Feature | Iceland and Estonia: 30 years of friendly relations

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President Gudni Th. Jóhannesson and First Lady Eliza Reid planting an oak tree in Kadrioru Park to mark the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia and the 300th anniversary of Kadrioru Park, during their official visit to Estonia in June 2018. Source: Office of the President of Iceland/ÁS

Thursday, August 26, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iceland and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Iceland was in fact the first country to recognize the restoration of independence of the three countries, which in Estonia's case happened less than a week earlier, on August 20 1991. President of Iceland H.E. Mr. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson has written this piece, reflecting on the occasion.

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I first came to Estonia in the summer of 1994, a student of history taking interviews and gathering information for my master's thesis on Iceland's support for Baltic independence a few years before. Everywhere I was received with sincere hospitality and friendship. I enjoyed the wit and wisdom of Lennart Meri and others who told me about the Estonian struggle for freedom in the dying days of the Soviet Union. In Tallinn and Tartu, I got absorbed in the richness of Estonia's colorful past, and its rich Nordic connections.

The last time I enjoyed the honor of visiting Estonia was in the summer of 2018, as president of my country and its representative when you celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the declaration of independence in 1918. In the century that has passed since then, the people of Estonia suffered great trials and tribulations. Your fate was far worse than ours.

In 1991, independence was finally reclaimed. Today, on the thirtieth anniversary of resumed diplomatic relations between our two countries, I extend my heart-felt congratulations to the people of Estonia. It was your victory, but we Icelanders are pleased and proud that in your time of need, we were able to offer some help.

Our government showed real and symbolic support and our representatives put pressure on statespersons in the international arena. This action was initiated and led by then-Foreign Minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, who visited Tallinn during the fateful days of January 1991. And on August 26 that year, the foreign minister, along with Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson and others, received the foreign ministers of the three Baltic countries in Reykjavík, where declarations on diplomatic relations were signed.

History and memory are complex features of human societies. Nations should not be ashamed to celebrate and strengthen ties that bind them together. Nations should remember achievements and milestones in their history. In this sense, nationalism can be a positive factor in today's world, an impetus for progress and prosperity.

At the same time, we must defend history from those who aim to use it to promote hatred, bigotry and intolerance. History is multifaceted and open to various interpretations, depending on experiences and viewpoints. And we must be honest about mistakes and misdemeanors. We should not only recount that which puts us in a positive light in the contemporary world. The international arena is not a perfect place. Idealism alone cannot guide all actions of small countries. Conversely, neither must Realpolitik alone rule the world. That must be one of the lessons of history when considering the momentous year of 1991 when the people of Estonia finally regained their freedom and independence.

Now three decades have passed. Lessons have been learned, experience gathered. A state is not free if people cannot express themselves freely, if people do not enjoy the freedom of religion, the freedom of love, the freedom from bigotry and racism, from sexual harassment and other violent conduct. A nation is not healthy if many citizens suffer from poor mental or physical health, lacking access to professional care. A country will not fare well if its nature is polluted and overexploited.

Together we must therefore advance universal human rights. Together, we must also defeat COVID-19 and other global pandemics. And together we must combat the serious effects of human-influenced climate change.

As always, the future awaits, with all its challenges and opportunities. In Iceland, the affection for Estonia will remain strong. Since the reclamation of independence, we have enjoyed strengthened ties between our two countries in the fields of trade and tourism, culture and education. Estonians have moved to Iceland to work, some of them settling permanently and enriching our society.

I wish all citizens of Estonia prosperity and happiness.

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The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iceland and the three Baltic States was signed by the foreign ministers of all three countries, and their Icelandic counterpart, in Reykjavik, on August 26 1991.

Estonia's foreign ministry is situation on Islandi väljak (Iceland Square) in Tallinn, renamed in honor of the recognition.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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