Estonia and Russia make uneasy peace

Andrew Rettman
May 7, 2007

Protests against the Estonian embassy in Moscow have died down, but Estonia and Russia continue to exchange harsh words and wider EU-Russia political relations remain fragile.

The situation in Moscow returned to normality at the weekend, after seven days of rowdy protests outside the Estonian embassy that saw diplomatic families evacuated and the EU and NATO issue formal complaints to Russia.

The events culminated on Friday in a march by hundreds of young Russian nationalists to picket the European Commission office in Moscow, voicing anger that Brussels had not criticised Tallinn’s role in the dispute.

There were no further demonstrations over the weekend however, with Estonia on Friday re-opening its consular service in the Russian capital and with EU and Russian diplomats holding one of their regular, twice-yearly “human rights dialogues.”

The row began when Estonia moved a Soviet-era war memorial called the Bronze Soldier away from Tallinn city centre in late April, sparking riots by ethnic Russians in the country that saw 1,100 arrests and one death.

The statue, now at the Garrison Cemetery outside the city, had rarely attracted attention in the past but has now become a tourist attraction, especially for Finnish travellers, the Baltic Times reports.

Resentment remains
But resentment between Estonia and Russia continues to bubble away, with Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, and Estonia’s foreign minister Urmas Paet, each saying the other’s country owes an apology.

The dispute’s energy dimension has the potential to escalate, with Russian newspapers citing unnamed oil traders as saying that Russian railways are cutting oil supplies to Estonia by 2 million tonnes a month for the next few months.

On the other side, Estonian prime minister Andrus Ansip’s decision not to meet Gazprom negotiator and ex-German leader Gerhard Schroeder in Tallinn on 8 May could delay Estonia’s approval of Russia’s Baltic Sea gas pipeline.

At a popular level, Russian football fans are keeping the mood of the previous week alive, unfurling giant banners saying “Hold on, Bronze Soldier!” at a weekend championship game and promising similar action in future, Interfax reports.

Meanwhile, the EU and Russia are playing down reports by Brussels-based weekly European Voice, that the union is threatening to block Russia’s WTO entry if Moscow does not stop playing trade tricks on neighbouring EU states.

EU-Russia trade gripes
The weekly quoted an internal EU document as saying that the union should “make clear [it] is ready to support an early conclusion of Russia’s WTO accession, but not at any price” citing “major impediments” to the EU giving its WTO approval.

European Commission trade spokesman Peter Power confirmed the existence of the hostile EU document but said it had no official status and called European Voice’s analysis of the situation “inaccurate, wrong.”

Russia’s lead WTO negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, said “We’re in touch with the commission every day, really…it’s business as usual,” The Moscow Times reports.

The WTO leak comes in the context of major Polish and Lithuanian gripes over Russian food and oil trade blockades and in the context of broader tensions over NATO expansion and the future status of Kosovo.