Accessibility links

Breaking News

Estonia: Defense Minister Says Bronze Soldier Had To Go

Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo (AFP) TALLINN, May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As the Estonian authorities brace themselves, fearing a repeat of the riots by ethnic Russian youth that followed the removal of a Soviet World War II memorial from central Tallinn, RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke to one of the main architects of the move, Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo. Aaviksoo told RFE/RL that it was time for the Bronze Soldier to go once it became associated with forces opposed to Estonia's independence. But Aaviksoo also says the country could do more to fight ethnic discrimination.

RFE/RL: Why did the Bronze Soldier have to go?

Jaak Aaviksoo: The critical necessity of this became clear to everyone who knows anything about this matter almost exactly a year ago, on May 9 [2006]. In the course of the past few years after [Vladimir] Putin had become president [of Russia], Estonia's regained independence became subject to attacks and the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime [started being] glorified. A year ago, [the] red flags [of the Soviet Union] were flown in front of the Bronze Soldier, an Estonian tricolor was pulled down, and its bearer was forced to leave, and the police had no other way of securing public order than leaving the red flags where they were. That was the moment when many Estonian people felt they had had enough.

RFE/RL: Can you explain why the Bronze Soldier stayed where it was for more than 15 years after Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union?

Aaviksoo: We could discuss why the statue did not go in 1989, in 1991, or after the 1992 constitution. There are many reasons, and I believe a desire for reconciliation is one of them. But we must also reckon with the presence of the Soviet troops until 1994, and after they left tensions abated, a spirit of cooperation prevailed, and not that of destruction. Then came the objectives of joining NATO and the European Union, which turned our gaze towards the future, instead of the past. The conflict arose at the moment when we realized that the Bronze Soldier became part of the war against the Republic of Estonia.

"Perhaps we are seeing what it means to have a great number of people who are not reconciled to the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Estonia."

RFE/RL: Who are the parties to this conflict?

Aaviksoo: It is difficult to say. I believe that Estonia is home to a whole lot of people who have been unable to accept the demise of the Soviet Union; whose self-identity, erstwhile status, and many other circumstances cause them to resent the developments that have taken place in Estonia.

RFE/RL: Would you say that either indirectly or directly, Russia is one of the participants in this conflict?

Aaviksoo: Yes, I have no doubt of that, although it would be too simplistic and irresponsible to reduce it to a standoff between the Republic of Estonia and the Russian Federation. We revived our republic in a situation where we acquiesced to granting permanent residence to a very great number of people who had arrived [in Estonia] during the [Soviet] occupation; we allowed [Soviet] reserve officers to stay behind on the territory of the Estonian Republic; and perhaps we underestimated the corresponding risks. The riots two weeks ago are partly a consequence of those decisions. I don't think those decisions were wrong, but perhaps we are seeing today what it really means to have in Estonia a great number of people who are not reconciled to the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Estonia.

RFE/RL: In a broader Estonian context, do you accept the claim that the integration process of Estonian Russians has been put back to the beginning again, that Estonia has reached a kind of "ground zero" in interethnic relations?

The Bronze Soldier in its original location in central Tallinn (TASS)

Aaviksoo: I do not agree at all. Integration can be easily be broken down into two components: one political, the other substantive. The Republic of Estonia, its political, economic, and social advances rely on all parts of its population, all of them make a contribution to Estonia's advancement and I think we must not underestimate this real, everyday life.... Perhaps we have been too superficial, perhaps we have too easily thought of linguistic integration as a goal, rather as a means -- although it remains true that the Estonian and Russian communities exist in two separate information spaces. Unfortunately, language instruction alone is evidently not sufficient to join these two information spaces together. I think that in analyzing what has happened, we will be able to draw judicious conclusions from it. It would, however, be irresponsible to claim that the work the public and Estonia's institutions have done for integration has gone to waste.

RFE/RL: How do you respond to claims that Russians in Estonia face systemic discrimination, that the government pursues a policy of "Estonia for Estonians"?

Aaviksoo: This is certainly not right. But I also think that to look at why this is said, and the causes involved, is a serious question. A large number of the people who arrived in Estonia during the Soviet occupation have, for objective reasons, acquired a certain view of how things should be, and of the privileges they enjoyed during the Soviet era; and for them giving this up, adapting to a different society where matters are decided by the Estonian parliament, has been difficult....

As regards specific charges of discrimination, then there has been no recourse to the courts. I think, however, that the Estonian state would be stronger if we had been through such cases, and discussed these issues. It appears to me that there have been cases of such ethno-linguistic discrimination in the Republic of Estonia, but, unfortunately, we have either overlooked them or been unable to treat them in a manner that would befit rule of law and democracy. I think we need this, and we need to defend our positions, if called upon to do so, in the European Court of Human Rights or other international forums.