Culture
So What’re These Russian Trade Sanctions I Keep Hearing About?

So What’re These Russian Trade Sanctions I Keep Hearing About?

Photos by
Lóa Hjálmatýsdóttir

Published August 30, 2015

In March of last year, Iceland joined in internationally coordinated trade sanctions against Russia. The principal advocates were the United States and members of the European Union, but many nations are partaking, including Japan, Australia and Montenegro. These sanctions were put in place following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Russia retaliated by imposing trade sanctions of their own, but are only now getting to Iceland.

What’s taken them so long?
The Russian government has been busy with a severe financial crisis, caused by the sanctions and low prices for its oil and gas exports. Worrying about people buying fish from Iceland was the least of their concerns. But, one day in late July, the Russian government noticed an unticked entry on its to-do list, and announced they would look into sanctions against a number of countries, including Albania, Iceland, Montenegro and Liechtenstein.

That’s highly suspicious, as I’m pretty sure there’s no such place as Liechtenstein.
Even though they should have seen it coming, Icelandic authorities were surprised when the Russian Prime Minister announced the sanctions. Some members of Parliament in both ruling parties started agitating for Iceland to end its trade sanctions. In the end the government announced that they were unanimous in their support for continuing sanctions. It took three weeks from the first news reports out of Russia until the ruling political parties made that announcement. In the meantime, lots of politicians and businesspeople said lots of stupid things.

How is that different from any other three-week period in Iceland?
The responses came in two types. The first was the Cheese Hater’s Explanation of Bad Events. It is a three-step process:

  1. A bad thing happens.
  2. I hate cheese.
  3. Therefore, cheese is to blame for whatever bad thing happened.

Some people’s cheese was NATO, even though NATO had little to do with it. Turkey did not join in the sanctions, and many countries outside NATO did. Others blamed the EU, which at least has something to do with it, but Iceland was not coerced into imposing sanctions on Russia.

No one blamed cheese, right? Because what kind of monster hates cheese?
The other response was cynical cowardice. Leading the charge away from the field of battle was Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðriksson. The day after Russia said they were looking into imposing sanctions on Icelandic products, he started advocating for Iceland to stop supporting sanctions on Russia. Other politicians made similar statements. Following closely behind was Fisheries Iceland (SFS), the trade association of Icelandic fisheries. The chairman published an opinion piece, arguing that trade sanctions had no effect and that Russians and Icelanders were old friends that should not let a global squabble spoil the relationship.

Good to see businesspeople speaking for calm, peace and… oh, they risked losing money, didn’t they?
From 2009 to 2013, the export of Icelandic fish to Russia more than tripled, from 26 thousand tonnes to 90 thousand tonnes. Last year, Icelandic fisheries sold over 140 million Euros worth of fish to Russia. A large amount of money in a society of three hundred and twenty thousand people. The fisheries’ owners are incredibly wealthy on an Icelandic scale and have used that money to get influence in politics and purchase media companies to propagandise for them.

That’s less depressing if you picture them as haddock with top hats and monocles.
The ultimate example of that is Morgunblaðið. After it was taken over by the fisheries, Davíð Oddsson, former right-wing Prime Minister, was made editor-in-chief. His signature foreign policy while in office was supporting the US invasion of Iraq, so at least supporting Russian military actions in Ukraine would be consistent. He did not go so far, however, although he heavily criticized current Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson for advocating for the trade sanctions. Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson’s signature foreign policy is support for Ukraine against Russia, even visiting Kiev shortly after announcing Iceland would join in the trade sanctions.

Don’t tell me he also spoke against the sanctions.
The Foreign Minister did, in fact, say that it was unlikely that Iceland would stop supporting sanctions. However, he made the caveat that it might need to be discussed if the EU did not lower tolls on Icelandic mackerel. He had also talked about the possibility that the government would assist fishing companies financially.

I’m glad someone’s looking out for the interests of wealthy people.
Traditionally in Iceland, August is the month for taking it easy, vacationing abroad or travelling around the country. Usually there needs to be a volcanic eruption or a polar bear drifting ashore to get anyone very excited. However, the enormous influence of fishing companies now means that their search for new buyers for their mackerel has the same news value as a volcano spewing polar bears.


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