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Thread: Iceland's Support for Baltic Independence

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    Iceland's Support for Baltic Independence

    It was an uncomfortable silence in the back of a jeep, bouncing across the snow-covered steppe in Western Mongolia that made me ask my Icelandic companion about Tallinn’s Islandi väljak (Iceland Square).

    I’d crossed the square in the Estonian capital several months before on a cold November morning and read the inscription on the plaque on the side of the Ministry of Foreign affairs: “The Republic of Iceland was the first state to recognize on 22 August 1991, the restoration of Independence of the Republic of Estonia”, it said.

    I took a picture of the black and white plaque, posted it to Instagram, and made a mental note to research the connection between the two countries when I got home. Except I forgot.

    Then, six months later, six hours into an eight-hour journey, with a lull in the conversation and no chance of escape, I asked my travelling companion to explain why Iceland had been the first country to recognize Estonia’s independence. As he was almost 50, I reasoned, he must remember.

    But he couldn’t explain it. He didn’t know. “I think maybe they were acting on behalf of America”, he shrugged and then we changed the subject. But that version of events didn’t sound right to me.

    And it certainly didn’t sound right to Iceland’s former foreign minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson when I called him to discuss his, and his country’s role, in supporting Baltic independence.

    Hannibalsson was foreign minister for Iceland from 1988 to 1995 and his government was the first to support the independence movements in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the early 1990s, as they tried to break away from the Soviet Union.

    During this time when ministers from each of the Baltic states visited western nations to seek support for their independence movements they were left disappointed; almost all said ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union was the top priority and not the freedom of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But despite threats from the Soviet Union to cut oil and trade to the country, Iceland and Hannibalsson stood by these small nations.

    In January 1991 Hannibalsson flew to Vilnius just after the January Events which left 14 people dead and hundreds injured. He also travelled to Riga and Tallinn where he saw barricades and tanks on the streets. He was the only western foreign minister to visit the Baltics during these turbulent times.

    “Icelanders tend to support David against Goliath in any dispute,” Hannibalsson told Deep Baltic.

    These days the memory of the actions taken by Iceland are still easy to see in the Baltic capitals. As mentioned above, there is Iceland Square in the middle of Tallinn, and also in Riga (Islandes Skvērs), which was opened in 2011. In February this year, a new street sign written in Icelandic, featuring the flag, a picture of the country and a snowflake, was unveiled on 1 Iceland Street (Islandijos gatvė) in Vilnius, beneath the Lithuanian language street sign. “To Iceland – They Dared When Others Remained Silent” is also inscribed on the rocks from the last barricade built in 1991 outside the Lithuanian Seimas (parliament).

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    Isn't Iceland wonderful!

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