Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Monument Dispute With Estonia Gets Dirty

The Bronze Soldier, here vandalized in 2005, was moved from the city center to a cemetery (ITAR-TASS) May 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute over the removal of a war memorial in Tallinn has become a dirty war. Hacking, violent protests, intimidation of diplomats, all with the hand -- or at least the blessing -- of the Kremlin.

Estonia has suggested that the Kremlin and its security services were behind the two days of violent protests by local Russian youths in Estonia. At a press conference in Moscow on May 2, Estonian Ambassador to Russia Marina Kaljurand said that she believed that both protests in Tallinn and Moscow were directed by the Kremlin.

Official Russian Disruptions

If it wasn't behind the protests, the Kremlin certainly wasn't a calming factor. On April 30, a delegation from Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, visited Tallinn to investigate the events around the removal of the Bronze Soldier memorial.

The delegation was headed by Nikolai Kovalyov, the former director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and currently the head of the Duma Veterans Affairs Committee. While in Tallinn, Kovalyov called for the immediate resignation of the Estonian government. Many Estonians protested the statement as an intervention in their internal affairs.

In the last few days, several Estonian government websites went down, including the sites of the Estonian president, parliament, cabinet ministers, and the Foreign and Defense ministries.

The website of Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who many consider to be behind the removal of the Bronze Soldier, was also hacked.

Estonian Justice Minister Rejn Lang said on April 30 that the Internet-protocol addresses show that the attack was carried out from Moscow state institutions. "The aim of the attack was to paralyze the republic's information infrastructure. That proves that some forces in Moscow have completely lost their prudence," Lang said.

Youth Group Provocations

If the Russian state wasn't responsible, it could have been Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group.

Konstantin Goloskov, a Nashi activist, told the Rosbalt news agency on May 2 that he personally took part in cyber-attacks on Estonian websites. But he denied that Moscow state offices were used. The hacking, he said, was done from the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester.

Estonian websites weren't the only ones targeted. The Russian daily "Kommersant" and the Ekho Moskvy radio station, which were critical of the Kremlin for its handling of the situation, also had their websites hacked.

Nashi isn't just operating in cyberspace. Since April 27, around 600 members of Nashi and a number of other pro-Kremlin youth groups organized a protest outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.

On May 2, the group's activists disrupted a press conference held by Estonian Ambassador Kaljurand. They also attacked the car of a Swedish diplomat in which they suspected Kaljurand was hiding.

These aren't just the spontaneous actions of young, radicalized young people. Nashi, along with other national-patriotic organizations, enjoys almost open political and financial support from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin, deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov, and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov have already met several times with these organizations' activists.

Politics By Other Means

Such seemingly state-sponsored actions have some precedents -- albeit circumstantial.

In summer 2005, Polish citizens, including diplomats and journalists, in Moscow were harassed by "unknown attackers." The attacks followed an attack in Warsaw on the family of a Russian diplomat, and Moscow expressed its displeasure at the way the Polish investigation proceeded. But when Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski called on Putin to stop the attacks, the assaults on Poles in Moscow abruptly ended.

Estonia's ambassador needed a police escort to attend a meeting on May 2 (ITAR-TASS)

Another case of directed physical and psychological pressure was when Georgians were expelled from Russia in October 2006 after relations deteriorated between Moscow and Tbilisi following a spy scandal. Russian police raided Georgian businesses, and rounded up and deported many Georgian citizens, who were working illegally in Russia.

There have been suggestions from many Russian politicians and commentators that the Kremlin take matters further. The Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, on April 29 voted to break diplomatic relations with Tallinn.

Other Russian politicians have proposed economic sanctions, a transport blockade, a tourism boycott of Estonia, and banning those Estonian officials responsible from the removal of the memorial from entering Russia.

Moscow's Weapons Limited

However, the Kremlin knows its limits. Breaking off ties with Estonia is unlikely to be popular with the government and the public, as it would have negative consequences for the ethnic Russian community in Estonia, which makes up around one-third of the population.

Moreover, trade between the two countries is worth less than $300 million. Estonia, especially with European Union backing, could easily find other partners in the case of economic sanctions.

It is also possible that the Kremlin will soften its campaign against Estonia, fearing that further pressure would consolidate the West against Russia.

In fact, already the United States, NATO, EU, the Scandinavian countries, and the Baltic states have all backed Estonia. Only China, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have expressed their official support for Russia.

And the "monument war" has already soured relations between Russia and the EU. The European Union has called on Russia to guarantee the safety of Estonian diplomats on its territory.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the crisis with Estonia will have a negative effect on Russia's relations with NATO and the EU because "they accepted Estonia as a member of their organization, and, therefore, are responsible for its behavior."

Away from the political drama, the real losers in this crisis are likely be Estonia's ethnic Russians, who have become further ostracized in their own country.

Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar has said that all the good work done by the Estonian government, with the help of the EU, for the Russian ethnic minority has now been ruined.

Or as Vladimir Belozeartsev, a Tallinn University professor, told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "As Moscow and Tallinn settle accounts with each other, the [ethnic] Russian Estonians have found themselves caught between two fires."

UN Resolution Targets Baltics
In November 2006, Russia introduced a UN resolution against xenophobia and racism that was aimed at Estonia and Latvia. more
Estonian President Speaks To RFE/RL
RFE/RL spoke with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in October 2006. more

Rising Russian Nationalism

Rising Russian Nationalism
Orthodox believers and nationalists heckling a gay-rights rally in Moscow in May 2006 (RFE/RL)

A THREAT TO CIVIL, RELIGIOUS LIBERTIES: Several leading experts told a briefing hosted by RFE/RL and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that several mounting trends in Russia are posing a growing threat to human rights, especially for members of the country's ethnic and religious minorities.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Why Putin Is Going To The Vatican

Bishop Assails Russian Orthodox Church

Russia: Rebranding The Nation

Nostalgia For USSR Increases

A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.