Monument Dispute With Estonia Gets Dirty
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.
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."
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European Officials Intervene In Russian-Estonian Dispute
The Estonian Embassy in Moscow has been surrounded by demonstrators since a monument to Soviet soldiers who fought in World War II was removed from its central location in the Estonian capital Tallinn on April 27.
Today, a delegation of EU ambassadors sought a meeting with Russian authorities to make a formal protest after demonstrations continued in Moscow.
The demonstrations led the embassy to close its consular section today due to safety concerns.
Also today, the Estonian Foreign Ministry denounced a separate incident in which a speech by Estonia's ambassador to Russia was disrupted and her official car damaged.
Sweden, too, has filed a note of protest to Russia after its ambassador's official car was damaged on May 1 by demonstrators outside the Estonian Embassy.
Germany, the current EU president, issued a statement expressing "grave concern" about the deterioration of Estonian-Russian relations and "strongly urging" Russia to comply with its international obligations to "protect the staff and premises of the Estonian mission and ensure unimpeded access to it."
The European Commission issued a statement in Brussels, which was read out by its chief spokesman, Johannes Laitenberger.
"The [European] Commission urges the Russian authorities to fulfill their obligations under the Vienna Convention and to allow EU embassies to function properly and EU representatives to be protected adequately," Laitenberger said. "And the [European] Commission appeals to the Russian government to deal with current issues with Estonia by means of dialogue."
A "troika" of EU ambassadors in Moscow -- the German and Portuguese representatives for the current and upcoming EU presidencies, together with the head of the European Commission office -- want to hand over a demarche to the Russian authorities.
The EU ambassadors in Brussels raised the issue during their weekly meeting. One source said the Estonian ambassador told his EU colleagues that Russian officials had held secret meetings with leading participants of last week's violent protests in Tallinn. He also named Russian officials who Estonia says are behind recent attacks on Estonian government websites.
The source said Estonia received strong backing from all other speakers -- who did not include representatives of any of the larger EU states.
European Commission's Backing
Estonia's EU commissioner, Siim Kallas, told RFE/RL that the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, also strongly backed Estonia during its weekly meeting in Brussels.
"The most important priority was -- and everyone completely unanimously supported this, including the President [of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso] -- the most important principle is solidarity with the member state," Kallas said. "All sorts of problems may arise, but the European Union must have solidarity with its member states."
Kallas, like other top Estonian officials, insisted that the removal of the Soviet war monument is an "internal issue" for Estonia. Today's German statement says "given the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the Soviet war graves in Estonia, it would be advisable to have a dispassionate dialogue on the matter." The statement also urges "understanding and mutual respect."
The monument, and the bodies of the Soviet soldiers it stood over, are to be moved to a military cemetery in Tallinn.
European Commission Vice President Kallas said it was not likely that the EU would seek to postpone its upcoming summit with Russia in Samara on May 18.
Partnership Talks In Jeopardy
However, one EU senior official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the summit will now almost certainly not be able to launch talks on a new strategic partnership accord. EU-Russian relations are widely thought in Brussels to be at an historic post-1991 low and Moscow's falling out with Estonia is only the last in a long line of spats.
Russia's ban on Poland's meat imports remains in place and the source said the EU sees Moscow's demands as "absurd." Meanwhile, Poland has said it will block any new partnership talks.
Lithuania has hinted it may resort to a veto if Russia does not resume oil deliveries to its Mazheikiu refinery -- which Vilnius suspects were disrupted for political reasons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rattled Western countries last week when he said Russia will consider withdrawing from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which put a cap on the number of troops and armaments in Europe.
Russia and much of the EU are also at odds over the future of Kosovo. Official Brussels wants Kosovo to have "managed" independence, a scenario that Moscow has threatened to veto.
Estonian-Russian Relations Still Sour As Protests EndMay 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The scene outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow was calm today following the suspension of angry protests.
Members of Pro-Kremlin youth groups had surrounded the embassy since April 27 to protest the removal of a Soviet war memorial from the center of Estonia's capital.
The groups on May 3 announced they were lifting the picket hours after Estonia's ambassador to Russia, Marina Kaljurand, left Moscow for vacation.
"Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand left yesterday for a holiday for two weeks," embassy spokesman Franek Persidski told RFE/RL today. "This holiday was planned, and was postponed for a week because of the events around the embassy. Yesterday she left for the holiday for two weeks because the situation was such that it allowed for her to leave."
The protesters described Kaljurand's decision to leave the city as "a victory," according to dpa.
The embassy became the focal point of Russian anger over the removal of the Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn, which was preceded by two days of violence in the Estonian capital that left one ethnic Russian dead and more than 150 people wounded.
The ensuing protests in Moscow led the Estonian Embassy to close its consular section on May 2. The same day, demonstrators disrupted a press conference held by Kaljurand in Moscow and damaged her official car.
The situation prompted the United States, the European Union, the European Commission, and NATO to call on Russia to abide by international conventions on the treatment of diplomatic staff.
Consular services were resumed at the embassy today following the suspension of the protests.
"Right now, it's quiet and calm, there are no protesters around," Persidski said. "The embassy has been working all this time. We were just forced to close our consular section because of the security situation around the embassy."
Tensions are still high over the issue, however, and relations between Russia and Estonia have soured considerably.
In the latest exchange, Estonia's foreign minister accused Russia of acting as if the Soviet Union still existed.
In comments published today by the Swedish daily "Svenska Dagbladet," Urmas Paet said Moscow did not accept that its "former colonies" gained independence after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
On May 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the removal of the monument has had "serious negative consequences" for bilateral ties. Lavrov also criticized the European Union for supporting Estonia, saying this contradicts European values.
The spiraling dispute prompted Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves on May 2 to call on Russia to "remain civilized," adding that "it is customary in Europe that differences...are solved by diplomats and politicians, not on the streets or by computer attacks."
Website Attacks Decried
Estonian officials have claimed that cyber attacks on Estonian government websites have been traced to Russian government servers -- and even to the office of the Russian president.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Ilves in a telephone conversation that the computer attacks constituted "pressure on an independent country" and were "not acceptable," according to a statement released by Estonian president's office today.
She also "confirmed the support of the United States for Estonia and expressed deep concern about Russia's behavior toward its neighboring country."
The spokesman for the Estonian Embassy in Moscow told RFE/RL today that the website it operates has been attacked in the past week.
"Right now, it's up again and running," Persidski said. "But our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Urmas Paet, made a statement couple of days ago that there are attacks from Russian governmental organizations against Estonian websites. I cannot confirm whether we've had this problem here -- whether our website is being attacked from the same sources -- but I can say that we've had these attacks from the Russian side these days."
The Bronze Soldier monument, which honors Red Army soldiers who died fighting in World War II, is seen by Estonians as a symbol of the Soviet occupation. The country's large Russian-speaking minority, however, sees the monument as symbolic of the Soviet Union's role in defeating Nazi Germany.
The monument was moved, along with the remains of 12 Soviet soldiers, to a military cemetery in Tallinn on April 30.
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Council Of Europe Concerned About Russia's MinoritiesMay 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a new resolution, the Council of Europe paints a grim picture of the situation facing Russia's 160-plus national minorities.
The current resolution , adopted May 2 by the council's executive arm, the Committee of Ministers, says the country has not done enough to implement existing federal legislation on minority protection.
The document also describes as "inadequate" the amount of state funding for the preservation and development of minority cultures.
Officially, more than 75 minority languages are taught as a discipline in more than 10,000 schools in Russia. But the resolution says it remains difficult for some minority groups to receive access to such education.
Obstacles & Burdens
Russia's new law restricting the activities of nongovernmental organizations has also put an increasing burden on the country's 2,000 public associations dealing with national minorities, as well as its 560 national cultural autonomies.
The resolution also notes a reduction in state financial support to minority language media. It says a new law aimed at protecting the status of Russian as the country's state language could present further obstacles to minority languages.
The situation facing people in or from the North Caucasus is singled out as "particularly disturbing," with violence and discrimination reported in a number of regions.
The Committee of Ministers calls for a vigorous and open investigation of continuing human rights abuses in the North Caucasus region.
The resolution also focuses on the sharp rise in racially motivated attacks in the past five years. Human rights activists say there have been more than 200 racist attacks registered in Russia this year alone, including 25 murders.
The media and officials in Russia still appear reluctant to acknowledge the racial motivation in such crimes, the resolution adds.
There have been some positive developments, the Committee of Ministers notes.
Since the adoption of a first such resolution in July 2003, high-level Russian officials have called publicly for steps to be taken to fight racism and intolerance.
The number of convictions in racially motivated crimes has increased, and a "lively" minority-language media scene is visible in much of the federation.
The Committee of Ministers has urged Russian authorities to step up efforts to strengthen the rights of minorities.
The Council of Europe has no enforcement mechanism. But the resolution, though nonbinding, puts public pressure on Russia to honor its commitments as a member of the council and a signatory to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
The Council of Europe has 46 member states. Russia joined in February 1996.
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CIS: Behind An 'Information Curtain'
On the far side of that Iron Curtain, a closed and repressive system of governance was rapidly taking hold, in which dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, economic life rigidly managed by communist authorities, and media used exclusively as an instrument of the state. It took decades for the Soviet experiment to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, in an economic and political meltdown that ended the Cold War and brought the promise of greater freedom and openness to tens of millions of formerly captive peoples. Hopes ran high that these openings would permit all of the fundamental freedoms to emerge and flourish, including freedom of the press.
In fact, in the period immediately preceding the Soviet collapse and in its immediate aftermath, the flowering of open expression and a nascent independent press suggested a durable and institutionalized Fourth Estate might materialize.
The Soviet era's waning days saw the exertion from below of significant pressure for greater freedom of expression and a diverse and independent reporting of news. In most of the former satellite countries of Central Europe a free press rose from the ashes of what for 40 years had been known as the Eastern bloc. For the former Soviet republics, however, with the exception of the Baltic states, the promise of the opening in the late 1980s and early 1990s was short-lived.
New Methods To Achieve Old Results
Across most of the former Soviet Union today, an "information curtain" has descended that in some aspects differs from that of the Soviet era, but in important ways is imposing a no less repressive news-media environment.
Gone is the smothering, all encompassing ideological control across wide swaths of Europe and Eurasia. A more geographically circumscribed area -- Russia and most of the countries on its periphery -- now lies behind a new curtain that effectively shuts off the majority of people in these lands from news and information of political consequence. Today, methods for dominating news media are different, based on state-enabled oligarchic control, broadcast monopolies of presidential "families," and mass-media manipulation intended to create a veneer of democratic practice without its substance.
Unlike the Soviet era, some intrepid journalists now do manage to report independently. However, absent the rule of law and meaningful legal protections, the former Soviet Union is today one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists. Reporters willing to investigate issues such as political and corporate corruption are confronted by powerful vested interests that strive to muzzle news professionals. Intimidation, physical violence, and even murder of reporters and editors have become commonplace.
Journalists in virtually every former Soviet republic have been victims of contract killings or otherwise met death under suspicious circumstances. Russia, for example, has been a deadly place for journalists in both the Yeltsin and Putin eras. Since President Vladimir Putin assumed office seven years ago, at least two dozen journalists have been killed, including Paul Klebnikov, editor of "Forbes-Russia," who was shot nine times with a semiautomatic weapon on the street outside his Moscow office in July 2004; Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who wrote for "Novaya gazeta," who was executed in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006; and Ivan Safronov, a defense correspondent for the "Kommersant" newspaper, who in very unclear circumstances plunged to his death from his apartment building in Moscow in March. Rarely are serious investigations pursued or perpetrators brought to justice. Impunity is the standard.
To ensure regime security and shield from public view all-pervasive official corruption, the post-Soviet authorities seek to limit scrutiny of their decisions and activities by silencing the independent press.
Entertaining, But Not Informative
This modern variant of media control is a more sophisticated, distant cousin of the raw and overweening institutional censorship of the Soviet era. The stodgy, Soviet era broadcasting diet has in large measure been cast aside. Today, modern media fare, rich in entertainment and news programming of high technical quality and production values are staples, especially in Russia. While the contemporary media menu in Russia offers a wide assortment of entertainment options, it for the most part excludes alternative views and analysis on news and public affairs, particularly where it counts most, on national television broadcasts, from which most citizens continue to get their information.
All of Russia's major national television channels -- RTR, Channel One, and NTV -- are now effectively state controlled. Commenting on the troubled condition of Russia's news media, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev observed: "The one thing I can say is that it's pointless today to watch television [in Russia]."
Putin's tenure has seen a systematic muzzling of independent reporting. Current methods of news media control rely on the imposition of state ownership on media companies whose editors are replaced by Kremlin supporters. Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled gas behemoth, has taken control of a number of previously independent news outlets and either closed their doors or summarily abolished independent reporting. Today, journalists at the Russian News Service, Russia's largest nonstate radio network (owned by businesses close to the Kremlin), work under a "50 percent rule" imposed by station management to ensure that at least half of the network's total reporting on Russia is "positive."
The repressive media landscape in the former Soviet Union is illuminated by findings from "Freedom Of The Press 2007," Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence. The Russian authorities are not alone in forging a media environment that filters out critical voices. The survey's most recent findings show that 10 of the 12 CIS states are ranked "Not Free," indicating these countries do not provide basic guarantees and protections in the legal, political, and economic spheres to enable open and independent journalism.
Moving In The Wrong Direction
Of the 10 Not Free countries, none is moving in the direction of more freedom and most have a decidedly downward trajectory. Of the 193 countries examined in the survey, three of the 10 worst press-freedom abusers --Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- are in the former Soviet Union.
The Internet has emerged as the principal alternative and challenger to media hegemony in the former Soviet Union. Despite the authorities' dogged efforts to control it, the Internet and other news media set today's Soviet successor states apart from their Cold War ancestor. Blogs are stimulating debate and discussion, and domestic and foreign news websites offer an alternative to state-controlled or -influenced news outlets. However, while the Internet holds further promise and connectivity is growing at an impressive rate, it remains a medium through which only a small fraction of news is obtained. It is also fast becoming a target of greater interest for new regulatory intervention by the authorities.
Through a revitalized crackdown on press freedom, post-Soviet leaderships have managed to draw the media back under control. Only a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, freedom of the press for tens of millions of people across the former Soviet Union has come nearly full circle. In post-Soviet states that suffer from ill-conceived policies, entrenched corruption, and unaccountable governance, denial of the indispensable role played by the free press in allowing critical scrutiny is bound to delay, possibly indefinitely, progress toward true and vibrant democracy.
Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence, "Freedom Of The Press 2007," was released on May 1.