Statue's Removal Sparks Violent Protests in Estonia

Demonstrators angry at the government's removal of a statue of a Red Army soldier attack a government supporter in Freedom Square in Tallinn, Estonia's capital. One person was killed and dozens were injured.
Demonstrators angry at the government's removal of a statue of a Red Army soldier attack a government supporter in Freedom Square in Tallinn, Estonia's capital. One person was killed and dozens were injured. (Photos By Timur Nezametdinov -- Nipa Via Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 28, 2007

MOSCOW, April 27 -- The already tense relations between Russia and its tiny neighbor Estonia threatened to unravel Friday after authorities in the Baltic state removed a Soviet World War II memorial that has become the rallying symbol of two radically different versions of history.

Violence erupted in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, late Thursday, leaving one man dead and dozens of police officers and protesters injured, in the hours before the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier was removed from its location in the city center and taken to an unknown place.

Three hundred people, many of them members of the country's ethnic Russian minority, were arrested as police fought running battles with demonstrators in the city's picturesque Old Town.

Rioting continued Friday as police fired rubber bullets and a water cannon at hundreds of protesters, the Associated Press reported. As some people waved Russian flags, others threw bottles and rocks for several hours.

Estonian officials continued to examine ground beneath the statue, where as many as 14 Soviet soldiers may be buried. They said the bodies of the dead will be removed and reinterred at a military cemetery, where the statue will be preserved.

Russia angrily condemned the removal of the statue, which was erected in 1947, as a grievous insult to Soviet soldiers who fought Nazi Germany. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that "we must take serious measures that will show our real attitude to this inhuman act." The upper house of the Russian parliament passed a resolution Friday calling on the government to sever diplomatic ties with Estonia.

"The war against fascism did not end on May 9, 1945," said Mikhail Margelov, head of the foreign relations committee in the upper house, referring to the day that Russia marks as the end of the war in Europe. "This fight goes on, and it will continue as long as there are gravediggers who are ready to throw out from the graves those who defeated fascism." He was speaking on Russian television.

For many Estonians, however, the Red Army was an occupation force that first entered their country in 1940 as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that carved up Eastern Europe. The Soviets promptly annexed Estonia. The Nazis seized the country in 1941 but were driven out in 1944 by the Soviets, who remained in control until independence in 1991.

The dispute over the six-foot statue, modest in size by the standards of other Soviet war memorials in Europe, including Berlin, has been brewing for a long time.

The original inscription on the monument read: "To the Soviet liberators fallen during the Great Patriotic War." In 1995, that was changed to read: "To the fallen of the Second World War." An eternal flame was also removed in 1995.

Estonian officials said the statue had become a flash point for clashes between Estonian nationalists and ethnic Russians, who make up about 25 percent of the country's 1.3 million people. The government said in a statement Friday that it was now clear that the protesters' "real goal was to riot, destroy, break and loot."

A government spokesman said one man was stabbed to death and 12 police officers and 44 protesters were injured in the worst street violence since the country became independent in 1991. "These actions confirm that they have nothing to do with respecting and protecting the memories of those who fell during World War II," the statement continued.

But there is also little doubt that the Estonian government was intent on expunging any glorification of the Soviet past. It accuses the country's larger neighbor of continuing to defend the worst actions of a totalitarian system.

"It is beyond my comprehension why Russia, which calls itself a democracy, is unable to face squarely the history of the Soviet Union," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in an interview last month with the Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "Russia, unfortunately, is still playing blindman's bluff with the past."

Estonian officials have pointed out that war memorials have been demolished in Russia and generated little of the indignation directed at Estonia.

This month in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, authorities removed the graves and headstones of six World War II pilots as part of what they said was a necessary road-widening project. Officials also later said the site had become a gathering point for prostitutes who desecrated the site.

Communist legislators said that local officials were little better than vandals and that it was hypocritical to loudly condemn Estonia while remaining silent on similar actions at home. Young communists who protested the exhumation were reportedly beaten by police on a suburban train after a demonstration against the exhumation.

Local officials say the remains of the pilots will be reburied on the upcoming May 9 anniversary.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company