Protesters in Moscow Harass Estonian Envoy Over Statue

Members of the pro-Kremlin group Nashi have staged protests in Moscow since Estonia moved a Soviet war memorial from its capital last week.
Members of the pro-Kremlin group Nashi have staged protests in Moscow since Estonia moved a Soviet war memorial from its capital last week. (By Mikhail Metzel -- The Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 3, 2007

MOSCOW, May 2 -- Youth activists who enjoy the backing of the Kremlin hounded the Estonian ambassador in Moscow on Wednesday, leading her bodyguards to use a mace-like spray to protect her, as a dispute over Estonia's relocation of a Soviet war memorial and graves turned ugly.

Estonia evacuated some of its diplomats and families from Russia on Wednesday in the face of an almost week-long siege by angry protesters outside the Baltic country's embassy and consulate in Moscow. Russian police have done little to rein in the demonstrators.

Boisterous young protesters, some of them wearing military fatigues, have put up a small tent city on one street. They have plastered fences outside the embassy and consulate with "wanted" posters of Ambassador Marina Kaljurand, who is accused of representing a "fascist country."

On Wednesday morning, activists tried to prevent her from leaving the embassy to attend a news conference that she called to protest the lack of security around the embassy. At the newspaper office where the conference was to take place, dozens of activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) swarmed toward her, some shouting, "Let's get her," news reports said. Kaljurand's bodyguards used a caustic spray to force back the protesters.

The dispute broke out last week when Estonian authorities removed a larger-than-life bronze statue of a Soviet soldier and the remains of Soviet soldiers from a site in central Tallinn, the Estonian capital. The statue was re-erected in a military cemetery and the bodies reburied there, officials said.

The government's official justification was that the memorial had become a flash point for violence between Estonian nationalists and members of the country's ethnic Russian minority. For many Estonians, the statue is an uncomfortable symbol of what they view as the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union, whose troops drove out the Nazis in 1944. The country gained independence in 1991.

Both the European Union and Estonia, which is a member of the 27-country bloc, called on Russia to ensure security for the embassy facility and its staff, who are in lockdown with much work suspended. Sweden protested that its ambassador and his driver had been imprisoned in his official car for 15 minutes outside the embassy and that the Swedish flag had been torn from the vehicle.

Kremlin officials rejected charges that they were tolerating violence and employing a double standard -- demonstrators opposed to Kremlin policies are quickly and sometimes brutally cleared from the streets at the first sign of unrest. "The whole of civil society is united and is acting with a single voice of protest" against Estonia, said Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman. "Sometimes marches are organized in order to provoke disorder. This time it's very much different."

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church added his voice to the protests Wednesday. "Fighting against the dead, against the soldiers who have always been honored by all nations, is the most unworthy deed," Patriarch Alexy II said in a statement, according to Russian news agencies. "It is immoral to profane the memory of the dead."

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has also called for a boycott of Estonian goods and all business with the neighboring country. Some major supermarket chains here have begun to remove Estonian goods from their shelves.

Dmitri Oreshkin, a political analyst in Moscow, said the Kremlin was exploiting the dispute in advance of parliamentary elections this year. "Unfortunately, this decision of the Estonian government, which I think was provocative, gave a great excuse for some hysteria and the Russian side was happy to get this card," he said.

"Clearly at the foreign policy level this is all nonsense, but at the domestic level this is thoroughly thought-out politics," Oreshkin said. "It's preelection politics. We have to be united. You either support the anti-Estonian mood or you are a traitor."

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves tried to calm the dispute Wednesday. "The case of the Bronze Soldier has ended," he said in a statement. "The Bronze Soldier and the remains buried close to it will have a new, dignified place in the cemetery. Now it is time to stop using the memory of the war victims for political or other irreconcilable goals."

But protesters said they would keep up their campaign until Estonia apologized for its actions. "What they did was disgraceful," said Olga Skopintseva, a 22-year-old protester outside the embassy. "We believe the Soviet Union liberated Europe and saved Estonia from fascism."

On Wednesday, Ambassador Kaljurand repeated an Estonian government charge that Russian hackers, some using Internet addresses registered to the Russian presidential administration, were attacking Estonian government sites. Peskov rejected the accusation of Kremlin involvement, saying it is possible to create fake addresses.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company