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The police cordon around the excavation of the monument to Soviet soldiers in central Tallinn. The sign in Russian reads, "The archeological excavation of a military burial site and identification work is underway here. Please maintain calm and appropriate behavior in the work zone."
Photo: Alexander Shegedin
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Apr. 27, 2007
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Estonia Buries Relations with Russia
// In Reburying the Remains of Soviet Soldiers
An archeological dig was going on early yesterday morning in central Tallinn at the site of the monument to the Soviet soldiers who drove German troops from Estonia in WWII. After the excavation is complete, the remains of the soldiers buried near the monument will be transferred together with the bronze statue that stands over them to a military cemetery in Tallinn. Yesterday saw the first scuffles between defenders of the monument and police at the site, and Moscow is threatening Tallinn with sanctions that "will have an extremely painful impact on the state of the Estonian economy."
What Happened

A police cordon was established around the monument at 4:30 yesterday morning by a detachment of riot police, who were soon joined by regular police officers. The police quickly drove away protestors at the site who had organized a "Night Watch" to guard against the removal of the remains. When a trio of protestors sitting in a car parked next to the monument refused to leave, police broke the windows and forcibly dragged them out of the car. One of the passengers suffered an injury to her hand in the incident.

Construction materials were unloaded from trucks at the site, and by five o'clock in the morning 2m-high metal barriers had been set up all around the perimeter of the square. A short time later, the entire monument and the square around it had been covered with an enormous tent. On the fence were hung white signs with a notice in Estonian, Russian, and English that read, "The archeological excavation of a military burial site and identification work is underway here. Please maintain calm and appropriate behavior in the work zone."

By nine o'clock in the morning, more people had begun to arrive at the square to leave flowers at the metal fence. The police initially demanded that the flowers be removed, but it was soon decided to let them remain where they were. Police arrested nine people throughout the day for shouting insulting slogans and attempting to scale the fence, but the first clash did not take place until evening, when "Night Watch" activists and their supporters tried to break through the police cordon. Police drove them back by firing tear gas.

What the Authorities Want

The motivation for yesterday's events in Tallinn were explained a few days ago by Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who said that the excavation is being carried out to determine whose remains are buried near the monument. According to the prime minister, any remains that are discovered will be identified either by objects buried with them or DNA analysis. He predicted that the work will take at least two weeks or, "if the archeologists find anything from the Middle Ages, then three to four months. So the Bronze Soldier will still be standing on May 8 and 9." However, Mr. Ansip said that since the excavation work will not be done before May 9, the day when the victory of the Allied forces over Nazi Germany in WWII is celebrated, it will not be possible for people to bring flowers to the monument, since access to the Bronze Soldier will be closed until the work is finished.

Once the excavations are complete, both the monument and any remains found under it will be moved to Tallinn's military cemetery in accordance with Estonian law concerning military burials. The prime minister maintains that it is inappropriate for the graves to be located in the city center, where they are close to busy roads and present an easy target for anyone who might want to desecrate them. "It will be necessary to carry out preparations in the cemetery so that the Bronze Soldier can stand there forever, since the monument cannot simply be placed on the ground. That will also take time," said Mr. Ancip. Police have already mounted a patrol in the cemetery.

The minister of defense is formally responsible for the removal and reburial of soldiers' remains. According to his press secretary Madis Mikko, if skeletons are found under the monument, they will be disinterred, packed up, and transferred to a morgue: "In any case, the remains will be treated with respect and in accordance with international conventions."

Mr. Ancip asserts that the government has never considered destroying the monument. "We would never simply remove a monument in our country, as has been done elsewhere," he said, clearly referring to a monument and several tombstones of pilots killed in WWII that were recently removed from the Moscow suburb of Khimki.

In order to maintain the peace around the removal of the monument, the Estonian police have been in a state of high alert since Monday, and approximately three extra detachments of police from regions around the country are in the capital for an unspecified period of time. However, Estonian parliamentary deputy Marko Mikhelson confidently told Kommersant yesterday that there will be no serious clashes in Tallinn. "The situation is very calm. Our police are acting carefully and in a civilized manner, not like the OMON [riot police] in Moscow. Everything will take place only within the framework of the law," he said.

According to the Estonian media, the extra police presence does not come cheaply for the Estonian authorities. Most of the regional police officers are staying in the Tallink Hotel in Tallinn, which costs 127 euros a night.

What Estonians Want

However, the confidence of the Estonian authorities that the monument will be moved with a minimum of fuss could be shaken by Russia's actions. For instance, the Estonian authorities are not the only ones who are splashing out funds on the operation involving the Bronze Soldier: according to the Tallinn newspaper Postimees, activists from Russia's Nashi movement have moved into the Meriton Grand Hotel Tallinn (69 euros a night) a few hundred meters from the monument. In addition, Dmitry Linter, one of the leaders of the "Night Watch," has also recently promised that "surprises are in the works" for the Estonian authorities.

Support for the defenders of the monument does not run very high in the country, even among Estonia's Russian-speaking population. In the last parliamentary elections, the Constitution Party, which joined politically with "Night Watch" to build its campaign around the defense of the Bronze Soldier, garnered only 1% of the vote. The majority of the Russian-speaking citizens of Estonia supported the Centrist Party of current Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar. whose position on the question of the monument is fairly contradictory. On the one hand, he said yesterday that the government "is stupidly acting in the format of a monologue" on the issue, and he offered to initiate a dialog between supporters and opponents of the monument. Mr. Savisaar also noted that recent opinion polls carried out by the newspaper Eesti Paevaleht show that 49% of residents of Estonia are against the monument being moved, 37% are in favor, and 14% are undecided. However, the Centrist Party under Edgar Savisaar also voted in favor of the Military Graves Protection Act in January, and it was Mayor Savisaar who allowed two protests Ц one by Estonian nationalists and the other by veterans of WWII Ц to take place in front of the monument simultaneously. The resulting clashes were cited in the case for moving the Bronze Soldier away from central Tallinn to a military cemetery, where such discord is more easily avoidable. In the end, it is unlikely that the Russian-speaking Estonian citizens who make up the majority in the Centrist Party will risk run-ins with police for the sake of the monument.

What Russia Wants

The international scandal between Moscow and Tallinn has recently heated up to a level that arguably exceeds the tensions on the square in front of the monument itself. Yesterday Speaker of the Russian State Duma and United Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov called the actions of the Estonian authorities "obscurantism" and said, "while the Nazis couldn't get the better of the living, the government of Estonia is attempting to get the better of the dead." (Incidentally, Mr. Gryzlov expressed his support for "my friend" Edgar Savisaar on the eve of the Estonian parliamentary elections.)

State Duma International Relations Committee chairman Konstantin Kosachyov echoed the sentiments of his party's leader and threatened the Estonian authorities with harsh retaliation from Moscow. "These measures will not necessarily take the form of official sanctions Ц the palette of our possible actions is very wide, and the actions of the Russian authorities will be very effective and will have an extremely painful impact on the state of the Estonian economy," said Mr. Kosachyov. He also accused Tallinn of intending to "demolish a monument to soldiers who fought against Nazism in the years of the Second World War."

The Russian State Duma does not intend to pass a special resolution addressed to the Estonian authorities. In January, the deputies instead appealed to the president and the government to introduce a law aimed at Estonia entitled "On Special Economic Measures."

The furious statements from the Russian deputies were preceded by a long skirmish between the Foreign Ministries of the two countries. In the latest sally, Estonian Ambassador to Russia Marina Kaljurand was presented with a note from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday that contains "a call to the Estonian authorities to renounce plans for moving the monument and reburying [the remains], which are an attempt to rewrite the role of the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition in the victory over fascism in WWII and which contradict not only the norms of international law but also the elementary principles of human morals and humanism." In reply, the Estonian Foreign Ministry expressed regret that the document contains "intentional lies and slander."

State Secretary of the Estonian Foreign Ministry Matti Maasikas called the behavior of Russian diplomats in Tallinn "not in accordance with generally accepted diplomatic norms and regrettable." He was referring to the First Secretary of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Estonia Vadim Vasiliyev and embassy advisor Sergei Overchenko, who, according to the Estonian press, have recently met repeatedly with the most radical defenders of the monument: Andrei Zarenkov and Dmitry Linter, the leaders of the Constitutional Party and the "Night Watch." The fact that the defenders of the monument regularly consulted with Russian diplomats was confirmed by Estonian law enforcement authorities. "I can absolutely officially say that we have long been informed about such meetings," said Estonian Police and Security Commissioner Martin Arpo. "These meetings testify that Russia considers Zarenkov and Linter cannon fodder in Estonia. By using local radicals, Russia is attempting to influence the domestic political situation in Estonia and to destabilize it, as well as to strengthen the role of a small group of local radicals to show that they supposedly reflect the majority opinion in Estonian society."

Yesterday Estonia's ambassador in Moscow, Marina Kaljurand, suggested that Russian send its own observers to participate in the excavations. In Tallinn, however, Russian Ambassador to Estonia Nikolai Uspensky immediately went personally to the Estonian Foreign Ministry to reject the offer.

In a press conference yesterday, Andrus Ancip confirmed that the political relationship between Estonia and Russia is currently in a very poor state. When asked whether it will deteriorate further, Mr. Ancip answered that "according to Murphy's Law," every situation has the possibility of getting worse. He also stated that the question of the Bronze Soldier is an internal Estonian affair and that the opinions of other nations will not affect the outcome of the matter.

Mr. Mikhelson, who is a member of the ruling coalition in the Estonian parliament, ventured to state in a conversation with Kommersant yesterday that "there will be no official Russian sanctions against Estonia: there may only be covert sanctions against Estonian entrepreneurs working in Russia." He also advised his Russian colleagues to take heed of the statement of Russian State Duma deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who gave a speech yesterday that was as good as being in Estonia's defense. According to the Liberal Democratic Party leader, Russia can express only a "moral protest Ц physically we can do nothing." "They have the right to take it down. It is a foreign country. It wouldn't be a bad thing to take a look at events in Russia first. We ourselves are taking such monuments down," said Mr. Zhirinovsky, referring to the removal of the monument to WWII pilots from a street in suburban Moscow.

Alexander Shegedin (Tallinn), Vladimir Vodo, Suzanna Farizova, Arnold Shveps

All the Article in Russian as of Apr. 27, 2007

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