Russian-Estonian relations: stuck between a rock and a hard place

MOSCOW. (Tatyana Stanovaya, an expert with the Center for Political Technologies, for RIA Novosti) - The removal of a World War II memorial from central Tallinn highlighted a major contradiction in the priorities of Russian-Estonian relations.

The Kremlin has been faced with a difficult choice between risking a disruption in its economic ties with Estonia, and disregarding the historical memory of millions in favor of a pragmatic approach toward strengthening the country's economic might.

It is difficult to choose between politics and the economy.

One approach to relations with Estonia is based on politics and stipulates an uncompromising defense of Russian interests using all available instruments, from diplomatic moves to economic sanctions and a boycott of Estonian goods in Russia.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of Russia's parliament, has initiated an appeal to the government to sever relations with Estonia.

The proponents of this approach argue that Russia should create a pro-Russian political infrastructure in Estonia, rather than develop relations with the anti-Russian elite. This is a confrontational scenario that entails clashing with the most influential and powerful forces in Estonia while relying on marginal and weak, but entirely pro-Russian organizations. According to that logic, Russia should try to influence the Estonian elite and, failing to entice it with the carrot, resort to the stick.

There are downsides to that approach.

First, the pro-Russian political infrastructure (the Constitutional Party, veterans' organizations, and the anti-fascist Night Watch movement) is not as influential as the Estonian political forces, which is a major obstacle to the promotion of Russian interests in Estonia.

The Constitutional Party got only 0.99% of the vote in the parliamentary election, and Russian speakers preferred supporting the Centrist Party, a much more effective force. The Constitutional Party has today opted for keeping out of the Russian-Estonian conflict. It has appealed to the government to respect the monuments to "those who perished in that war, which the world remembers as the worst and most inhuman event of the 20th century."

This is indirect proof of how futile the confrontational scenario would be.

The second downside is that this approach would not benefit Russia and would allow Estonia to accuse the Kremlin of interfering in its internal affairs. President Vladimir Putin has spoken out against foreign interference in the internal political affairs of Russia. Therefore, confrontation with Estonia would make Russia look hypocritical and would scare off Europe, which might otherwise criticize the highly contestable decisions of the Estonian government.

And third, deteriorating relations with Estonia might complicate the transit of Russian oil and oil products via the Baltic countries. As long as Russia's economy depends on petrodollars, the Kremlin will have to choose between stable revenues, which can be used to address social and economic problems at home, and historical pride, which is an indispensable condition for the revival of any nation.

The second, pragmatic scenario favors the economic approach. Some Estonian and Russian media have recently reported that Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the lower house of the Russian parliament's committee for international affairs, said he would support the Estonian government's decision to move the monument if it were done properly.

That report was denied almost immediately, but it provided a clear picture of a pragmatic stance, according to which the reburial of Soviet soldiers with proper honors was admissible, and constructive bilateral relations could be developed.

According to Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, there are proponents of this scenario in the Russian establishment. He said negotiations were under way through Russian diplomatic channels to find a suitable option for removing the monument.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, said: "They have the right to dismantle [the monument]. It is a sovereign country. As for Russia, it should look at what is happening at home, where such monuments have been dismantled without causing much of a stir."

Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament, can be described, although with some reservations, as a proponent of the pragmatic approach. During the election campaign in Estonia, he advocated voting for the Centrist Party of Edgar Savisaar, which supported the law on military graves.

The pragmatic approach is no less contradictory than the political one. By opting for it, the Kremlin risks losing pro-Russian supporters in Estonia, who uphold their positions more consistently than the Centrists do but may feel betrayed if the Kremlin diversifies its allegiances.

This approach is also dangerous because it would create a precedent. If Russia allows the Bronze Soldier to be dismantled, this may open the door to similar decisions in other countries and a revision of history.

And lastly, the most difficult issue for pragmatists is veterans, whose feelings would be ignored shortly before their most important holiday, VE Day on May 8-9.

Russia has to choose between two evils, whose consequences are very difficult to calculate because politics and the economy, the past and the future cannot exist independently of each other.

By severing relations with Estonia, the Kremlin would deliver a blow to the economic interests of Russia. By pretending not to notice the removal of the monument, it would injure the feelings of a substantial part of Estonian society, as well as veterans and the overwhelming majority of Russians.

Hopefully, the Kremlin will find a compromise, responding to the Estonian authorities' decision without endangering the economic interests of Russia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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