Iceland Condemns Russian Treatment of Alexei Navalny

Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Iceland’s Foreign Ministry called the director of the Russian embassy in Iceland to a meeting yesterday due to the death of Alexei Navalny. He was told that Iceland condemns Russian authorities’ treatment of Navalny. Russia’s ambassador to Iceland was asked to leave last year following the invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign Minister blames Russian government

“It was made clear to the director that the Icelandic government condemns the Russian government’s treatment of Navalny, which led to his death last week,” reads a written response from the ministry to RÚV. Russian diplomats have been called to similar meetings in Iceland’s neighbouring countries. “The Icelandic government also condemns the Russian government’s attacks on human rights and people’s freedom, as a large number of people have been imprisoned in Russia recently following Navalny’s death,” the response continues.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson tweeted about Navalny’s death last week, stating “Saddened to learn of the passing of Alexei Navalny and I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and supporters. Putin and the Russian government bear ultimate responsibility for his death.”

Cooling relations

Iceland shut down its embassy in Moscow in August 2023 and requested the Russian embassy in Iceland scale down its operations and send home its ambassador. The last time there was no Russian ambassador in Iceland was between 1948-1954. While Iceland’s Foreign Minister at the time stated that the closure did not entail a complete severing of diplomatic relations between the countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated it “destroys” the countries’ bilateral relations.

Ambassador Nomination Draws Surprise and Criticism

foreign minister bjarni benediktsson

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson has nominated his former assistant as Ambassador to the United States, RÚV reports. An administrative analyst has called the nomination unusual while Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson has called it a breach of ethics.

Svanhildur Holm Valsdóttir, Bjarni’s nominee, has been director of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce for the past three years. Between 2013 and 2020, she worked as Bjarni’s assistant. Prior to that, she was the CEO of the Independence Party, of which Bjarni is the chair. Svanhildur holds a law degree as well as an MBA from Reykjavík University.

Threshold for ambassador lowered

“The threshold for the rank of ambassador has really been lowered with the appointment of Svanhildur Holm, as her promotion in this regard is very rare,” Haukur Arnþórsson, an administrative analyst, told RÚV. He added that the appointment was a surprise. While in the past, former politicians have been appointed as ambassadors, often to strong criticism, appointing a former political assistant and a public official from a minister’s former ministry is something completely new, Haukur stated.

Breach of ethics, says opposition

Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson asserted that Bjarni’s nomination of Svanhildur may constitute a breach of ethics. He stated that the Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate the matter if he considers there to be reason to do so.

Position not advertised

Bjarni Benediktsson stepped into the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs two months ago, after resigning as Minister of Finance when the Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded he had been unfit to approve the partial sale of Íslandsbanki bank.

Svanhildur’s appointment is for a period of five years. The position was not advertised. US authorities have yet to accept the nomination.

In 2020, Bjarni’s fellow party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson proposed tightening the regulations for appointing ambassadors. The proposed amendments, which, among other changes, would have made advertising ambassadorial openings mandatory, were not passed.

Disappointed in Icelandic Government’s Response to Gaza

Icelandic government Palestine protest

Locals in Iceland have held regular protests outside the Icelandic government’s cabinet meetings since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. Protesters are calling on the government to condemn Israeli authorities for their actions and use its influence to call for a ceasefire in the conflict. Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in an emergency meeting of the UN last month.

Call on government to condemn Israel’s actions

“We are here to tell the government of Iceland that it has not done its job in these matters, because it has only condemned Hamas. It has not yet gotten around to condemning Israel and the atrocities that are currently being committed. And the performance at the UN is of course shameful,” Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, chairman of the Iceland-Palestine Association, told RÚV reporters at this morning’s protest. A sizeable group gathered to wave flags, chant in support of Palestine, and express their disappointment towards cabinet ministers.

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is fairly strong among the Icelandic public. The Iceland-Palestine Association chaired by Hjálmtýr was founded in 1987.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson, who recently took on the position after resigning as Minister of Finance stated that he was not consulted on the UN General Assembly ceasefire vote. In a recent press conference, he refused to call Israel’s bombing of refugee camp Jabalia as an “attack on a refugee camp,” insisting it was “a matter of how you approach it.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Responds to Iceland’s Embassy Closure

Jakobsdóttir and Lavrov

Iceland’s decision to suspend operations in its Moscow embassy “destroys” the countries’ bilateral operations, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has stated according to Reuters. Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs announced last week that it would shut down the embassy of Iceland in Moscow on August 1 and had requested the Russian embassy in Iceland to scale down its operations and send home its ambassador. Icelandic authorities will lay off the embassy’s locally hired staff and terminate rental contracts in Moscow.

“The decision taken by the Icelandic authorities to lower the level of diplomatic relations with Russia destroys the entire range of Russian-Icelandic cooperation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry stated. “We will take this unfriendly decision into account when building our ties with Iceland in the future. All anti-Russian actions of Reykjavik will inevitably be followed by a corresponding reaction.”

The Icelandic embassy in Moscow has had seven staff members: two sent out from Iceland and five who were hired locally. Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs told Vísir that the five locally hired staff members will be laid off according to their current employment contracts. Iceland’s Ambassador to Russia Árni Þór Sigurðsson will be relocated to the Icelandic embassy in Copenhagen. The ministry also expects to terminate its rental contracts both for the embassy offices and the ambassador’s residence.

A press release from Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs stated that “[t]he decision to close down the embassy’s activities does not imply the termination of the diplomatic relationship between the countries. As soon as conditions permit, emphasis will be placed on resuming the activities of the Icelandic embassy in Moscow.”

New United States Ambassador to Iceland Appointed

Carrin F. Patman

The United States Senate has confirmed Carrin F. Patman as the next US Ambassador to Iceland. Patman is a lawyer by training and was a major fundraiser in both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden’s electoral campaigns in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Vísir reported first.

Patman, 65, was nominated for the position by Joe Biden in February. At the time of her nomination, she stated she had picked up some basic Icelandic, though in her words: “Just a little.”

Patman has been chair of Houston Metro in Houston, Texas since 2010. She was previously a partner at Bracewell LLP, where her specialisations included class action litigation and environmental violations. She was a founding board member of the Center for Women in Law and has been a leader in women’s rights organisations in Texas.

In a statement, Patman said she hoped to “strengthen our cooperation and understanding between the governments of the United States and Iceland.”

The last US ambassador to Iceland, Jeffrey Ross Gunter, was a controversial figure, not least for the social media posts he made throughout his tenure. A US government report published late last year revealed that embassy staff were still recovering from the “threatening and intimidating environment” created by Gunter.

Nearly All Icelanders Believe War Crimes Have Been Committed in Ukraine

Protests in Reykjavík

A new survey shows that support for Ukraine in Iceland is almost universal and Icelanders have shown this support in a variety of ways, RÚV reports.

According to a recent Gallup poll, almost all Icelanders believe that Russians have committed war crimes in Ukraine and should be prosecuted in international courts.

See Also: Vesturbær Residents Come to Aid of New Ukrainian Neighbours

Nearly a third of Icelanders have made direct monetary donations to Ukraine and over a quarter of the country has purchased goods or services, the proceeds of which will be used support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself and support its people during Russia’s invasion of the country. A fifth of the nation has donated clothing or other items to be donated to Ukrainians.

See Also: Ukrainian Refugees Welcomed to Bifröst University

Almost 84% of Icelanders believe that the country is doing a good job of its reception Ukrainian refugees, while 4% think that the reception efforts have not been handled well.

Iceland to Open Embassy in Warsaw This Autumn

An Icelandic embassy to Poland will be opened in the country’s capital Warsaw this autumn, Iceland’s Foreign Minister announced at a cabinet meeting last week. The embassy will also be responsible for servicing Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. Polish nationals account for around 40% of all immigrants living in Iceland.

“Political, economic, and cultural relations between Iceland and Poland have increased significantly in recent years,” a government notice on the new embassy reads. “An ever-increasing number of Icelanders trace their origins to Poland. The countries’ interests converge on important issues, such as security and defence. Increased communication between the two countries, not least due to the large number of Poles living in Iceland, has strengthened trade and cultural ties.”

The Polish government has operated a consulate in Iceland since 2008, which became a full-fledged embassy in 2013. “With the opening of the Icelandic Embassy in Warsaw, the necessary reciprocity in the political union of the states will finally be achieved, and it is gratifying to be able to take that step and emphasise how valuable the nations’ friendship is to us Icelanders,” Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated. “The Polish Embassy in Reykjavík has provided important services to the large group of Poles living in Iceland. In the same way, the Icelandic Embassy in Warsaw can provide services to Icelandic citizens and Poles with close ties to Iceland, and at the same time pave the way for Icelandic companies in these regions and safeguard Icelandic interests, for example in the EEA Development Fund.”

Read more about Iceland’s Polish community here.

Iceland to Take Part in Sanctions Against Russia, Ministers Say

Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and President publicly condemned Russian military action in Ukraine this morning. Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, discussed the development during question period today, when opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir urged the Justice Minister to declare Ukraine an unsafe country and accept refugees from the country in Iceland. Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated Iceland would take “full part in international sanctions” on Russia.

Iceland’s National Security Council will meet today to discuss the Russian attack on Ukraine, RÚV reports. The meeting was scheduled prior to the attack launched by Russia last night. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that the most pessimistic predictions of events in Russia and Ukraine have come to pass.

“The Icelandic government and I condemn this attack, of course. This is a serious breach of international law and truly looks as if the worst predictions in this matter have come to pass,” Katrín stated. Asked about Icelandic authorities’ response, she stated that Iceland would collaborate with its allies and NATO, of which it is a founding member.

Unclear whether Russian ambassador will stay

Þórdís Kolbrún was asked whether authorities would consider deporting Russia’s ambassador to Iceland. “We called him to a meeting here yesterday and reviewed our case. Now the priority is really to support what needs to be supported within NATO, monitor closely and review what is happening.  As for the Russian embassy here, it will remain to be seen,” Þórdís stated. The Russian Embassy to Iceland criticised statements from the President of Iceland and the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressing support in Ukraine’s territorial integrity earlier this month, calling them “one-sided” and “subjective.”

During the Icelandic Parliament’s question period this morning, opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir urged Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson to declare Ukraine an unsafe country today and ease the arrival of refugees from the country. The Minister answered that the issue “should be reviewed” at this point, but made no firm declarations, Kjarninn reports. Jón’s recent actions concerning asylum seekers, including proposed amendments to the Immigration Act, have been criticised by human rights organisations and medical professionals in Iceland.

Icelandic Officials Express Support for Ukraine

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and President have expressed their support for Ukraine and called on Russia to de-escalate its military advance into the country. Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir met with the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) yesterday, who issued a statement on the matter. The Icelandic government considers Russia’s actions to be a breach of international law, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated in an interview with RÚV.

“The Icelandic government’s stance is completely clear. We consider this to be a breach of international law,” the Prime Minister stated. “This concerns the border of an independent state and not only have the Russians recognised the independence of these two regions but moreover sent troops over the border which is, of course, a very serious situation.” Katrín added that she hoped the current situation would not lead to conflict, and that “all diplomatic paths would be pursued as far as possible.”

The Prime Minister tweeted along similar lines yesterday, writing that “Escalation and armed conflict is not the solution to current challenges. The door for diplomacy must remain open.” Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson retweeted Katrín’s statement, adding: “A clear stance by the government of Iceland. Respect for international law is paramount, recourse to violence unacceptable.”

Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs met with the Partner Nations of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) yesterday, who issued a statement calling out Russia for breaking international law and reiterating their support for Ukraine and its sovereignty. “We call on Russia to deescalate and encourage them to engage in transparent dialogue, including through the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council, in order to reduce tensions,” the statement reads, in part.

Russia Gives No Explanation of Navy Ships off Iceland’s Coast

Russia ship navy military severomorsk

In late summer of this year, a convoy of Russian military ships set off from the northern port of Severomorsk. The expedition was intended to be a routine Arctic voyage, but it did not end up that way. Three ships from the convoy took an unexpected turn west, sailing close to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and then into Icelandic waters on August 20, RÚV reports. The ships made their presence clear to Icelandic authorities, yet Russia has not answered their inquiries as to why the ships entered Icelandic waters, or why the destroyer Severomorsk circumnavigated the country.

A press release from the Russian Ministry of Defence states that the ships were directed to Iceland to respond to and monitor NATO warships and unexpected air exercises in the northeastern part of the Norwegian Sea, east of Iceland. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson said it was far-fetched that Russia needed to carry out military exercises near Iceland to defend itself. “But they of course have their own approach to international affairs, as we know,” Guðlaugur stated. Still, he added, it was not surprising that Russia would use NATO exercises as an excuse for such activity.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Guðlaugur Þór in Reykjavík last spring, where he expressed his concern about the military conduct of neighbouring countries, stating that “There are unresolved issues related to militarisation and reconstruction in Norway and the Baltic states.”

Iceland’s defence policy is founded on its membership in NATO and the 1951 defence agreement signed with the United States. Iceland has greatly increased its defence spending in recent years, increasing spending by 37% between 2017 and 2019. In its 2020 budget, the US Air Force allocated ISK 7 billion [$56.2 million, €49.5 million] to construction projects at Iceland’s Keflavík Airport.