Police, Crowd Clash at Estonia Red Army Site

Apr 26, 2007

TALLINN—Police used truncheons and anti-riot spray on Thursday against some of the 1,000 protesters who gathered to express anger over Estonia’s plans to move a Red Army World War Two monument.

The Baltic state’s government wants to move the bronze statue of a World War Two Red Army soldier set in a large stone wall from its city-centre spot to a cemetery. Russia has protested against the plan as an insult to those who fought fascism and it has angered local Russian-speakers, who constitute a large minority in the small country.

However, many Estonians view the monument as a reminder of 50 years of what they see as Soviet occupation. The authorities earlier fenced off the area and erected a long white tent over the whole area, including the statue, as it prepared to begin digging for the remains of any soldiers. By the evening around 1,000 people, mainly Russian-speakers had gathered near the site, up from around 100 during the day.

In a brief outburst of violence, police said about 15 people had tried to force their way through police lines and the officers used powder fire extinguishers and truncheons. “But the situation settled down quite quickly,” a police spokeswoman added. Many in the crowd shouted “fascists, fascists,” and others were throwing bottles.

Baltic news agency BNS said a water cannon later arrived at the scene. “I am an ordinary person, with two children and my son goes to an Estonian school, but this is a question of principle,” Olga Markova, 36, who had joined the crowd, told Reuters. She wanted Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who says moving the remains to a cemetery would be more respectful, should apologise and halt the plan. Ansip also says the monument is a public order problem as it attracts Estonian and Russian nationalists. Lingering Tension

Russia dismisses such views. It earlier this week called in the Estonian ambassador in Moscow to the Foreign Ministry to protest and issued a harsh new statement on Thursday. “We view the actions of the Estonian side as an attempt to rewrite the lessons of World War Two,” a Russian foreign ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency. “All that is going on around the monument and the people buried there is inhuman … This will be taken into account in the development of our relations with Estonia.”

Estonia and Russia have had troubled ties since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The Baltic state has tried to throw off centuries of Russian domination by turning towards the West, a process which culminated in 2004 by it, Latvia and Lithuania joining the European Union and NATO. Russia has protested over what it sees as Estonia’s discrimination against its 300,000 Russian-speakers, which were denied automatic citizenship of the country of 1.3 million, including the right to vote in national parliamentary elections.

Estonia has denied such accusations, pointing out that it has followed international human rights standards, including allowing all residents to vote on local elections. Estonia’s Defence Ministry says 14 soldiers may lie buried at two or three areas—including underneath a trolley bus stop—at the site. It plans to move the monument by the end of May.