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Former Iceland president about green energy, tourism, football and Iceland’s economic success

You are a record-holder since you were the Iceland president during five terms. Is it thanks to your personal qualities or is it thanks to the people of Iceland who do not like frequent changes?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, president of the Republic of Iceland (1996-2016):
I never discuss my presidential term. It is a principle. There is another rule: after my term came to an end, I do not meet with journalists, and this interview is one of those few I agreed to give. I can speak on different subjects except for my political career. It is not the time to discuss it yet.

Let’s begin with the Arctic region; this subject is familiar to you. However, should Belarusians feel worried about the future of the Arctic region?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
This region is a large part of the world, the size of which equals the territory of Africa. It covers seven time belts! It determines the weather of the entire world. The melting of ice there happens two or three times quicker than in other regions and is the reason of strong storms in Europe, Asia, Africa and America. What is more, the Arctic region is rich in natural resources, energy, metals, sea and other resources for the major countries of the 21st century. Therefore, China, Japan, France, Germany, the UK and Russia also participate in the Arctic cooperation.

Natural resources are important for many countries, but Iceland develops alternative energy sources, heating in houses and everything else by means of the sun, geysers and volcanos. Don’t you think that alternative energy is our future? Should this sector be developed in order to give up oil and gas?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
When I was 20 years old, Iceland got 80% of its energy from imported oil and coal. Iceland managed to get rid of this dependence and changed its energy system during man's lifetime. Today the energy system is built on a pure hydro- and geothermal energy. This is one of the main reasons of a high level of life in Iceland. Pure energy attracts foreign companies: aluminum production plants and data centers. The people of the country pay small money for heating and electricity in their houses.

I participate in many sectors of international cooperation: with China and the Middle East. One of the main ideas for the upcoming 40-50 years is to switch to renewable energy sources. It is rather economically reasonable. For instance Iceland can offer foreign companies fixed price for electricity for 20 years to come. There is no other place in the whole world where you can get a contract with fixed price for such a long term. The production of green energy does not depend on fluctuations on oil markets.

What should countries like Belarus do? I mean countries without volcanoes, with insufficient sun activity (although you don't have much of that either) and with practically no winds.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
We all saw in school books that the upper layer of the Earth is thin, and there is fire under this layer. And this fire is under all countries - be it Iceland, Belarus or Russia. The problem is how deep this well should be and how this energy will be used. 

One of the main challenges of the 21st century is to provide cold latitudes with heat and cool down warm latitudes, in countries and cities located there. Therefore, low-temperature geothermal zones can be used, where the temperature is only 30-40 degrees. This is what China is doing right now: closing down plants working on coal and establishing new plants with the low-temperature geothermal zones.

If you are going to produce energy, a temperature of 100 degrees in necessary. Therefore, a deeper well has to be dug.

For instance, to confirm how urgent the issue is, I can cite the United Arab Emirates, which direct 40% of energy to cool down houses. The same is in Saudi Arabia. And if in the next 30 years the country doesn’t switch to green energy, then in the second half of the century, the largest oil producers will have to import energy. The progress in the last 10-20 years is so great that the energy produced by means of geothermal, sun and wind resources is cheaper than generated from oil. As many as 60 years ago, nobody would have believed that foreign aluminum plants would be buying such energy.

You are contradicting yourself a bit. You are speaking about green energy, but on the other hand, you are admiring aluminum production plants in Iceland. It is dirty production.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
It depends. Aluminum is necessary for decent living standards today. If you want to drive an electromobile, you need aluminum to build it. Many means of communication are based on this element as well. The production of aluminum pollutes the air less than burning coal or oil. Green energy attracts modern companies.

You are for modern technologies. Do you actively use computers, tablets and mobile phones?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
I see an iPad in your hands. After my presidential term came to end, people often asked me where my office was. I had no office; I had a tablet, which is always with me. The day before yesterday I was in Santiago, then I will be going to Russia, Kazakhstan, Sweden, and my office is always with me. It connects me with the whole world, no matter where I am. Of course, I have a team in Iceland working on different projects. I contact them with a small piece of equipment, which is in my bag.

The computer was an important instrument when I was the president of Iceland. Tablets and smartphones provide access to information. To have this infrastructure is enough to have influence in your own country and in the world.

Your TV channel sent a crew to Iceland with cameras to make a program. Modern technologies, like a PC or a smartphone, give an opportunity for anyone to be mass media. As many as 20 years ago it was impossible, but today it is real! After we finish this interview, I will be able to send a message over the entire world, just like you, a large TV channel. It's important to understand how technologies changed our opportunities to be influential and change the society and the whole world!Information technologies have created a possibility for Iceland’s companies, people and youth to gain their weight in this world differently.

Belarus is trying to develop in accordance with the world tendencies. Viber app was created in Belarus. There are also several apps developed by Belarusians, which Facebook and Microsoft later bought. The Uber company came to Belarus to develop some new projects. Belarus also has its own Silicon Valley, and we have many good programmers. This is where, probably, Belarus and Iceland could find common points.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
The development of information technologies contributes to the development of new programs, applications and possibilities. It can happen anywhere in the world. Iceland is a small country. However, we have several companies that are the largest in the world. All of them started from teams of two or three people. Therefore, Belarus and Iceland never had such possibilities to be successful with large expenses.

If we are going to use our creative strength, brains is the main source of energy we have. Youth should be given possibilities to establish new companies. This is one of the reasons I appointed our meeting at this university. This university was founded 10 years ago to inspire youth to create new products and a new world. In my opinion, 21st-century universities are strong generators for creating a good future. I suppose that one of the aspects Belarus is interested in when it comes to Iceland is how such an isolated country managed to take leading positions in many sectors.

The secret is that the people and youth groups are given a possibility to create new products, which quickly spread all over the world.

Another secret is tourism. As many as 20 years ago, Iceland was visited by about 200,000 tourists. Today, about two million tourists come to this country. A great example is the Blue Lagoon. Tourists pay a reasonable amount of money to have a swim in water left from the power plant. Therefore, Belarus is capable of creating new possibilities to attract people and develop life standards. Maybe you know that the people of Iceland believe in elves. I do not know whether they are real or not. Tourists in Iceland pay money to have a walk with them and to see caves where elves live. Some say that it is just imagination; nevertheless, it is part of Iceland’s culture.

You speak of Iceland as a true patriot. However, one of your examples puzzles me a bit. When you speak about green energy... I would not think you are from Iceland when I heard your opinion. Do you know why? Icelanders are afraid to move a stone in order not to frighten elves. You say that it is necessary to drill a well. What would the elves say about it?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
Elves don’t live everywhere, they live in particular cliffs. So you can find places where a well could be drilled. You are completely right. I have been doing international relations for many years and can imagine how other countries see Iceland.

Do elves help your football players as well? How did Iceland manage to reach such success in this sport?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
The secret of the national team is simple: 20 years ago we started creating facilities to involve children into football, not only in Reykjavik, but in any small town or village. Children from the age of five or six do football there. The large part of the funds the Football Association of Iceland received from international agreements was directed not to the Champions League, but for building small football pitches in certain areas. We also used this money to increase coaches' wages. English football differs from the football in Iceland, if you remember, we beat England. Football in England is all about money, but in Iceland football is people.

Your experience will certainly be beneficial for us. We would also like to know the secrets, because due attention is paid to sport in Belarus. Belarus is trying to do some things taking Iceland as an example. For instance, tourists can now come to Belarus without a visa and stay for 5 days. If you wish to come to Belarus someday, you can simply buy an air ticket and see our wonderful country, which is interesting as well.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
Thank you! It is quite possible that I will do that.

But for now we would like to give you a Belarusian souvenir. This is an amulet doll, not an elf. You can add an Icelandic button to it and then make a wish!

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:
Thank you. Unfortunately, I cannot present an elvish woman to you, but you can visit a cliff where she lives. Thank you!

Thank you!

Former Iceland president about green energy, tourism, football and Iceland’s economic success