irreversible.

I invited the Baltic foreign ministers, Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas, to come to Reykjavík at the earliest opportunity to reafirm our recognition of their restored independence and to establish the formalities of diplomatic relations. On August 26th that´s what we did in Höfdi House in Reykjavik, wich in 1986 had been the venue for the Gorbachev-Reagan summit. Later that summit was declared to have been the beginning of the end  of The Cold War. What we did, five years later, in he same venue, turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Sovjet Union.

The ink had hardly dried on our signatures, when invitations to the three Baltic foreign ministers to visit European capitals started pouring in. The process had become irreversible. If I remember correctly, the US managed to be a day ahead of the Sovjet Union. Asked at a press conference, why this delay – president Bush answered: „What matters is what America does – who will remember later on, that Iceland was the first?“                                                                           The answer seems to be: The Batlic nations.

  • Q. How was this decision made – and was there any opposition?
  • The first representative of the Baltic independence movements to visit Iceland to solicit support was Ende Lippmaa, the physisist. He was highly intelligent. We got on well together. Then came Ramunas Bogdanas, a young advisor to Landsbergis, and Emanuel Singeris of the Seimas of Lithuania. Both had been adviced by the Norwegians to try to contact the Icelandic foreign minister. I consulted with my older brother, Arnór, who was as far as I know the first individual from Western Europe to graduate from Moscow University. He had done post-graduate work in Warshaw with, among others, Leszek Kolakowski, the brilliant Polish dissident. My brother still had contacts with dissidents inside and out of Russia –  in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Checoslovakia, etc. We were, when I think of it, relatively infomed about the domestic situation in the Sovjet Union.

I had myself been a Fulbright scholar at Harvard, where my research program was about comparative economic systems. I had, already then (1976-7) come to the conclusion, that the Sovjet experiment was both a political and economic failure. As a matter of fact its economic cenral planning retarded modernisation; it´s beaurocracy was obese; its propaganda was stale and untruthful;  it´s military was outsized; the arms race drained it of investment capital  and it´s imperialism made it bankrupt. The Sovjet Union could no longer compete with the West technologically, economically, militarily or in the conflict of ideas. To add insult to injury, the price of it´s principal revenue source, fossil fuel  – unsustainable as it is, had crashed. It was heading for bankruptcy. We seemed to be more or less agreed on this analysis.

The turning point came in Copenhagen in June 1990. There was a CSCE- conference on human rights, as an integral part of the new World Order, succeeding the Cold War. The host, my Danish colleague, foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann Jensen, had invited the three newly appointed Baltic foreign ministers, Meri, Jurkans and Saudargas, to plead their case at the conference. When the Sovjet represantatives recognized them, they issued an ultimatum „If they are in, we are out – and then you can forget about the rest“. Understandably, the Danish foreign minister didn´t want to be made responsible for prolonging the Cold War. So, „the representatives of the democratic forces“, inside the Sovjet, were shown the door. And this at a conference of human rights.

All the other foreign ministers present pretended to go on as if nothing had happened. I found this intolerable. When it was my turn to speak, I spoke impromptu only on the Baltic issue. I see from the transcript from the Danish foreign ministry, that it was one of the better speeches I have ever made.

When I stepped down from the rostrum, the American representative, a well known Sovjetologist, Max Kampelman, jumped up and embraced me, saying: „What a previlege it is to be the representative of a small nation and be allowed to speak the thruth“. Allowed by whom? I murmured. When I continued towards my seat, a burly heavyweight, Yuri Resitov – a Sovjet expert on human rights, (if that´s not an oximoron) – shook his fist at me, declaring: „Mr. Hannibalsson, there was not a word of truth in what you said about the Sovjet Union in that abominable speech“. From that moment on I realized that Western leaders had become so tied up with the political fate of a single individual, Michael Gorbachev, so as to excrude rational analysis and sensible policy. They had none. Out of dire necessity Gorbschev had the initative but no practical solutions for reform. Western leaders reacted to this initiative – usually too little and too late – without any comprehensive plan on how to „support the democratic forces“.

From then on I made it a habit to speak up on the Baltic cause, since their voice had been silenced in every forum available. What mattered most was within NATO.

Q. Was there any opposition in domestic politics against this Icelandic initiative?