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Member Contributions

Member Contributions

Iceland: Q&A with Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

23rd November 2017

Question: Were you or any of your Icelandic team ever subjected to any intimidation from the soviets because of your involvement, both publicly and behind the scenes? Did you ever fear for your personal safety?

Answer: Moscow did take action. They withdrew their ambassador and warned, that if Iceland continued interfering in domestic affairs of the Soviet Union they would cancel trade agreements. In response my legal team (with assistance from the Baltics) put together a document, arguing that Iceland was not interfering in domestic affairs of the SU, since the Baltic occupation had been illegal and recognised as such by the Soviet congress of deputies. Iceland also offered to act as a mediator in the dispute.

Concerning personal safety it was of course put at risk during the early january 1991 military crack-down in the Baltic capitals.

Question: On reflection do you think other western nations should have done more or that given how precarious the situation was between the west and the Soviet Union that protecting the wider peace was the right priority for them at that time?

Answer: I think the Western policy of placing all the stakes for success or failure on the political fate of a single individual, namely Gorbachev, was a fatal mistake. It was based on a superficial reading of the internal situation within the Soviet leadership and on wrong analysis of the domestic situation within the Soviet Union. Subsequent course of events turned out to prove that the Western conventional wisdom was wrong and I was right.

Question: Do you see parallels between the struggle and what happened in the Baltic sates and the current situation in Catalunya? Given your experience how would you advise the Catalan government to proceed?

Answer: There is no comparison between the Baltic states within the Soviet Union and Catalunya within Spain. The Baltic states were invaded, militarily occupied and annexed by force and fraud into the Soviet Union. Those who resisted or were suspected of opposition were either killed or deported to Siberia. Despite past grievances and the civil war legacy, Cataluniya has not been forced militarily to be part of Spain. Spain is despite its past history a democratic country. Catalans have participated in numerable elections, including the constitution and settlement of autonomous powers. Ultimately the will of the people should settle the issue by referendum. The EU leadership should accept its role in restraining the Madrid minority-government from resorting to violence.

Question: How do you think Icelands involvement affected the global view of Iceland. Did it earn Iceland greater political respect or was it seen as negative?

Answer: Iceland’s involvement has enhanced our political status within the Nordic-Baltic world. If immitation is the ultimate compliment US revision of history, namely that Iceland acted as a US-client state on the Baltic issue, confirms that Iceland’s involvement was affective.


Question: Are there parallels between the Baltic’s wanting independence from the USSR and Britain leaving the EU?

Answer: No, I see no paralels between those two historical processes.

Question: Are you an optimist or concerned for the Baltic states in the current climate of Russian Expansionism.

Answer: The Baltic political leadership has done everything in their power to consolidate and secure their restored independence through membership of the EU and NATO. This means that despite their revengist policies, direct military intervention by Russia is extremely risky. Despite their vulnerability, due to the large Russian ethnic minority, the Baltic states independence is as secure as can be, apart from a new third world war context.


Question: I wonder whether or not, during 1980’s (until 1991), there was any dissident Baltic political force that coagulated outside of the borders of any of the 3 Baltic countries (perhaps around radio stations such as Radio Free Europe, BBC or Voice of America). If so, I’d be interested to know what role they played in this struggle for gaining the independence.

I would also be interested to know a bit more about the insides of the domestic political scene of the Baltic countries during early 1990’s. For example, I wonder whether, at the time, there were any significant Lithuanian political forces that supported the politics of Moscow, opposing the independence move and if so, how did they choose to play their political game and how they have been politically defeated ?

Answer: Communist parties in the Baltic states were on the scale from small to insignificant in the interwar period. There was considerable emigration at the end of the war. The Baltic diaspora was very active e.g. within the US and Canada, in opposition to Soviet occupation and in putting pressure on Western leaders in support of their course.

Question: I believe that the different degrees of societal modernity in the Eastern European countries influenced the way the Communist regime was implemented in these countries. The less the country was modernised until 1948 the harsher / more authoritative the Communist regime was imposed. This is why, in my view at least, one can consider some sort of a spectrum of how communist regimes looked & felt very differently from one country to another (eg. from let’s say, a ‘liberal’ version in Yugoslavia to a Stalin and/or Kim Ir Sen inspired regime in Romania).
As I know very little about the history of the Baltic states I am unable to place them on this spectrum … so I would like to know how this modernity-authoritarianism ratio in Baltic countries compares to the one that existed in other Soviet republics (subjected to the same Russification programme), such as Republic of Moldova?

Answer: The Baltic peoples were, generally speaking, at a higher level of living standards and education then generally within the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Moscow persued consistent russification policy in all three countries. This means deporting leadership groups and importing Russians and other foreign nationalities, both in leadership positions and as general workers. Towards the end Baltic leaders feared for the survival of their cultural identities.


Question: What would you say were the greatest contributing factors to your personal motivation and political drive at the time, in the face of such opposition?

Answer: In my youth I considered myself to be a marxist. This means I have maintained a life-long interest in the Soviet experiement and eastern Europe. For reasons explained in the film I had useful contacts with dissidents inside Russia, the Baltic states, and in eastern Europe.

Question: If you could go back to that period and change any single choice, what would it be?

Answer: Looking back I think our support for the restoration for the Baltic independence was pursued prudently and with caution. That is why it succeeded.

Question: What current projects are you involved in?

Answer: A German publisher has recently published my book: The Baltic road to freedom: Iceland’s role – and now I am working on the second one. You can find this book here:


The following contextualisation (because it’s complex) and set of questions concern the rights and realities of ‘self-determination’.

For Iceland, an island geography provided natural borders for self-determination (with other factors, of course).

For the UK, an island geography and legacy of Empire has contributed strongly to a persistent semi-detached mindset for relations with EU, now changing with Brexit.

Without a formal UK Constitution, self-determination for Northern Ireland has had a very troubled journey, with deeply divided groups within overlapping co-located nationalist identities – the natural borders of an island geography with a long history, clashing with the unionist identity from a more recent and embedded legacy of Empire.
A third identity of EU membership has supported (up to now) the possibility of maintaining both clashing co-located identities, with their different flags, without one forced to dominate the other.

Self-determination for Scotland relies on a nationalist identity, with a flag that links to a distant pre-union history, and depends on the timing of achieving a simple majority of voters – meaning it’s possible for only a little more than half of its voters at a particular moment to determine the future identity and relations for all UK citizens.

Self-determination for Catalonia is supported by a nationalist identity, with a current language and flag that links to a more recent pre-union history and painful recent civil war context and aftermath in living memory, but is blocked by a formal Constitution in Spain, unless a majority of elected representatives from across all of Spain were to allow it (unlikely).

Self-determination for Hong Kong or for Singapore is of a different city-state nature.
So would the current citizens of London or Greater Manchester or any global city-region have similar rights to self-determination?

Self-determination for tax haven jurisdictions is different again.

Geography, competing narratives of history, nationalism, language, flags, constitutions, city-states, tax jurisdictions… the dimensions of self-determination can be varied and complex.
Furthermore, in larger states the gap between citizens and elected representatives within Party monopolies is such that it cannot be safely assumed that the old mechanisms of representation are reliable champions of an arbitrated ‘will of the people’.
Conversely, it cannot be safely assumed that all citizens will always make binary decisions on complex issues in their own best interests (which matters less where decisions can easily be reversed, of course).

The stakes are inevitably very high in matters of self-determination, as they connect directly to power – many lives and belief systems are held within its consequences.

In your opinion, from your experience and insights…
– Who should make a self-determination decision, how and when?
– Who should decide the rules for who decides, how and when?
– Should there be one set of rules for all situations, or different rules for different situations?
– How can majority rights and minority rights be arbitrated?
– What credible deterrents and sanctions are needed to protect the integrity and reality of such rights?
– Where they may be temporarily in conflict, is the right to self-determination for some people a higher or lower order right than the right to life for other people, entangled within its consequences by co-location or by other forces (e.g. geo-political dynamics)?

Answer: Concerning your multiple questions on self-determination, those questions can not be answered except by a lengthy philosophical/legal argument. Suffice to say that those issues should always be settled through democratic process, without resorting to force. Democratic process also means of course guarantees for the rights of minorities.


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