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Geysir dispute, RÚV cleanup and the mysterious disappearance of Iceland’s prime minister

Hello, and welcome to Iceland this Week, March 17-22.

How do you like Iceland now?

How do you like IcelandLast week I mentioned that punters who wanted to visit the Geysir area would have to start ponying up for that privilege very soon. Well “very soon” turned out to be last Saturday, March 15. Yep, as of that day everyone who wishes to see old Strokkur blow [Geysir himself, whom the area is named after, has long since retired] has to pay an entrance fee of ISK 600, collected by the landowners on the Geysir site. The move is highly controversial, to say the least. Tour operators were furious, which is understandable given that they had already sold Golden Circle tours that didn’t have the admission charge included so they had to cover that out of their own [albeit deep] pockets. In the town of Mosfellsbær, which you generally pass through en route to Þingvellir from Reykjavík, a motion was introduced in the city council to start charging those who charge admission to Geysir for driving through Mosfellsbær. Obviously it’s not really doable, but the city council member who proposed the idea wanted to call attention to the absurdity of the fact that Icelandic taxpayers, who bear the cost of the infrastructure allowing tourists to travel to those places, will themselves have to pay a fee to enter. Meanwhile, yesterday the shop Geysir, which is situated next to the Geysir area and which is run by unaffiliated parties, decided to stop selling entry tickets to because they allegedly wanted to remain neutral in the dispute over the entry fee. The Geysir landowners, however, claim that they did so in response to pressure from touring companies. And so, the dispute rages on.

The big sweep

Some of you may recall the outrage late last year when around 60 people were laid off at RÚV, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Company [our version of the BBC]. It sparked a major protest and solidarity meeting, and ended with the director of RÚV resigning [albeit with a super-sweet severance package: a full salary for a whole year amounting to ISK 1 million per month, which is around five times the minimum wage]. These upheavals at RÚV made people nervous for various reasons, not least being that members of the current government had already made overt and covert threats to cut funding to RÚV because they felt they were not reporting the news to their liking. And these layoffs were due to cut funding. Anyway. There was much suspense over who would replace the former director, and at the end of January his successor was named as one Magnús Geir Þórðarsson, who had been director of the Reykjavík Municipal Theatre Company for the last several years and who is a bit of a wunderkind in Icelandic society – everything he touches seemingly turns to gold. Despite the fact that he had been the Independence Party’s representative on the RÚV board [and no one trusts the IP], most people felt that he was a good choice. Well Magnús Geir started working earlier this month, and this past Tuesday called a meeting in which he announced that he was firing all the RÚV executives. It was a bombshell, and initially people were fearful that there might actually be political cleansing taking place, and that the government would soon fill the vacant positions with their own hand-picked people. But those fears were quickly alleviated when Magnús Geir was interviewed about his intentions. He stated that the plan was to make radical changes to the operations of RÚV and therefore the executives – who were urged to re-apply for their jobs – would be assessed according to new criteria and new emphases in operations. Furthermore he said he intended to address the gender balance – that there had been too many men in executive positions and that he wanted to hire more women. Also that he felt uncomfortable having an office at the “top of the pyramid” [the director’s office is at the top of a building that does, indeed, look like a pyramid] and so he would be moving his office down to be with the regular staff. – When those horrendous layoffs took place at RÚV last fall, one of the main criticisms was that the execs all kept their positions and [substantial] salaries, while the people on the floor, who had been slaving away for little more than minimum wage, were let go. From what I can read into the new director’s words and actions he intends to reverse that trend, at least insofar as is possible given RÚV’s poor financial state. All of which bodes very well for the future of RÚV, in my opinion, and all of which is very good news for us – the owners of RÚV.  

Where’s Simmi?

Another issue that caused tremors this week was the bizarre repeated absence of our prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. Apparently he’s not all that keen on showing up for work. His fellow MPs, who have seen their requests for special discussions on various pressing matters ignored by the PM, became seriously fed up this week. The final straw was when SDG was once again absent and turned out to be abroad “on a private matter”. No further explanation was given – not where he was, what he was doing, nor when he would be coming back. Later it was revealed that he had not even told his coalition partners about his trip until a day or two before he left, meaning that Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the other coalition party, would also be out of the country at the same time, as would the Minister of Foreign Affairs, meaning the office of the PM would be covered by the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture. Which in my opinion is kind of like being governed by the considerably less astute brother of Laurel and Hardy [the guy is a complete dork]. Meanwhile, parliament goes into recess in 16 days or something, and there are some very serious issues that need to be addressed, but which cannot be addressed because the prime minister is out doing his Where’s Wally routine. Yeah. As if things could get any more messed up around here.

Meanwhile the demonstrations continue

And the government seems to be reconsidering its position on pushing the cancellation of the EU accession talks through parliament. Of course they have to save face and so are holding their cards close to their chest, but they’ve taken the issue and shoved it into a new committee, thereby buying themselves some more time. Even so, upwards of a couple of thousand people have been showing up in parliament square every Saturday to demonstrate. The message is clear: honour your promises, or else.

And finally …

There was this. An interview with Yours Truly.

[pic found here.]

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