They may be geographically distant, but Estonia and Iceland have more in common that it might initially seem—relations during the interwar decades as well as much earlier, in the Viking era. Both nations have lived and suffered under the control of larger and stronger neighbors, but have succeeded in preserving their unique and rich cultures. In addition, both countries gained independence the same year – in 1918.
Political relations between the two countries began in the 1920s. Iceland recognized the Republic of Estonia de jure back in 1922, at a time when Iceland was independent but in a personal union with Denmark. As the ruler of the larger member of the union, the King of Denmark was Iceland’s head of state and responsible for appointing the government. Iceland did not have its own Foreign Minister back then, and the Danish Foreign Ministry protected the island nation’s foreign policy interests. Official relations between Estonia and Iceland were restricted to communication between Iceland’s representative in Denmark, Sveinn Björnsson, later the president of the Republic of Iceland, and Estonia’s envoys dispatched to Scandinavia. Economic and trade relations remained low-key as well. In 1933, the Estonian embassy in Stockholm contacted the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce and Industry in order to find a suitable candidate for Estonian honorary consul. Upon the recommendation of Sveinn Björnsson, Tomas Tomasson, the director of one of Iceland’s largest breweries, Egill Skallagrimsson was selected out of a field of twelve and appointed, on 1 May 1934 in Reykjavik, as Estonia’s honorary consul, a post he would hold for the next six years. But Iceland’s honorary consulate in Estonia and the embassies in Tallinn and Reykjavik would not be opened. In 1940, political relations between the two countries were severed for more than half a century.
After World War II broke out, the fate of the two countries could not have been more different – Iceland achieved total sovereignty on 17 June 1944, securing independence from the personal union with Denmark, while Estonia remained an occupied country for fifty years. Estonians came to associate June 1944 with mass deportations, reprisals and communist terror. As then Icelandic premier Davíð Oddsson noted in a historic address delivered on 25 August 1991 in Reykjavik in honor of the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: “We here in Iceland have not borne witness to the imprisonment and deportation of tens of thousands of people to inhuman conditions in Siberia, we have not experience systematic attempts to rob us of our national and individual identity – all that makes life worth living.”
It was small Iceland that took the big and bold step of being the first country to re-recognize the Republic of Estonia – on 22 August 1991, only two days after restoration of independence was declared. Other Western countries followed suit, slowly. Recognition was preceded by a tension-filled and intensive process, whereby Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania used all the foreign policy means at their disposal to gain the backing of the West for their newly won independence. Already on 19 December 1990 and 11 February 1991, Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, adopted resolutions in support of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Althing and the government of Iceland, particularly then foreign minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, expressed strong protest against the Soviet Union’s use of force to attempt to remove the democratically elected governments of the Baltic States.
A few days after the failure of the August putsch in Moscow, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were invited to Reykjavik to meet the political leaders of the country. On 26 August 1991 in Reykjavik, Estonian Foreign Minister Lennart Meri and Iceland Foreign Minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson signed a joint declaration establishing diplomatic relations. (As mentioned, the countries did not have diplomatic relations before the war due to Iceland being in the personal union with Denmark.) Lennart Meri later said that since the foreign minister of a small country had to be responsible for everything, he took with him a handful of blue-black-and-white Estonian flags—for where else could the Icelanders been able to get them? “You can imagine my surprise when I saw the streets decked out in the flags of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I felt that in addition to being small, we also had in common the ability to think of everything,” Meri recalled. Currently in his third consecutive term, Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has described the establishment of diplomatic relations as one of the most beautiful moments of his political career.
After diplomatic relations were established, ambassadors were accredited reciprocally, the cycle of regular visits began and a foundation of treaties began to be developed. Step by step, contact between Estonia and Iceland eased into the conventional relations enjoyed between democratic states. At the same time, 22 August 1991 and the events that followed laid a foundation for a mutual feeling of solidarity between the two countries, a special relationship which continues to be cherished by both sides and observed on a high level.
As a token of thanks for the recognition of Estonia’s independence, now legendary, the open area in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia was named Islandi väljak (Iceland Square) in August 1998. Islandi väljak 1 became the Ministry’s official address on 1 October 1999.
In August 2001, the 10th anniversary of the re-recognition of the Baltic States was marked by a number of political and cultural events in Iceland. In the framework of the ceremonies, the foreign ministers of the three Baltic States (Toomas Hendrik Ilves representing Estonia) and the prime minister and foreign minister of Iceland signed a joint declaration on 25 August 2001 in Reykjavik, emphasizing the continuation of friendly and close cooperative ties.
Also symbolic is the fact that in May 2002, Reykjavik was the place where then Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland received confirmation from the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council regarding Estonia’s imminent accession to NATO. On 29 March 2004, we joined NATO, and all of the joint rights and responsibilities of a member in the treaty organization apply to us.
On 22 August 2006 Estonia marked the 15th anniversary of the re-recognition of its independence with events and ceremonies in Tallinn. The Prime Ministers of Estonia and Iceland inaugurated a memorial plaque placed on the facade of the Foreign Ministry which is also designed to explain the background of the name Islandi väljak. The granite plaque bears an inscription in Estonian, Icelandic and English: “The Republic of Iceland was the first state to recognize, on 22 August 1991, the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia.”
Chronology of Estonian-Icelandic relations, 1991-2006
19 Dec 1990 – The Althing (Icelandic parliament) adopts a resolution expressing support for the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
20 Jan 1991 – Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar and Foreign Minister Lennart Meri meet with Iceland Foreign Minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson. The Lithuanian proposal is discussed, which would have Iceland as the mediator in negotiations between the Baltic States and the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that Iceland considered Finland better suited, the proposal is approved.
11 Feb 1991 – Iceland’s decision to serve as mediator, if necessary, is passed in the Althing.
21 Feb 1991 – Icelandic Prime Minister Steingrímur Hermannsson and Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar sign a declaration, under which Iceland agrees to be mediator of Baltic-Soviet negotiations. It is the first joint declaration by Estonia and Iceland.
26 Aug 1991 – Foreign ministers Lennart Meri and Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, in Reykjavik, sign a joint declaration establishing diplomatic relations. An Estonian-Icelandic treaty on economic and trade cooperation enters into force (it is no longer in force in connection to Estonia’s accession to the European Union on 1 May 2004).
24 Sep 1991 – The first ambassador of the Republic of Iceland in Estonia, Mrs. Sigríður Ásdís Snævarr (residence in Stockholm), presents her credentials to head of state of the Republic of Estonia, Arnold Rüütel.
21 Nov 1991 – The first postwar Estonian ambassador to be accredited to the Republic of Iceland, Arvo J. Alas (residence in Copenhagen), presents his credentials to Iceland president Vigdís Finnbogadottír.
8-11 Nov 1995 – Official visit to Iceland by Prime Minister Tiit Vähi.
10.11.1995 – The Estonian-Icelandic agreement on avoidance of double taxation and prevention of tax evasion enters into force.
6-8 May 1996 – Official visit to Estonia by Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson.
2 May 1997 – Visa freedom between Estonia and Iceland begins.
23-24 Mar 1998 – Official visit to Iceland by Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
8-10 Jun 1998 – State visit to Estonia by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.
13-16 Sep 1999 – State visit to Iceland by President Lennart Meri
1 Oct 1999 – The area in front of the Estonian Foreign Ministry is named Islandi väljak (Iceland Square).
15 May 2000 – The official address of the Foreign Ministry is now Islandi väljak 1.
27-31 Aug 2000 – Official visit to Estonia by Prime Minister David Oddsson.
23-25 May 2001 – Official visit to Iceland by Prime Minister Mart Laar.
25 Aug 2001 – The 10th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is commemorated in Iceland. A declaration on cooperation is signed. Estonia is represented by Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
3-6 May 2004 – State visit of President Arnold Rüütel to Iceland.
21-23 Aug 2006 - Official visit to Estonia by Prime Minister Geir Hilmar Haarde.