Published April 10, 2016
The Panama Papers scandal hit us like a tsunami. Iceland, a nation of 330,000, has 600 names on the list! Sweden, with its 9.5 million, has only 200 names. Once again we’re the champions of corruption and swindle, the amoral dimwits of the Atlantic.
According to the latest ethical GPS our island is now situated somewhere between Russia and Ukraine. And the icing on the cake: Our Prime Minister, the infamous Mr. Gunnlaugsson, was the only Western leader on the list, the only PM to keep an offshore account in the tax haven of Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands. In the world media we saw him pictured next to Putin, Assad, Poroshenko and (worst of all) Sepp Blatter. Even though this unexpected and globally selected football team of political gangsters had Lionel Messi aboard, it started losing from the first minute of the game. Because our man, Mr. Gunnlaugsson, was the goalkeeper. And after the first shot, he just left the pitch and walked out of the stadium.
If you haven’t seen the interview he walked out of, you should check it out on the internet. Or not. The Prime Minister of Iceland was nicely set up by a team of international journalists. The first questions were general ones, about the economic threat that tax havens pose to our societies, and then came the tough ones: Do you, yourself, own such an account? For us, those TV minutes were totally unbearable. Way before our Prime Minister melted down onscreen we knew what was coming, and when he finally started lying, and his Oxfordian English started crumbling, most of us were out in the kitchen, trying to cool down by eating fresh red chilis out of the fridge. When we were back in the living room, Mr. Gunnlaugsson had already deserted the scene of his crime.
The interview was taped on March 11th, but broadcast last Sunday, April 3rd. He knew he was politically dead, yet pretended not to be, told no one about it, not even his closest allies, becoming more and more zombie-like with each day, without anyone knowing why. This Homeric (Simpson) character trait is something Mr. Gunnlaugsson has shown us before: If there is a problem, he just closes his eyes and hopes it will go away. A famous story circling in Iceland tells us that in the time of a falling-out with his Minister of Finance, the latter called him up and asked for a meeting. Mr. Gunnlaugsson reluctantly agreed to meet him in his office later that day. But when the Finance Minister showed up, the Prime Minister was already in London. He had made his promise in the PM limo, on his way to the airport. And this very same man carried on with business as usual, after having been exposed as a tax-evading offshore millionaire, and an international liar, and did not resign before all hell broke loose, a thing that could have spared us Icelanders the international humiliation that came with the unveiling of the Panama Papers.
It was a big blow to a nation that only eight years before had suffered the financial Crash in a very bad way, at the hands of reckless and greedy bankers and businessmen, and inept politicians. Ever since, the words “tax havens,” “secret offshore accounts”, “Tortola” and “The British Virgin Islands” have become the new curse words, words that nobody with minimal self-respect wanted to hear about themselves. Still there was talk that the old business Vikings and some members of the moneyed elite had managed to escape from the sinking ship called “Iceland 2008” in lifeboats full of cash, eventually landing on the “off shores” of the Caribbean, but no one could imagine that this was a group of 600 people, let alone that among those names were three members of government. Two of them had closed their accounts some years back, but the Prime Minister still kept his, though it was by now registered in the name of his wife.
It was particularly absurd since the same Mr. Gunnlaugsson had, in the wake of the crash, crowned himself head crusader against the fallen banks and their debts, leading the campaign to refuse to pay them, a cause that eventually triumphed in two referendums. In the post-Crash years Mr. Gunnlaugsson became the young and promising “hero of the T-shirts” (this is the Icelandic version of the Juan Peron’s “the shirtless,”—in our case it’s the uneducated and somewhat ignorant everymen and -women who only wear T-shirts they get for free). Shortly after, he won the elections and became Prime Minister.
But then his inner Homer Simpson took over.
Only fifteen days into his term he started talking about being “air raided” by his critics, then promptly began his “Icelandic diet,” eating only food made in Iceland, telling us that foreign food contained a certain bacteria named “toxoplasma” that had already corrupted the national character of many European nations, especially France and Belgium. He also ended our negotiations for EU membership, becoming ever more nationalistic, praising our “strong character” and our “strong currency” (it has lost its value a thousand times in its 100-year lifetime) that all Icelanders should be proud to use. “The best currency in the world!” All this while he himself was busy hiding his family fortune in foreign currency on a secret faraway island full of toxoplasmic meat-eaters gone nuts. On top of that his uncomfortable interest in architecture (the big no-no for any nationalistic leader) culminated in his decision to build new offices for Parliament after a 100-year-old plan drawn up by a long-dead architect.
However, his campaign against the fallen banks continued, and last fall his government reached an agreement with their creditors, people who lost money when the banks went bust and laid their claims on their bankruptcy estates. This agreement was criticized by some experts who said the government had been too soft on the (mostly foreign) creditors. When it was revealed that Mr. Gunnlaugsson’s wife’s offshore company was one of those foreign creditors, and he had therefore been sitting on both sides of the table, he had to leave the building.
So here we’re seeing 2008 and early 2009 all over again: Thousands of protesters in front of Parliament every day from five o’clock in the afternoon, shouting: “Banana Republic!” and “Bad bad government!”, while the rest of the nation stays at home, picking its nose and wondering how on earth they had the idea back in 2013 to elect such tax-evading scoundrels to its highest office, only five years after the big Crash, after which every Icelander (we thought) pledged to start anew, to get his act together, to stop behaving like the wolves of Wall Street.
People are angry.
The second divorce is always harder than the first one. (I know this from personal experience.) And now we have been betrayed for the second time. Betrayed by secrecy, greed and lies. And still the names of 597 more tax evaders are yet to be revealed. It can only get worse. The government limps on, with two old tax evaders aboard, and a new Prime Minister who only last week was the joke of the nation when, trying to defend his friend Gunnlaugsson, he accidentally stumbled into saying: “It’s always been very complicated to be rich in Iceland” and “Well, the money had to be somewhere” (had to be hidden somewhere?), sentences which became instant classics overnight. And now he’s the leader of the nation, this Russian-looking farmer and vet turned dull politician (he seems to have an average of three heartbeats per minute), who was born in 1962 but seems to have been 62 since ’62.
Yup. Once again, even in 2016, Icelanders get a Prime Minister who doesn’t know how to boil potatoes!
These are the guys in charge, the guys who will face the next tsunami waves of the Panama revelations that are due to hit our shores in the coming weeks. When all their business partners, friends, best friends, brothers and cousins will be washed naked and hung out to dry. Of course the new government won’t survive it. We’ll give it two weeks max.
But the question remains: Why is Iceland this corrupt? Why do we have 600 financial quislings while Sweden only has 200? The explanation must lie in the past. In many regards we’re like the African republics that got their independence only 50 years ago. We were a Danish colony until 1944. It takes time for nations to grow up and develop a solid system. Like the African nations, Iceland has, since 1944, been controlled by a couple of tribes. The Minister of Finance 2016 is the namesake and grandson of the Prime Minister of 1966. Both belong to the elegant bourgeoisie tribe, who’ve built their power on a magical mix of business and politics. Mr. Gunnlaugsson is from the more crude T-shirt tribe; his father built his family’s fortune by using his political position to acquire a very valuable company. Those two tribes have held a seat in every government since 1944, often sitting there together, like now, except for the first four years after the Crash, when the Left was called in to clean up the mess. (And in line with that the Prime Minister was of course a woman, Ms. Sigurðardóttir, our only PM who has boiled potatoes on her own.) Iceland is still stuck in its post-colonial state, just like Mozambique, Uganda, Nigeria or even India. We’re still a couple of revolutions away from becoming a regular European republic.
Just last week, an Icelandic archeologist revealed the findings of her research. For years she had been pondering the mystery of all our lost church fonts and chalices and other silver objects from the Middle Ages, until she found some papers in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, describing how they were all shipped to Denmark in many shiploads between 1550 and 1570, after we abandoned Catholicism and became Lutheran. All the silver of Iceland was carried to the King’s palace in Copenhagen, where it was melted in a big pot. Out of that silvery soup three big silver lions then were made, that still can be seen in the palace, still looking rather unhappy and deadly stupid, as ill-bred things are wont to do.
Back then Iceland was robbed by the Danes, today it’s being robbed by our inner Danes, the true vampires of Iceland. And somewhere on the tax haven islands of the southern hemisphere some 600 silver lions are sweating in the jungle.
This article was originally published in Die Welt Saturday April 9th.