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Estonia: RFE/RL Correspondent Reflects On A Divided Country

The Bronze Soldier has now been moved to a military cemetery (ITAR-TASS) May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas has been reporting from Estonia this week. These are his personal impressions of the standoff between Estonia and Russia over the removal of a Soviet World War II monument.

On the morning of May 10, Estonia's relief was almost palpable. May 9 had passed like any other day, at least in terms of police statistics -- some 25 "drunk and disorderly" arrests, which apparently is par for the course on any normal day.

Driving into Tallinn in the morning there was a sense of elation on radio talk shows that nothing had happened the previous night -- no riots, no clashes, not even a single interethnic incident worth the authorities' while.

The contrast with what had taken place two weeks before as the Estonian government was removing the Soviet World War II memorial known as the Bronze Soldier could not have been greater. Then 1,200 people -- mostly young local ethnic Russians -- were arrested during two nights of rioting and looting.

"The riots, however reprehensible, were an attempt at communication -- or rather, a scream of frustration."

Which prompts the question, "What was different this time around?" May 9 is a prime Soviet holiday and if there ever was a time for a repeat of the riots, it was then. The authorities were clearly not ruling out violence, with police and fit-looking young Estonians milling around the Bronze Soldier's former home, which was assumed to be the worst potential flashpoint.

But all that happened was that the metal netting surrounding the site acquired a coating of carnations and other flowers, mostly red. Similarly, at the military cemetery, which now houses the Bronze Soldier, a heap of flowers at the feet of the memorial grew steadily as the day went on.

The most striking feature of the day was the total absence of red flags or other Soviet symbols -- and the ubiquity of the colors of the Cross of St. George, orange and black, mostly in the form of ribbons pinned on people's lapels. The cross and the colors date back to Tsarist Russia where they were associated with military valor. At the close of World War II, Stalin incorporated the colors into a military decoration celebrating the Soviet victory. The tsarist award has now been revived by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No Winners

Looking at various Russian reactions to the riots two weeks ago, two things stand out. The first is that no one, absolutely no one, was happy about it. Footage of the riots broadcast on Estonian television stations showed a notorious, die-hard critic of independent Estonia, Vladimir Lebedev, trying to protect a shattered storefront and calling the drunken vandals "asses." "Go and find a worthier test for your strength," he said. The more moderate Russian mainstream went into a state of shock. What happened seems to have shaken them just as much as it did everyone else.

Second, local Russian commentary has thrown up many variations on essentially the same theme -- that without proper political representation (only one-third of Estonian Russians hold Estonian citizenship), with the Estonian language supplanting Russian in secondary schools, and with the absence of public higher education in Russian, Estonian Russians have catastrophically lost their ability to express themselves.

Many international bodies have repeatedly cleared Estonia of charges of ethnic discrimination. But the same institutions have also made clear that Estonia must fully integrate its minorities -- and the sooner, the better.

The riots, however reprehensible, were, on this reading, an attempt at communication -- or rather, a scream of frustration.

Hopefully, the Estonian side will listen and resist the obvious temptation to see the last two weeks as a vindication of the policies of the past few years. A more worthwhile course may be to listen to a community that appears to be struggling to be heard."

(The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.)

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