Removal of Soviet War Memorial Sparks Deadly Riots in Estonia

Russian lawmakers called for sanctions against Estonia on Friday after authorities here removed a Soviet war memorial, carrying out a plan that provoked deadly street riots.

Estonia's Russian-speakers — roughly one-third of the country's population — see the monument as a tribute to Red Army soldiers who died fighting the Nazis, but many ethnic Estonians consider it a painful reminder of hardships under Soviet rule.

One man was stabbed to death early Friday and dozens were injured — including 12 police officers — in the worst riots Estonia has seen in 16 years of independence, government spokesman Martin Jasko said. Some 300 people were detained.

Police braced for more violence Friday as hundreds of officers in riot gear deployed in the downtown area from where the statue known as the Bronze Soldier was removed.

Some Tallinn residents said they were not surprised by the riots because ethnic Russians have felt marginalized ever since the Baltic state split from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"This was waiting to happen," said Epp Saar, 43, a Tallinn resident of mixed Estonian and Russian descent. "There has been a feeling for a long time that pressure has been building and things will just explode any day."

Many Russian-speakers complain of discrimination in Estonia, where strict language laws make it hard to get jobs or citizenship without proficiency in Estonian. Some Russian-speakers who were born in Estonia are either unable or unwilling to become citizens because of the language requirements.

When authorities decided to remove the Bronze Soldier, they stepped on one of the few remaining symbols left for minority Russians to revere — a sense of historical pride in defeating Nazi Germany.

Moscow was incensed by the monument's removal, and both houses of Russia's legislature voted for enacting severe measures against Estonia — either breaking off diplomatic relations or enforcing economic sanctions.

"The Estonian government has spat on values," Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying. "I cannot understand it when people try to lay blame for historical events on somebody, or try to compare communism with Nazism."

In Estonia, leaders poured their own vitriol on the rioters, with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves calling them "criminals."

"All this had nothing to do with the inviolability of graves or keeping alive the memory of men fallen in World War II," Ilves said.

The European Commission said it regretted the death of a demonstrator, but said it could not interfere in the matter. Estonia joined the European Union in 2004.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed "to all concerned to deal with the issues at hand in a spirit of respect and conciliation," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

The center-right government had said the monument and the nearby war grave should be moved to a cemetery because its location near a busy intersection was not a proper place resting place for the victims.

But critics said the real reason was to pander to nationalist movements in Estonia, to whom the memorial was a symbol of Soviet repression.

Once the remains have been exhumed and identified, they would be move to the Defense Forces cemetery outside Tallinn, along with the Bronze Soldier statue, said Andreas Kaju, a Defense Ministry adviser. Meanwhile, the 6-foot statue erected in 1947 was being held at an undisclosed location, he said.

The government had hoped to begin excavation work on Friday morning, but was forced to postpone it due to the unrest.

Soviet troops invaded the Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — in 1940, but were pushed out by the Nazis a year later. The Red Army retook them in 1944 and occupied them until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.