EU and NATO seek to quell Russia-Estonia spat

International Herald Tribune Judy Dempsey
May 3, 2007

BERLIN: The European Union and NATO are working behind the scenes to calm the crisis between Estonia and Russia, fearing it could jeopardize an EU-Russia summit meeting later this month and damage relations between the Kremlin and Brussels, diplomats said Thursday.

So far, no European Union member state has formally requested that the summit meeting be postponed. But diplomats said they were concerned that the longer the dispute between Russia and Estonia continued, the greater the possibility that countries might move to cancel the summit meeting.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who now holds the rotating EU presidency, has telephoned President Vladimir Putin of Russia and has twice spoken with the Estonian prime minister, Andrus Ansip, to try to lower tensions. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, have spoken with the Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

The telephone calls followed violent demonstrations in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, between Estonians and ethnic Russians over the removal of a memorial erected during Soviet times for Red Army soldiers who died in World War II.

The tension increased Wednesday after the Estonian ambassador to Russia, Marina Kaljurand, had to be protected from a pro-Kremlin youth group who tried to attack her at a press conference.

The EU and NATO sharply criticized the Russian authorities for failing to protect the Estonian Embassy under the terms of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. “These actions are unacceptable and must be stopped immediately,” NATO said in a statement Thursday. Echoing the EU’s statement of the previous day, it said “tensions over the Soviet war memorial and graves in Estonia must be resolved diplomatically between the two countries.”

The Estonian government has appealed directly to the EU and NATO for solidarity, which both institutions have offered. An EU diplomat said officials in Brussels and Berlin were doing everything possible to “de-escalate the tension” ahead of the summit meeting.

“The summit should go ahead. It will give us an opportunity to raise the war memorial issue, the treatment of diplomats and so many other issues,” said an EU diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The one-day summit meeting has already been soured by U.S. plans to deploy part of its antimissile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, former satellites of Russia that are now in NATO and the EU.

Putin said last week that if the United States went ahead with its plans, Russia would suspend its implementation of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which is designed to reduce the number of troops, tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces in what were Warsaw Pact and NATO countries.

Russia has already refused to implement part of the treaty, particularly its pledge, renewed in 1999, to withdraw its troops from Moldova and from Georgia.

Protests halt as envoy departs

The Estonian ambassador to Russia, Marina Kaljurand, flew out of Moscow on Thursday for two weeks’ leave, calming a diplomatic crisis between the two former Soviet states that was sparked by the removal of a Communist-era war memorial in the Estonian capital, Reuters reported.

A pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, simultaneously announced that it was calling off its weeklong, and at times violent, protests at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. The demonstrations have drawn strong criticism from the European Union and NATO.

“We are removing our picket at the embassy,” said Anastasia Suslova, a spokeswoman for Nashi.

Nashi said on its Web site: “The fascist state’s ambassador, Marina Kaljurand, has chosen from the two options proposed by Nashi – to apologize or leave the territory of our country. She has chosen the latter.”

The Estonian Foreign Ministry said Kaljurand’s leave had been planned for the end of April but had been postponed because of the events in Moscow. “There is no political or health reason for her vacation,” the ministry said in a statement.

Kaljurand travelled by car to a Moscow airport on Thursday evening to catch a flight to Stockholm, an embassy press official, Franek Persidski, said. He said she was followed by Nashi activists at the airport but that there was no violence.

Kaljurand said that during the night, stones had been thrown at the embassy compound, breaking four windows.