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Estonia: Russia Opposes Law On Soviet War Memorials

The Bronze Soldier vandalized in 2005 (ITAR-TASS) January 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A new Estonian law could lead to the relocation of central Tallinn's Bronze Soldier monument, which honors Red Army soldiers killed during World War II.

The removal of the monument could also mean the reinterment of 13 soldiers in an Estonian cemetery, a suggestion that has caused outrage in Moscow.

Official Ire

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on January 16 condemned the new legislation, which has been signed into law by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and is to go into effect on January 20.

"We think that this decision is blasphemous," Lavrov said. "We are convinced that it was prompted by considerations that have nothing to do with the need for drawing lessons from the past, or with building a united, common, Europe without dividing lines."

Lavrov urged the Estonian government to reconsider the measure, saying he hopes that "common sense will prevail."
"Russians do not regard it as only a monument for those troops that entered the town in autumn of 1944, but they identify it with the all struggle of the second world war and all the sufferings that Russians went through." -- Estonian analyst

Russia's State Duma was set to consider a motion on the issue today. Ahead of the proceedings, the chairman of the body's Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, was quoted by Interfax as saying that the Duma would essentially characterize the passage of the law as "another chapter of the 'heroization' of Nazism."

Kosachyov said the Duma may choose to impose economic sanctions against Estonia, and that Moscow might seek to move the remains of the 13 soldiers buried on the Bronze Soldier site to Russia.

He said Russia may also seek to have the Estonian law brought up during the Council of Europe's January session.

Major General Aleksandr Kirillin, director of the Russian Army's Military Memorial Center, called the Estonian legislation illegal. He said the Geneva Conventions dictate that war victims can only be moved with the consent of the government to whom they belong.

War Wounds

The Soviet Union's occupation of Estonia during World War II and the existence of an Estonian SS legion that fought on the side of Nazi Germany have long been a contentious issues between Russia and Estonia.

Kadri Liik, an Estonian journalist and an analyst at the Estonian think tank International Center for Defense Studies, says Russia and Estonia have different interpretations of the events that took place during the war.

"It [the monument] was erected in the 1940s to commemorate the so-called liberation of Tallinn," Liik says. "That's when the Soviet troops entered Tallinn in 1944, in autumn. And they called it liberation. Estonians have always regarded it quite differently."

She says that "liberators leave -- occupiers do not," and notes that the Soviet "liberators" stayed in Estonia until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Liik also notes the ill-feelings that remain due to the mass deportation of Estonians to Siberia and other remotes regions of the Soviet Union.

Minority Voice

In Estonia, a country where ethnic Russians make up more than 25 percent of the population, such issues have acquired added dimensions, according to Liik.

"Gradually, the Russian community in Estonia has expanded [the monument's] meaning," she says. "They do not regard it as only a monument for those troops that entered the town in autumn of 1944, but they identify it with the all struggle of the second world war and all the sufferings that Russians went through. So for them it has turned out to be the most important place in Tallinn where they gather each spring and lay flowers on May 9, which Moscow regards as Victory Day."

Liik says that last spring the situation nearly got out of hand when some Estonian nationalists protested against the annual Russian gathering. It ended with police separating two opposing crowds.

It remains unclear whether the monument and the soldiers it honors will, in fact, be moved.

Liik leaves open the possibility that parliamentary elections that will take place in Estonia in March could result in a reversal of course, as some Estonian political parties may not be keen to alienate Russian voters.

Russians In The Former Soviet Union

Russians In The Former Soviet Union

Click on the map to see how many Russians live in each of the former Soviet republics.

RUSSIANS OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA: A total of some 30 million ethnic Russians remain in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including large diasporas in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This historical legacy has often been a source of tension between Russia and its neighbors. "Support for the rights of compatriots abroad is a crucial goal," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address. "It cannot be subject to a diplomatic or political bargaining. Those who do not respect, observe, or ensure human rights have no right to demand that human rights be respected by others."


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