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Conscience or chaos?

The sudden collapse of Greenland’s government last month was depicted in Denmark as a symptom of what is wrong with the country. Its defenders say it shows it is working just fine
Is this the face that launched a thousand editorials? (Photo: Leiff Josefsen)

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With the exception of a special report or a business article looking into Greenland’s economic woes, news from the northern reaches of the Kingdom of Denmark is typically absent from the pages of the media in Copenhagen.

Even so, it should come as little surprise that the political turmoil that engulfed the now-former government of Aleqa Hammond last month provided fodder for the southern press for at least a couple of days. Political scandal is always a seller, and never more so when it involves Denmark’s former colony, to which Copenhagen still gives 3.7 billion kroner ($580 million) each year in a single lump subsidy. (The figure amounts to 66,000 kroner for each of the country’s 56,000 residents.)

The initial reporting was mostly straightforward and on the mark, explaining how the country went into scandal mode after Hammond was alleged to have mis-used public funds for personal expenses.

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It was the analysis that got a little more daring. Given a similar spate of incidents that have occurred in the 35 years the country has been responsible for its own domestic affairs, anchors dutifully asked their guests whether such scandals were endemic to Greenlandic lawmakers.

It is not, most agreed. If it seems that way, it is because there are a host of explanations that stem primarily from the particular challenges of governing a country of Greenland’s enormous geographic size with a population that amounts to a provincial town.

But unlike those towns, wrote Anne Knudsen, the editor-in-chief of Weekendavisen, a highly respected weekly, and herself a resident of Greenland as a child, Greenland needs to staff “a government, an administration and a university, send representatives to dozens of international co-operative organisations dealing with innumerable topics, negotiate major contracts with multi-national firms, manage a handful of enormous nationally owned firms and manage the affairs of the world’s largest island, which includes operating a health service, providing social services, keeping up infrastructure, running a national church and a school system.”

The exhausting list, according to Knudsen, showed how the number of tasks was “in horrible disproportion” to Greenland’s population. Others have pointed out that the country’s multiple layers of bureaucracy reflects its Danish origins and not Greenlandic reality and make conflict of interest all but inevitable in a country with so few people.

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Knudsen added that this demography argues against Greenland’s ability to function as an independent country. But, she also used the example to refute the premise of another editorial, this one in Børsen, a financial daily, bearing the title ‘Banana republic’.

Others who shared Knudsen’s more positive view of Greenland’s political situation also rallied to the country’s cause. Numerous opinion pieces pointed out that while the accusation of personal malfeasance cost Hammond her job, this was a sign of the country’s democratic health.

By contrast, it was repeatedly noted, a former Danish prime minister who is accused of a similar transgression stands to win the next election.

“We in Denmark can learn something from Greenland,” Gitte Seeberg, the secretary general of the Danish chapter of the World Wildlife Foundation and a former MP, wrote.

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Noting that Hammond’s resignation was preceded by the departure of four cabinet members in disgust over their boss’s alleged abuse of position, Seeberg noted that the “Danish media appeared to be in shock that politicians could “follow their conscience instead of toeing the party line”.

Their response, she wrote, “was to talk about chaos and quickly concluded this was the world’s northernmost banana republic”.

Ole Kristensen, the Børsen editorial writer responsible for the headline, says it was “intentionally provocative”, but argues that those who saw the critique as aimed at the political system missed the point, given that the editorial was tightly focused on the conclusions of an economic report ugently recommending reforms.

“I left out politics almost entirely,” he says.

Kristensen notes that a similarly critical editorial appeared in Politiken, the national paper of record, but with a less bombastic headline and with considerably less blowback.

“I wasn’t surprised people got upset at mine,” Kristensen says. “You write something like that, you know people are going to say something. I just wish they paid more attention to the argument, because I think it was valid.”

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The banana republic analogy came in when Kristensen wrote that the incentive structure in Greenland is comparable with “the worst-ruled countries”.

“If you are a young and ambitious person looking to make something of you life,” Kristensen wrote, “you don’t get into business or management. Doing so would be a dead-end in the current political climate. Instead, you pursue a career in the military or politics, as the path to riches and power. The military option, though, is irrelevant in Greenland’s case. This kind of incentive structure is poison for economic growth and human development.”

Kristensen, like Knudsen in her editorial, points out that a similarly provocative headline about Danish politics or a major country would not have raised eyebrows in the same way. The umbrage to criticism of Greenland, however, reflects a sense of uncertainty about how to approach the former colony.

“There’s always a delicate balance when Denmark talks about Greenland,” he says, pointing out that, in practice, this has resulted in Copenhagen handing over the annual subsidy to Nuuk scot-free.

“Were it foreign aid handed to a developing country, we’d put conditions on it. We can’t do that with Greenland though, since it would raise the spectre of colonialism. The best we can do is hint, or make recommendations for good governance,” he says.

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Michael Binzer, a Greenlandic executive and a columnist for this website, also sees the reaction to the headline as typical.

“Greenland’s like a teenager that’s rebelling, and if Denmark is the parent then it’s afraid to set limits.”

Like others, he points to Greenland’s recent emergence as a democracy as part of the explanation for the country’s response.

“We haven’t decided for ourselves for very long and we’re still getting the hang of it. We have no tradition of being criticised from outside, or of criticising each other. A lot this is about self-worth and how we see ourselves.”

If that is the case, then it could be that what stung most about Kristensen’s headline was not that it called Greenland a “banana republic”, but the fact that, despite the wishes of many there, the country is not a republic at all.