Reflections on things past.

By Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

Your national movement to reclaim your independence was certainly a national reawakening: A singing revolution. But it was also a grassroots’ movement to reclaim democracy: A human chain. Your singing revolution and the human chain, almost two million people holding hands – from Tallinn in the north to Vilnius in the south – became an internationally famous token for your fight for freedom.

The first advocate for the Baltic road to freedom to visit Iceland – to seek support from within NATO – was Endel Lippmaa – a renowned scientist. Edgar Savisaar, your first prime minister and Lennart Meri, your first foreign minister and later president, followed up. Basically they raised only one question: Could they rely upon the support of the leaders of Western democracy and their collective defence alliance – NATO?


It turned out that the leaders of Western democracy had a different agenda. The freedom fighters were received as unwelcome intruders and “spoilers of the peace”. They were in fact told to keep quiet and seek negotiations with their colonial masters – without preconditions. Why? Because your exit from the “evil empire” – to quote Reagan – would endanger peace. It could be the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev – our partner in ending the Cold war – would then be swept from power. The hardliners would re-emerge. It would mean a new Cold war and even outbreak of war in Eastern Europe.

The leaders of the democratic West were right on one thing. There was a lot at stake. The liberation of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe from under the hegemony of the Soviet Union; the peaceful unification of Germany and united Germany’s continued membership of NATO; disarmament agreements – both concerning conventional and nuclear weapons; removal of occupational forces and reduction of armed forces. Those are serious issues of war and peace.

But western leaders had made a big mistake. They had put all the stakes for successfully ending the Cold War on the political fate of a single individual: Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Nothing should be said or done which would endanger his grip on power. If that meant to keep the Soviet Union together – so be it. Worries about control over the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal influenced their thinking. The leaders of the west could not allow dissidents at the margin of the Soviet Union to endanger this overall settlement of the Cold war.

This meant that the struggle of the captive nations to restore their independence and regain democracy had become contrary to the declared policy of the leaders of the democratic world. They had turned everything upside down! Why had we fought a Cold war for almost half a century – if not to liberate the captive nations? Was it a realistic assessment that Gorbachev was the only leader of the reform movement within the Soviet Union? Realistic answers to those questions revealed that the analysis of the domestic situation in the Soviet Union was superficial. Hence, the declared policy was both illogical and unrealistic.


I am often asked why I dared to disagree with this official policy. The answer is that I descend from a very political clan in Iceland. My grand cousin was the founder and leader of the Social-Democratic Party and the Federation of labor for more than 20 years (1916-38). My father, Hannibal, was the leader of the trade union movement for 20 years (1954-74). Moscow-oriented communists had tried to split this movement for decades. They were our main internal adversaries. And we remembered Stalin’s invasion of Finland, one of the Nordic countries, in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That is the historical background.

Furthermore, my eldest brother, Arnór, was the first student from Western Europe, after WWII, to graduate from Moscow University in 1959. He did post-graduate work in Poland (1959-61). I myself did post-graduate work as a Fulbright-scholar at Harvard (1976-77) where my research project was comparative economic systems. Already at that time I had come to a similar conclusion, that the Soviet Union was an economic and political failure, unsustainable in the long-run and doomed to lose in the Cold war competition with the west.

I had come to similar conclusion as David C. Gompert, once an assistant to secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who describes the end of the Soviet Union in these words:

Fundamentally, these events occurred because Soviet communism – a mix of Marxist ideology, economic central planning, state and party burocracy, Russian imperialism and confrontation with the west – collapsed of its own dead weight. Its ideology could not tolerate truth; its economic central planning retarded modernisation; its burocracy was obese; its propaganda was stale; its military was outsized; the arms-race drained it of investment capital; and its imperialism, including demands for military intervention, caused bankruptcy and, in Afghanistan, intolerable loss of life. The Soviet Union could no longer compete with the west, technologically, economically, militarily, or in the war of ideas. To make matters worse, the price of its principal revenue source, fossil fuel, nose-dived. “ –

The Soviet Union was in fact bankrupt.

We had valuable contacts with dissidents from behind the iron curtain in Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Czechoslovakia. During my student’s days I had attended, along with other students from the Nordic countries and the UK, a special course on “the transition to a social-market economy” in Zakopane in Poland (1961). This was to make us familiar with the theories of the émigré polish economist Oscar Lange. Among our teachers was Ota Sik, who would have tested those theories in practice during the Prague-spring under Dubcek, had it been allowed to blossom.

So, with this background I was not completely ignorant of the Soviet system – as most of my colleagues actually were. And since your voice had been silenced, I tried to lend my voice to your cause, especially within NATO. Especially because there was a glaring gap between the official rhetoric about democracy and human rights on the one hand and the realpolitik being pursued behind closed doors, on the other. Soon those disagreements became public.


ON JUNE 6th 1990 there was a major conference in Copenhagen, sponsored by OSCE, and attended by Foreign minister of all European states – (including the USSR) as well as North America. This meeting was one in a series of meetings on ending the Cold war. This one in particular was meant to deal with human rights and the sovereign rights of nations in the NEW WORLD ORDER. My colleague, the Danish FM and host of the conference, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, had specifically invited the newly appointed foreign ministers of the three Baltic countries to address the meeting. They were already seated at their tables in the hall.

When the Soviet representative noticed this he declared: “Either they leave at once or we do”. My Danish colleague did not want to be made responsible for “spoiling the peace process”. So, your foreign ministers were showed the door at a conference on human rights.

For awhile the assembled foreign ministers continued their speech-making as if nothing had happened. Until it was my turn. Then I threw away my prepared text and spoke only on the Baltic issue – and what had happened. According to a transcript from the Danish foreign office I said the e.g. following:

We cannot pretend that our devotion to the peace process justifies sacrificing the legitimate claims of the Baltic nations to restored independence. Human rights and the sovereign rights of nations are indistinguishable. It is not for us to allot those rights to some but deny them to others. We are talking about human rights – not privileges. It is an undisputed historical fact that the Baltic nations were independent states and recognised as such by the international community. During WWII they were the victims of military invasions, occupation and in the end, annexation into the Soviet Union. The illegitimacy of those acts has now been recognised by the Soviet Congress of People’s deputies.

There is no acceptable solution to this problem other than recognising the sovereign rights of these nations. Rejecting this would be in breach of the Helsinki peace process… All violence, be it by military or economic means, for the purpose of coercing those nations against their will to accept continued annexation into the Soviet Union, is in breach of the basic principles of international law.”

When I stepped down from the podium, a man jumped up and embraced me and said: “It is a privilege to be a representative of a small nation and to be allowed to tell the truth.” “Allowed by whom?” I murmured. This was Max Kampelmann, a renowned Sovietologist and one of the leading US negotiators in Geneva. When I headed for my seat, another man shook his fist at me and declared: “Shame on you, Jón Baldvin; there was not a word of truth in this abominable speech of yours about the Soviet Union.” This was Juri Resetov, a Soviet human rights expert – if that is not an oxymoron – and later Russia’s ambassador in Reykjavik.

None of the other assembled ministers said a word.


IN THE FIRST WEEK of January 1991, Gorbachev had given his consent for a crack-down on your independence forces. Special forces were sent to intervene and the tanks started rolling. In the middle of the night, I was woken up by a phone call from Vilnius. On the other end of the line was Landsbergis. He simply said: “If you mean anything by what you have said so far in our support, come immediately to Vilnius. The Russians have started on a crack-down. The presence of a NATO foreign minister matters.”

In my book “The Baltic road to freedom – Iceland’s role” I describe my experience in those words:

I shall never be so old as to forget those days. Hundreds of thousands of people all around, standing by the bonfires in the bitter cold, holding hands and singing patriotic songs. I was witnessing a nation, unarmed and alone, facing down the tanks, in the name of freedom and human dignity. It was indeed a privilege to stand by the people during those dark hours of peril.”

The strategy behind the violence was similar to what is now going on in the South-Eastern regions of Ukraine. Stage-managed conflicts between ethnic minorities were meant to justify the Soviet government’s interference. Then to declare a state of emergency, to dissolve Parliament and remove the government, in order to restore law and order. This all sounds familiar. People were killed and maimed and injured in Vilnius and Riga. Perhaps Yeltsin’s arrival in Tallinn spared you the same fate?

To demonstrate our support, I also visited Riga and Tallinn where we issued joined declarations, condemning the use of force and appealing for peaceful solutions. The Soviet government withdrew their ambassador from Reykjavik and accused the Icelandic government of interfering in the domestic affairs of the Soviet Union. I took that accusation very seriously indeed. I put together a team of legal experts, with a valuable contribution from Estonia, to compose a scholarly legal document, to prove that Iceland was not interfering into the domestic affairs of the Soviet Union; that the Soviet Union had undertaken binding obligations to respect the borders of other countries; that the Baltic countries had been illegally annexed into the Soviet Union; and the Congress of People’s Deputies, by declaring the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact “null and void”, along with its secret protocols, had admitted this to be the case.

In conclusion we stated that Iceland’s action, with regard to the reestablishment of the Baltic nations’ independence, was part and parcel of the radical changes in Europe’s political landscape. Those changes could not have occurred, except for the initiative of the Soviet government itself. It was therefore in full accordance with declared Soviet policy.

Needless to say, we never received any response to this sophisticated piece of scholarship!

Why did the Soviets cave in at the last moment? There is not the slightest doubt in my mind as to why they caved in. The response of the people, the fearless unity of unarmed people, facing down the guns of the tanks, was so overwhelming that, had they applied full force, this would have become the bloodiest massacre in Europe since the war. A bit too much for the Nobel peace prize laureate Mikhail Sergeyevic Gorbachev.

If the will to apply full force is gone, it means the end of the police state. There was no way that the Soviet Union could be held together without force. It was only later that we realised that we had been witnessing a major turning point in history – the fall of the once mighty Soviet Union.


TWO DAYS after the attempted Coup d’état in Moscow, August 19th, the NATO ministerial council met in Brussels. No one knew for sure at that moment who was in charge in the Kremlin. NATO secretary general Manfred Wörner, was asked to try to reach direct contact with Boris Yeltsin. Half an hour later, Wörner came back with the following message from Yeltsin:

“The Coup has failed. He, Boris Yeltsin, is now the leader of the democratic forces. They are now in control. Yeltsin appeals to the assembled NATO foreign ministers to do everything in their power to support the democratic forces.”

When it was my turn to respond to Yeltsin’s message, I laid aside my prepared speech, just as before in Copenhagen and addressed the totally changed situation. According to the transcript, I said e.g. the following:

May I remind you that in the past we were asked not to say or do anything that could undermine Gorbachev’s position, because then the hardliners would come back and then the peace process would be endangered? This attitude has now proved to be mistaken. The hardliners have tried their hand but failed. Gorbachev, who henceforth has only one goal, namely to keep the Soviet Union together under a new constitution, is now out of power. The new leader is Boris Yeltsin.

The Congress of People’s Deputies has already declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact “null and void”. Thus the new leadership of Russia has acknowledged that the occupation and annexation of the Baltic nations into the Soviet Union were illegal. For half a century the Baltic nations have been the victims of “russification-policy”, including repeated deportations and subjugation of their language and national heritage.

All of this is in breach of the basic principles of international law as well as the rules now being negotiated for the New World Order. We therefore have a moral obligation to support the restored independence of the Baltic nations, just as we are doing for our neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe.”

The response to this speech was polite silence.

It should be remembered that on 1st of August 1991 President Bush made his infamous “chicken-Kyiv speech” in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian national parliament. In this speech President Bush appealed to the Ukrainians „not to succumb to extreme nationalism“; but “keep the Soviet Union together” in the name of “peace and stability”.

Three weeks later the Ukrainians declared their independence. 140 days later the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The declared policy of the leaders of Western democracy had been decisively rejected.


On my way home from Brussels, I “occupied” the Icelandic embassy in Copenhagen. We were operating the telephones long into the night, trying to reach the leaders of the Baltic States. My message was simple: Now is the “window of opportunity”. In the Kremlin there is an ongoing power-struggle – in the West there is utter confusion. Now is the right time to act.

I sent the newly appointed foreign ministers of the Baltic States formal letters of invitation to come to Reykjavik as soon as possible. There we would reaffirm our recognition of their reclaimed independence and organise formal diplomatic relations. I was convinced that soon other nations would follow our lead. The process would become irreversible.

That turned out to be right.

The foreign ministers, Lennart Meri from Estonia (later president 1992-2000), Janis Jurkans from Latvia and Algirdas Saudargas from Lithuania, arrived at Höfði house on August 26th. Symbolically, this was the same venue where Reagan and Gorbachev had held their summit meeting in 1986, that later turned out to be the “beginning of the end of the Cold war”. 

Lennart Meri spoke for all of us when he said:

“During the night August 23rd 1939, with the signature in the Kremlin of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Second World War started. With our signatures here today, the Second World War has finally come to an end. We are now joining you, the family of European nations.”

The ink had hardly dried on these formal documents, confirming the recognition of the independence of the three Baltic States, when invitations from the capitals across Europe – where they had been showed the door before – came pouring in. Finally, the United States followed suit, a day before the Soviet Union itself.

A few weeks later the Soviet Union no longer existed.


You have successfully achieved the transition from colonial rule to independence; from a centrally planned to a market economy; and from dictatorship to democracy. You have succeeded in building democratic institutions and integrating into the global economy. You knew from experience that you had to consolidate those institutions and take out an insurance policy for your fragile independence.

This you did by joining the EU and NATO.

Now you have a seat at the table where the decisions are taken. You can now draw upon your experience and share the lessons with your besieged neighbours – the Ukrainians.

The Ukrainians also declared their independence. They did so after a referendum, showing more than 90% support of the people – a majority in every region, also where ethnic Russians were dominant. The US government convinced the government of Ukraine to give up all nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory and have them transferred into Russian custody. In return the US, Russia and the UK solemnly guaranteed the inviolability of Ukraine´s borders.

They have singularly failed to honour that pledge.

Putin´s wars against Chechnya, Georgia and now Ukraine, leave no one in doubt that he wants to restore the Russian Empire: “Make Russia Great Again!” The Ukrainians have successfully defended themselves. But they have failed to liberate the regions, which had been occupied by Russia before. The Ukrainians are not only fighting for their territorial integrity. They are fighting for their sovereign right to decide for themselves in what sort of society they want to live.

Just like you, they want to join the European Union and live under a democratic regime and the rule of law. That is also your fight – our fight. That is why the leaders of Western democracy should give the Ukrainians the tools needed to win this war. If they fail to do so, it is now your duty to correct the course. If Trump wins the US presidency and therefore America leaves Europe and NATO, it is your duty to make sure that Europe continues to give full support for the Ukrainians to win this war – for democracy.

That is the lesson of this story.

(The author was Iceland’s minister of finance and foreign affairs 1987-95).