What Lessons Does Iceland Hold for the World?

A former prime minister is on trial for decisions and alleged mistakes that prime minister made while in office. Those decisions are alleged to have been so bad as to rise to the level of criminal behavior, by virtue of being so incompetent or mistaken as to have cost the country billions.  The former prime minister lashes out at critics and complains that the charges are unfair.

Any student of the recent history of the former Soviet Union might think that the foregoing paragraph is about Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, who is in jail for her decisions that ended up costing her country billions of dollars in inflated natural gas prices.

Instead, this is the story of Geir Haarde, former prime minister of Iceland, who is being charged, in the words of the Associated Press, with “failing to adequately protect his country’s economy from financial shocks.” The people of Iceland have gone so far as to create and empanel a special court just for this trial. The sum charge against him is not even an active decision, as with Tymoshenko, but what basically amounts to being bad at his job.

Yet there is no outrage here, no angry demands from the State Department or the Council of Europe, no rallies, no friendly media swarming to tell his tale, just a handful of reporters covering the trial as if reporting on the arrival of an exotic zoo specimen. Why the disparity?

The fact that Haarde is not a beautiful woman probably matters, as does his relative lack of media savvy — Tymoshenko is nothing if not a one-woman press operation, and she hires very good PR men to boot. The blocky Haarde is not going to trigger anyone’s rescue-the-damsel response, and clearly seems overwhelmed by events.

But that isn’t the whole of the story.

Even now, in countries trying to break free from decades of slavery to the Soviets, we see a gulag. Where we give others a pass as they struggle to undertake democratic norms not just politically but socially, and forgive Iceland for prosecuting its former prime minister for the crime of not foreseeing the largest financial disaster in nearly a century, we are made to see Soviet-style commissars grinding the peasantry beneath their iron heels.

This is stupid and lazy.

Ukraine is a functioning democracy with a vibrant (and ever-shifting) opposition, with a loud and unruly (if sometimes in love with power) press. The largest paper in the country, the Kyiv Post, is openly antagonistic to the current President, Viktor Yanukovych, and his administration. Tymoshenko was given a trial and an appeal, and the country is looking at a reform of its criminal and electoral codes to de-criminalize the offense for which she was prosecuted, opening the way to a pardon.

Kyiv frankly does not get credit for the progress it has made.

Whatever else may be said of Yanukovych, he has aimed his country’s future squarely at the European Union, resisting Russian calls for rapprochement and introducing a slate of electoral and financial reforms to bring his country more into line with EU standards. The most recent round of electoral reforms basically tracks the outline provided by the Council of Europe, and his market and pension reforms are bringing his country into compliance with EU norms.

The price he has paid has been steep at home, where reform exacts a real cost, where expensive natural gas (a legacy of Tymoshenko’s time as Prime Minister) is eating into government and household budgets, where the citizenry is less concerned with Tymoshenko’s likely release than with the ability to heat their homes and survive bracing and bold market reforms.

Abroad, Ukraine is suffering from a State Department infatuated with Tymoshenko, a Russia angry that Ukraine refuses to return to its orbit, and a European Union both misinformed about the Tymoshenko trial and determined to get natural gas from Russia, even if that means bypassing Ukraine in the process. As the Financial Times has noted, Yanukovych has his work cut out for him.

It need not be this way. No one is suggesting that Iceland’s diplomatic relations be frozen in amber because it is prosecuting its former prime minister for being bad at his job. No one is suggesting leaving Iceland to the whims of Vladimir Putin. The differences between Iceland and Ukraine are minimal and closing. Now is the time to end a decades-outdated memory of the world as it was, and see it for what it is.

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