"Sweden wasn't best in the class"
On Thursday, the Swedish government crossed out the secret stamps on hundreds of diplomatic cables – apparently, a treasure trove of information concerning the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the Baltic states. But what do the documents actually add to our understanding of Sweden's role in these dramatic events? And why has the government decided to release the documents now?
FLAG WITH TWO MEANINGS
It's a packed audience on Thursday evening, and people are spilling onto the steps of the lecture hall at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. Many of them are holding copies of "An Empire Implodes," a book of secrets communiques, hot off the government's presses. The book contains reports that Swedish diplomats wrote from Moscow, Leningrad, Talinn, Riga and Vilnius between 1989 and 1991, when the Soviet Union came toppling down.
The audience have come to hear some of these diplomats, along with foreign minister Carl Bildt, speak about the chaotic time. One of the first speakers is Dag Sebastian Ahlander, who served as the Swedish Consul General in Leningrad between 1989 and 1992. He wears a pink shirt with a red bowtie and jokes about how nice it was to see his name in print.
He remembers that during the time, he had a little Swedish flag flying from the fender of his diplomatic car. To the Baltic people, it meant Sweden was supporting them, he said. But to the USSR it meant, "we see you," he adds.
The seminar is partly a chance for these diplomats to reminisce about the old days, but when Lars Fredén, Sweden's former consul in Riga takes the floor, the tone changes to one of chagrin. He admits that his "understanding of what was happening was severely inadequate."
Why is he was doubtful about the way Sweden had handled the collapse of the USSR and the liberation of the Baltics?
"We were grossly understaffed," Fredén tells Radio Sweden. "I think it's odd – it was a huge process out there on the ground in Riga, and in Leningrad, we were understaffed."
"We could have given a better picture of what was happening in Latvia and Lithuania," says Fredén. "There was so much information to get. Everyone talked to us all the time. Too much, so to speak."
"I felt we could have done more in the cultural field," says Fredén. "There was a great thirst to learn about the outside world, and there was a great interest in the Swedish language as well, which we could have perhaps answered more clearly than we did at the time."
"We were never actors there. We were witnesses. But we could perhaps been even more intense witnesses than we were," Fredén concludes.
STAMP OF SECRECY
One person from the audience asks: aren't these diplomatic cables basically the same thing as the journalistic reports coming in at the time, except that these were stamped as secret?
Carl Bildt responds that it's important for other countries to know that they can tell Swedish diplomats things in confidence, things they wouldn't necessarily tell journalists.
Journalist Malcolm Dixelius was a Swedish TV correspondant in Moscow from 1990 to 1994. He weighs in on whether the publication of these documents is useful.
"The weakness that I see in this publication is basically that it's a one-way story," Dixelius tells Radio Sweden. "It's what the representatives in the field have told the foreign office at home, but we don't know how that was received, how that was analyzed, and how Swedish policy came to be based on that."
"It's interesting, some of the things," says Dixelius. "Sweden really had a problem with the actual fact – when to accept the fact that these countries were going to be independent. Because Sweden had de jure legally accepted Soviet law in these areas. So, it was a difficult position for the diplomats clearly."
"I think it opens up very early a debate about the role," says Dixelius. "I think some people have an idealistic view of what Sweden did in those days. Now, we have a chance to go to the records, assess them, and see, yeah, Sweden wasn't best in the class – maybe the reporting was good, but the Swedish policy wasn't that much different from what other countries did."
Radio Sweden asked Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt whether the decision to release the documents now has anything to do with Wikileaks.
"No, it has primarily to do with the fact that this was 20 years ago," Bildt replies. "And we are sort of celebrating to a certain extent what happened. You know, it was a sort of momentous development in our part of the world. It was a big challenge. It went peacefully at the end of the day, but it could have gone otherwise."