Envious of Obama, Icelanders hurl yogurt and stage riots for new leaders

By , Contributor / Europe editor

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Protesters hurled dairy products and rage at their elected leaders here during increasingly violent demonstrations this week over the handling of the country’s collapsing economy.

Parliament was suspended Wednesday and the prime minister’s limousine was attacked with snowballs and eggs.

Demonstrators are calling for immediate elections, but the prime minister appeared on television Wednesday night, saying his government has no intention of stepping down.

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Both sides, it seems, are digging in for a fight.

As the Monitor is reporting today, protesters have been gathering regularly – and, until recently, peacefully – following the country’s economic implosion in October. Demonstrators say the government could have prevented the crisis by heeding warnings and preventing banks from amassing so much foreign debt.

The protests subsided when Parliament took a Christmas recess, but the job losses and economic hits kept coming. When Parliament convened Tuesday for its first session of the year, demonstrators were waiting. Jón Gíslason, a university student, said the inauguration of President Barack Obama caused feelings of rage to boil over here.

Obama, Mr. Gíslason said, "is actually respected."

The event in Washington, D.C., "stood in stark contrast with the situation here," Gíslason said Wednesday night, as he stood near a burning trash can. "Our leaders have lost all credibility and seem to bear no responsibility."

Protesters eventually breached the garden of the House of Parliament Tuesday afternoon and began throwing snowballs, eggs, and skyr (an Icelandic dairy product) at police officers. The police responded to the dairy product fusillade with pepper spray and clubs.

Between 20 and 30 protesters were arrested and taken into custody, according to eye witnesses. At least four were taken to hospitals with injuries.

By Tuesday evening, most members of parliament had been evacuated through an underground tunnel. Reykjavik’s Fréttabladid newspaper reported that about 2,000 demonstrators gathered near Parliament later that night. They lit a large bonfire and made several attempts at torching the city’s Christmas tree, which is a gift from Norway. Around midnight, after repeated botched attempts, the protesters simply tore down the tree and tossed it into the bonfire – a scene not unlike the Christmas tree torching last month by anarchists in Athens.

After Parliament’s meeting was canceled Wednesday – amid fierce protests – the body’s president, Sturla Bödvarsson, called for a meeting of the party heads at another office building. An angry waiting there attacked a limousine that carried Iceland’s prime minister, Geir H. Haarde.

Although many here are expressing anger and sadness over the financial crisis, a few commentators have noted an unexpected benefit of the protests: They've helped pull society together. According to an article in The Guardian newspaper, "It is the first time in Icelandic history that a young anarchist can well expect to meet his grandmother in the crowd demonstrating against the government and drumming with her kitchen knife on pots and pans. The government is surely hanging by a thin thread and might fall at any moment."

If the government collapses with the economy, it would be one of the biggest political fallouts yet from the global crisis. Iceland has been a poster child for the global problems, with its major banks being nationalized and citizens now on the line to repay massive foreign debts.

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