The Associataed Press
February 15, 2007
Estonian lawmakers on Thursday narrowly approved a bill calling for the removal of a Soviet war memorial from their capital, ignoring Moscow’s warning of ‘irreversible consequences’ for relations between the two countries.
In a 46-44 vote, lawmakers in the 101-member assembly approved the Law on Forbidden Structures, which prohibits the public display of monuments that glorify the five-decade Soviet occupation of Estonia. Eleven lawmakers were absent or abstained.
The Bronze Soldier, a six-foot statue in downtown Tallinn, has become a rallying point for Estonia’s ethnic Russians, who make up about one-third of the Baltic country’s 1.3 million residents. The statue was erected in 1947 as a tribute to Red Army soldiers who were killed fighting Nazi Germany.
Many Estonians see it as a bitter reminder of the hardships and repression they endured under decades Soviet occupation. For Russians, the Red Army’s crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany remains a cherished point of national pride.
Plans to remove the statue have infuriated Moscow, which accuses Estonia and neighboringLatvia of discriminating against Russian-speakers.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said passing the bill was a ‘grave mistake, a sacrilegious action which is unacceptable in today’s Europe,’ Russian media reported.
Before the vote, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov warned that the Law on Forbidden Structures would cause ‘irreversible consequences’ for Estonian-Russian relations, Interfax reported.
Marko Mihkelson, a lawmaker from the center-right IRL union, hailed the vote, saying it would serve as a reminder that Russia is not able to interfere in Estonia’s internal affairs. ‘But, of course, it’s rather tragic that such issues still play a big part in our lives,’ he said.
Meanwhile, Estonia’s Russians have vowed to defend the monument, and did not exclude the possibility of a hunger strike.
‘Our government has embarked on the path of fascist Germany,’ said Dmitry Linter, head of an informal group created last year to protect the Bronze Soldier from vandals. ‘Now we will call upon all European governments to support us in our struggle against the anti-constitutional actions of Estonian politicians.’
Soviet forces took over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940. They were driven out by Nazi forces a year later, but reoccupied the Baltics in 1944 and incorporated them into the Soviet Union.
The three countries regained independence in 1991 amid the Soviet collapse, and joined NATOand the European Union in 2004.
Lawmakers added a clause to the bill calling on the government to dismantle the monument within 30 days after the president approves the law.
However, it was unclear whether President Toomas Hendrik Ilves would do so. On Wednesday his spokesman, Toomas Sildam, said Ilves was concerned the bill may violate the constitution.