The Soviet-era World War II memorial was removed from the central square in Tallinn overnight despite the Estonian premier's assurances that it would stay in place until Victory Day on May 9. The move is a breaking point in a long standing dispute with Russia over monuments to Soviet soldiers, whom Estonia considers occupants.
"The Bronze Soldier has been cut up into separate pieces and taken out of the city center. Currently it is under police protection. Information about its whereabouts is not being released," the press service said. The press service declined to say whether the monument will ever be restored. "I cannot answer this question," the spokesman said.
The removal was met with protests, which later turned into riots last night. Clashes between police and protesters left one dead and at least 57 injured, including 13 police officers. Police arrested over 300 people in the riots, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors opposed to the government's decision to exhume the remains of 13 Soviet soldiers, who died liberating Estonia from the Nazis in 1944 and were buried at the site three years later.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on a visit to Oslo for a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council's foreign ministers, said Moscow, which has vehemently opposed the monument's removal, was outraged by "such desecration and the methods used to disperse the protestors who tried to protect the shrine and memory of Europe's liberators from Nazism."
He said the government of Estonia, an EU member, by removing the monument had spat on common European values, opting for abnormal relations with Russia.
"I do not understand the policy of governments that are seeking to justify their activity by laying the blame for historical events on somebody else and I cannot understand attempts to equate Communism with Nazism," Lavrov said. He added that this was not only a problem of bilateral relations but concerned the whole of Europe.
The European Commission said it was sorry about Estonian police actions against protestors, but made no comment on the dismantling of the Soviet monument.
Russia's upper house of parliament called for breaking diplomatic ties with Estonia over the removal, while the lower house urged for economic sanctions to be taken against the Baltic country. The legislators also called on Russian authorities to secure condemnation from international organizations such as the UN, Council of Europe, OSCE, CIS, and the Russia-NATO Council.
Police reinforcements have been brought in to protect Estonian Embassies in Moscow and St. Petersburg. More than 50 protesters have gathered in front of the embassy building in Moscow, with ten of them clad in WWII uniforms.
The Estonian Ambassador in Moscow, Marina Kaljurand, said the exhumation of the soldiers' remains had not started. "It will begin after the Estonian Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church have conducted a church service," she said, adding that the remains of the soldiers would be buried at a military cemetery in central Tallinn.
She also said Estonia honored the memory of all victims of fascism and those who fought against it. "Estonia is a democratic country and there is no revival of fascism in Estonia," she said. "One should judge a country by its conduct."
She said Estonia considered Russia's proposal to cut diplomatic ties blackmail. "We consider breaking off diplomatic relations an ungrounded move," Kaljurand said, adding that Estonia was a sovereign country acting in compliance with international law. "No one has the right to interfere in Estonia's internal affairs," she said. "We will not listen to other countries' blackmail and threats." The ambassador also said Estonia had invited Russia to take part in the reburial of the soldiers' remains, which was "an act of good will."
The Estonian parliament passed laws allowing the removal of Soviet monuments and the exhumation of Soviet soldiers, claiming that monuments that encourage social divisions must be removed. The move followed clashes between ethnic Russians and Estonian nationalists at the Soviet-era monument.
Russia has repeatedly drawn the European Union's attention to attempts by Estonia, which declared its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and joined NATO and the EU in 2004, to glorify Nazi Germany, including allowing parades by former Nazi SS fighters. Moscow has also harshly criticized Estonia's discriminatory policies with respect to ethnic Russians and their descendents, who moved to the republic following its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940.
Many members of Estonia's Russian community are denied citizenship and employment rights, and cannot receive an education in their native language. The human rights group Amnesty International condemned the situation in the Baltic country, and called on its leadership to respect the rights of ethnic Russians.