From Iceland — So What's This Trip To Ukraine I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Trip To Ukraine I Keep Hearing About?

Published April 15, 2014

So What’s This Trip To Ukraine I Keep Hearing About?

Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson went on an official visit to Kiev on March 22. There he declared the Icelandic government’s opposition to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, said that Russia should withdraw its forces, and that Iceland will send officials to take part in the Crimean monitoring mission of OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He also said that Iceland supported and would take part in sanctions against Russia.

The whole of Russia must be crying itself to sleep after Iceland gave it the cold shoulder.

It is true that Iceland is not much of a player on the world stage; it is not even the person who pulls the curtains open and shut. But to give credit where it is due, the Minister for Foreign Affairs did all he could do. He certainly did better than the President of Iceland. Prior to the crisis in Ukraine, the president had been very friendly with Russian authorities and during the Arctic Dialogue conference on March 19 he criticised the representative of the Norwegian government who protested Russia’s action in Crimea. It is not entirely seemly that the president gets huffy because a country that neighbours Russia expresses its alarm about Russia not respecting internationally agreed borders, even if a conference on Arctic affairs might not be the most suitable venue for it.

Not to harp on about this, but does anyone outside Iceland care what its President or Minister for Foreign Affairs have to say about anything?

Well, usually only when they say something incredibly stupid, but point taken. Icelanders are very aware of their position as a tiny nation in a big world, but the country cannot help but dream of bigger things. The times that Iceland has played even a peripheral role in world events are celebrated by Icelanders.

You’re gonna bring up the time Iceland recognised the independence of the Baltic countries, aren’t you?

I was going to bring up the times that Iceland has hosted various important meetings, Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986 being the most famous one, but yes, Icelanders are proud of having been the first to recognise the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This has long been a feature of Icelandic foreign relations. Iceland was a supporter of the founding of Israel, was first to recognise Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Croatia as independent states, and is the first and only Western European country to recognise the state of Palestine.

Ah, so Iceland has a firm policy of supporting national self-determination? Well, except in Crimea, I suppose…

If Crimea counts. Iceland has not recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia either. But no, there is no firm policy for anything in Icelandic foreign relations. Iceland recognises neither the Sahrawi republic in Western Sahara nor Somaliland, for instance, and has never officially recognised South Sudan. That does not mean, of course, that Iceland does not consider South Sudan an independent state. Iceland has never formally recognised Canada, but everyone knows that it probably exists.

I thought it was a made-up place English parents told their children they would be sent to if they didn’t behave.

No, you are thinking of Australia. To go back to the example of Ukraine, the official line on Ukraine has been hopelessly muddled from the beginning. The President seemed to be against talking about the situation at all and the Minister for Foreign Affair’s initial comments were that the revolution in Kiev was because of the meddling of the European Union. It was only after being criticised that he went on his official visit.

Wait, the people who decide Icelandic foreign policy just make it up as they go along?

Pretty much. It is only in areas where there is a firm national policy, such as in fishing, that Iceland has any kind of firm principles. In other areas it depends on which Icelandic politicians hold which posts, and how they are feeling that day.

Maybe on the day that Iceland would’ve recognised South Sudan, the Minister for Foreign Affairs was hung over.

Could be, but it is more likely that no one gave it any thought. It is only recently that Iceland has taken up formal diplomatic relations with most of the world. In the last decade, Iceland campaigned to get a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, and it was only then that the government officially reached out to a whole host of countries from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Iceland did not succeed in getting its temporary seat, and no one much cared. In the game of international politics, Iceland is like an eight-year-old kid hanging around at the edge of a sports field, expecting to be picked to play in the World Cup Final.

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