Disputed monument dismantled

World War II statue in Estonia has caused quarrel with Russia

April 28, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- An Estonian monument depicting a Soviet soldier that for months has stoked tensions between Russia and its Baltic neighbor was dismantled early yesterday after violent protests in the Estonian capital, and Moscow threatened to sever diplomatic ties over what it called "blasphemy" and a "mockery of the dead."

One person died in clashes in central Tallinn that included fires, looting, bottle-throwing and other vandalism.

Media accounts quoted the Estonian government as saying that the victim, who was not identified, had been stabbed. More than 50 others, including a dozen police officers, were reported injured, and nearly 300 were detained.

To scores of Estonians, the monument known as the Bronze Soldier - a young man who holds his helmet on his right hip and gazes sadly at the ground - is an unwelcome and painful symbol of what they view as the Soviet occupation of their nation after World War II.

It has a different meaning for many of the 350,000 or more ethnic Russians who live in Estonia. To them and to Russia, the soldier is a symbol of Tallinn's liberation from Nazi Germany by Soviet forces. Its removal, they say, is tantamount to desecration of the soldiers who died defending Estonia.

Thirteen Soviet soldiers are thought to be buried at the site across from the National Library of Estonia, where rows of single flowers placed on the ground by the monument's supporters spread out in a fan of red, yellow and white last week.

The Estonian government, which has said it wants only to relocate rather than permanently remove the monument, said yesterday that it would delay the exhumation and identification of the soldiers' remains. The statue is under police guard at an undisclosed location.

Moscow responded quickly, angrily and with harsh rhetoric to the events in Tallinn. Both chambers of the Russian parliament called for Russia to sever diplomatic relations with Estonia, a member of NATO and the European Union, or to impose economic sanctions.

The upper house of parliament adopted a statement condemning the dismantling of the Bronze Soldier and calling those who supported it "provincial zealots of Nazism."

"These admirers of Nazism forget that politicians come and go, while the peoples in neighboring countries are neighbors for eternity," the statement read. "The dismantling of the monument and the mockery of the remains of the fallen soldiers is just more evidence of the vengeful policy toward Russians living in Estonia and toward Russia."

Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, called for Russia to ban from entering the country Estonian officials who backed the monument's removal.

"Russophobia has become almost an official ideology of Estonia," said Sergei Markov, a member of the Public Chamber, a government advisory body with close ties to the Kremlin. "It's like anti-Semitism, but directed against Russians.

"Estonia, in order to preserve the system of discrimination against the Russian population, deliberately resorts to provocations in order to stir up conflict with Russia," he said. "The dismantling of the monument is, on the one hand, a manifestation of Russophobic ideology, and, on the other, an attempt to provoke Russia."

The Bronze Soldier - on which the inscription reads "To the fallen of the Second World War" in Estonian and Russian, which is widely spoken there - was erected in 1947. It has stood in the same central location for much of the time since then, largely without controversy.

But during the past year, it has become a rallying point for Estonian and ethnic Russian nationalists, one group as passionate about its removal as the other is about its preservation.

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has said that the meaning of the Bronze Soldier has changed. It was once a monument to the dead, he said, but later became a symbol of the Russian occupation.

Ansip said as recently as Wednesday that the monument would not be removed before the Victory Day holiday May 9, a supremely important day in Russia marking the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

In protest of the monument's removal, several hundred people rallied peacefully outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow holding signs that read "NATO Henchmen, Keep Your Hands Off The Russian Soldier" and "No to Fascism." At one point, they blocked the Estonian ambassador from leaving the compound by car, said Vasily Yakemenko, leader of the youth movement Nashi.

"I think it's a sign of weakness when people start fighting with the deceased," said Andrei Pavlov, a 23-year-old activist with another group, the Young Guard, standing in the crowd outside the embassy. "Where would they be now without our victory?"

In public comments yesterday, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves condemned the violence, saying that the "outrages in the streets of Tallinn have nothing to do with respect for the memory of those who died during World War II, with the desire to preserve their memory," according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

"The night criminals were united not by their nationality, but by the desire to destroy, to rob and to commit outrages," Ilves said.

Stanislav Cherepanov, chairman of the Russian Party of Estonia, who is among those who want to keep the monument in place, denounced the violence and called for a constructive dialogue.

"Not a single monument, symbol, is worth human blood," he said in an interview.


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