From Iceland — The Last Decade: What Happened?

The Last Decade: What Happened?

Published January 20, 2011

The Last Decade: What Happened?

The first decade of the millennium is over, and you know what that means – it’s time for some retrospection.
While this was a pretty big year for just about everyone in the world, things were relatively calm here in the land of fire and ice. Except that widening cracks at the bottom of the lake Kleifarvatn in the southwest began to literally drain the lake of its water, to the point where it reached only 20% of its volume (and it’s over 90 metres deep in parts). Iceland also began its hydrogen energy program. Remember
that? The hydrogen powered bus, the hydrogen filling station in the
eastern part of town, Iceland poised on the brink of launching a
revolution in how vehicles are run. Yeah. Heady times.

When then Chinese president Jiang Zemin paid Iceland an official visit, the Icelandic government wanted to be sure he had a warm welcome. In keeping with that, they arrested Falun Gong protesters at Keflavík airport and kept them detained at a nearby school. They also had airports across the United States block Falun Gong members from boarding planes to Iceland, the New York Times reported at the time. Wrongful arrest and detention lawsuits were inevitably won, but the move set a tone about the government’s attitude towards protests in Iceland, which would carry over many years later.
In this year, cable television giant Nickelodeon agreed to produce Lazytown in Garðabær, Iceland, putting the country on the map as the producers of its first ever exported children’s show, which would become an international hit. It was also the year President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson married Dorrit Moussaieff. The President marrying a foreigner rubbed a few people the wrong way, but Dorrit was soon beloved by most Icelandic people, and her love of Iceland is well-known. Stórasta land í heimi! Also in this year, the privatisation of Iceland’s banks was completed, thereby assuring a strong and enduring economy.
The President again stole the spotlight this year, for two reasons. First off, a media bill—backed by Davíð Oddsson and designed to limit how much control over the media a single company could have—was passed in parliament, but the president refused to sign it. Up until this point, Icelandic presidents had acted more or less like figureheads, greeting foreign VIPs but exercising little actual power. This was the first time a president had ever refused to sign a law. Subsequently, Ólafur was re-elected president.

Iceland kicked off the year when the Movement for Active Democracy bought a full page of ad space in The New York Times to issue an apology to the Iraqi people, on behalf of Iceland, for the country taking part in the “coalition of the willing.” And while the group continued to press for answers as to how we ended up on that list in the first place, this was soon drowned out by the noise that arose when chess legend Bobby Fischer was rubber-stamped Icelandic citizenship and arrived in the country to much fanfare. Eighteen hours later, he held a press conference where he ranted about the global Jewish conspiracy, and then never spoke to the media again.
 These were the heydays of the Icelandic economy. Everyone had a flatscreen TV, at least two SUVs, a McMansion in Mosfellsbær and wallets bursting with 5.000 krónur notes. Conservatives smirked, liberals grumbled. Also, municipal elections were held, and the Progressive Party in Reykjavík was accused of having paid foreigners to vote for them. The Progressives denied the allegations, which were never proven. Oh, also, internationally celebrated deCODE genetics reported over 530 million USD in losses, and that they had in fact never turned a profit.
Parliamentary elections this year saw the Conservatives and the Social Democrats join forces, in what was to be an ill-fated union that would end halfway through its term. At the same time, the majority coalition in Reykjavík city hall—the Conservatives and the Progressives—fell apart, marking the first time a sitting majority in city hall didn’t finish out its term. I guess you could say 2007 was a portent of further deconstruction.
I suppose it goes without saying that the economic collapse in the fall of this year was Iceland’s single biggest story. The banks, which had swelled to many times the size of the country’s GDP, fell apart. Iceland defaulted on Icesave deposits made by foreign clients. This time around, popular protests weren’t being held by a few “fringe” activists, but by thousands of Icelanders, who stood in front of parliament and demanded that the government step down.
The Independence Party/Social Democrat alliance conceded power, and emergency elections were held. This ushered in Iceland’s first leftist government ever, comprised of the now-sitting Social Democrats and the Leftist-Greens. To foreign observers, the elections were more notable in that Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir not only became our first female prime minister, but was also the first openly gay head of state in modern times. Few Icelanders actually cared about that point, as we were too busy talking about Icesave.

Does any one news story sum up 2010 better than the President’s veto of the Icesave law and the subsequent referendum that buried it? It’s doubtful. Just when we thought we’d be able to stop hearing about Icesave, the President trolls us. That’s pretty much what this decade has been like—getting up, reaching for the prize, and stumbling again. That the people overwhelmingly voted to kill the law is a more positive testament to the country’s resolve. Even with our economy in tatters, we could—no, had to—exercise some control over our fate. That struggle continues into the New Year.

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