Margeir Pétursson: “Things I like about the Ukrainians the most is your sense of humor and dignity”
Banker and chess grandmaster based in Lviv on life and business in Ukraine
When traveling to Ukraine, Icelanders usually try to contact their compatriot Margeir Pétursson, a banker and a chess grandmaster, who for the last five years has been based in Lviv and occasionally visits Kyiv. This time the reason for him to come to the capital was 2018 FIFA World Cup UEFA qualifying tournament, in which the Icelandic team was about to play with the Ukrainian. He was invited by the football federation to support his countrymen playing in an empty stadium.
After a word about the game, we discussed the parallels between the two countries that Margeir considers his home, political perturbations in Iceland and the potential of Ukrainian chess players.
How would you explain the successof Icelanders in EURO-2016?
Statistically, it's almost impossible. The population of our country is like some of your cities like Rivne or Chernivtsi. As you probably know, we don’t have a professional league, and the most talented kids are trained abroad. Football is very popular in Iceland. And the Icelanders are very committed to what they do, they are purposeful, they are fighters.
When and why did you move to Ukraine?
It was in 2004. We found a small bank in Lviv in 2005, we bought it. I have been there permanently since 2011. We chose the city by chance. But I’m glad that we have decided to stay in Lviv because we could end up in a much worse place, as you can imagine…
Oh, of course! I’m very proud of this city. And I gladly show it to my guests and friends. I know the history of this city quite well.
Do you know how many Icelanders live in Ukraine?
I don’t know. I hear only that they arrive and leave. Often it’s not for business. It’s some other things…
Like IT. Programmers usually come here. But they mostly come and go away. Some of them contact me and I try to meet with them. But I’m sure that some Icelanders come to Ukraine because the weather here is great and everything is pretty cheap.
There’s a significant gap between anaverage income in Iceland and Ukraine (at least 20-fold – Ed.)...
And Iceland has become even more expensive in last few years, while Ukraine has become much cheaper. Especially, when we look at prices in Lviv.
The devaluation of the last two years and a half has caused serious difficulties. And it correlates with economic crisis in Ukraine that has been observed during this period of time. But in Ukraine, you always have to be ready for a crisis. We were ready. In Ukraine, people learn how to survive. In Iceland, people think they also have problems, but these are not problems if you compare them with those that Ukrainians face.
Do you feel a Ukrainian after so many years in relationship with Ukraine?
I would say yes. I don’t take stability for granted as we do in Iceland.
Despite unpredictable volcano eruptions and changeable weather?
In Iceland we have natural disasters, but here in Ukraine your main catastrophes are man-made. These catastrophes divide you. Our disasters bring us together.
It’s very interesting to watch your current inner political rivalry. Not so long ago your media started heralding that Iceland could soon become the first country in the world where a Pirate Party will lead the government. But according to the recent polls, the Independent Party againenjoys themajority of support. How come?
To be honest, I don’t see any significant ideological difference between parties in Iceland. It seems to me that today Icelanders have different vision of politics. And they don’t want to be earmarked as left or right. That’s why for many people it makes sense to consider the Pirates. Because people don’t want to be trapped in those old standards. It’s understandable. But every time when I’m in Iceland I try to find at least somebody who would tell me that he will vote for the Pirates. I ask my daughter. She says she knows a few people. Okay. But where do those almost 25% come from?
I always vote for the Independent Party. This is a habit I can’t get rid of.
I helped this party from 2000 to 2005. It represents the freedom of business. It’s a party that is trustworthy. Its members realize that a state should have financial discipline. I remember what kind of society Iceland was in the 80s. This party came to power and liberalized the economy. We became members of the European Economic Area. Bureaucracy was minimized, inflation (which was a huge problem for us) was put under control. And thanks to this liberalization Iceland is as prosperous as you see it. Of course, the Independence Party is not what it used to be in the old days anymore, but I’ll vote for them anyway. And I don’t hide.
Then what meant the resignation ofSigmundur DavíðGunnlaugsson after the information in the Panama Papers wasrevealed to the public?
He was not a bad Prime Minister. It was simply presented in a way that the news (about his wealth – Ed.) made people really angry. During his time in the office, he actually had saved billions of Icelandic krónur for Iceland after the crash of 2008. And it was not a secret to anyone that his wife inherited a lot of money.
I am also in the Panama Papers. But it was a standard practice in 2000s. Many Icelanders had bank accounts in Luxembourg and Switzerland. In 2008 I received a letter from our tax administration. I replied. Everything was clean and legal. Actually, I don’t see anything illegal in what the Prime Minister did.
What do you like about working in Ukraine?
Things I like about the Ukrainians the most is your sense of humor and dignity. You try to be nice to others, you try to look good. You know how to celebrate. You have a lot of holidays. I like that. I admire persistence of the Ukrainians, because you have survived so many economic difficulties but usually remain in good spirits. And you want a better life, which you deserve.
You witnessed two Ukrainian revolutions. Have you felt involved or rather a neutral observer?
I supported both of them. I felt that it was also about me. But what happened in 2014, it was such a shock. I remember I was celebrating my birthday in February. I turned on the TV and saw what was happening on Maidan. It was the worse birthday in my life. I couldn’t celebrate it after that. How could this happen in such a peaceful country? I felt so miserable. And all my friends, too. I remember the next day after your former president fled, I was driving through Kyiv. I remember that heavy silence. After these events, for some people perhaps life became better, but overall Ukraine remains the poorest country in Europe. Particularly because of the conflict with Russia.
Do you think Iceland will continue supporting sanctions against Russia?
Our former Minister for Foreign Affairs has visited Ukraine several times. I met him. Gunnar [Bragi Sveinsson] supported Ukraine. Now the head of the ministry is another person, a young woman. Iceland hasn’t lifted sanctions against Russia. But Iceland’s sanctions don’t hurt Russia at all. Do Russians have accounts in Icelandic banks? They don’t use Iceland as they corporate hub. But it’s absolutely clear to me that counter-sanctions Russia imposed were a serious harm for Iceland. It was targeted like a weak spot. I think it was done to create a friction within Europe, to change the opinion of the Europeans on how appropriate the sanctions are. As far as I know, our fisheries found a way to cope with it, they found new markets. They mainly look at mackerel export. But for lower prices.
What’s next? In my opinion, the European Union should start thinking about finally implementing a visa-free regime for Ukrainians instead of these sanctions. It would be more effective than sanctions [against Russia].
From “the grand chessboard” let’s switch tothe sport you are most familiar with. Five years ago you co-founded the Club of Grandmasters in Lviv. What are its main achievements so far?
We try to introduce young players at the age of 10—12. Mariya Muzychuk played in our club. She later became World’s Champion among women (in 2015 – Ed.), her sister Anna is also a world class player. I played many games with them. They are very strong players. Nataliya Buksa, who played with us since she was 16, became the Girls' World Junior Chess Champion.
In 2005 Iceland bestowed citizenship on Bobby Fisher who, even though a controversial character, remains a chesslegend. Have you ever played with him?
No, I never played with him. He was quite reclusive. I wasn’t seeking his company. And it was my conscious decision not to chase after this opportunity. I liked how he played, but then he became really angry. His aggressive outcries about Jews, I couldn’t stand it, and many Icelanders couldn’t either. But I remember 1972, when Boris Spassky came [he then had lost to Bobby fisher], it was a very important event. It was the time when I seriously got interested in chess.
After this year’s Olympics there is a debate over why Ukraine returned with so few medals. The main reason mentioned is the lack of infrastructure required for training. There must be a different story with chess, right? What do we need to raise our Magnus Carlsens?
I would say that Ukraine already has its potential Magnus Carlsens. You have trainers to keep developing in this direction. Ukraine is one of the five strongest chess-playing countries. It’s very important to identify talents at the age of 8—10. They need trainers and computers to train all the time. But you make a lot of progress. Infrastructure seems to be there already. But there are very few tournaments in Ukraine. So Ukrainian players have to go abroad to play. That’s why many of them have already been to Iceland.
Margeir Pétursson was born in Reykjavík in 1960. He is Iceland's Chess Champion (1985, 1986) and the winner of the Nordic Chess Championship (1987). From 1979 to 1986 he had won numerous European chess tournaments and the Grandmaster title. In 2000 became a banker. Since 2005 he is Bank Lviv’s investor.
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?