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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stop Looking For Excuses to Make Trouble

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The Russian Foreign Ministry does not like Estonia. It is always finding some reason or another to blame Estonian officials for violating the rights of Russian-speaking citizens.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that no such problems exist in Estonia. There are indeed difficulties for ethnic Russians who want to be full-fledged citizens there. However, the reasons for protest that the Russian government keeps coming up with generally strike me as strange.

I remember a couple of years ago reading a Foreign Ministry protest against a decision to close four Russian-language schools in Tallinn. Any Russian citizen who read this protest could naturally only have one reaction. "Those Estonians are too big for their boots. They want to get rid of the Russians," I remember someone remarking to me.

The truth of the matter was that those in the Foreign Ministry responsible for propaganda were too big for their boots. The complete information from the Estonian Education Ministry, which the Russian Foreign Ministry neglected to report, was that they were closing down a total of 11 Tallinn schools, including seven Estonian-language ones. Why? The birth rate had dropped there.

Just last week, a similar story came along. "On the morning of July 24, about 30 soldiers from a peacekeepers' training base located in Paldiski beat up some civilians who did not speak Estonian," Interfax reported. This was, of course, immediately interpreted by the Foreign Ministry as another sign of heightened ethnic tensions. But what really happened?

As some local officials and local Russian-speakers told me, the conflict started on July 24 after four soldiers were approached by a group of about 10 local residents, who began beating them and stole a mobile phone from one of them. That soldier, from a Russian family by the way, was sent to the hospital with a fairly serious head injury, according to Peter Taili, a spokesperson for the Estonian Defense Forces.

That's when his friends from the base, both Russian and Estonians, went out for revenge.

"This is not an incident based on ethnic grounds," said Pino Maiber, a spokesman for the Estonian Foreign Ministry. "It has happened many times there that soldiers are beaten up [by locals]."

Oleg Kalabugin, a former dissident from Tallinn, said that conflicts with Russian-speaking locals have become a really serious problem for Estonia in recent months. "I don't have a single friend who has not been beaten up or robbed on the street. Including me," he said.

Kalabugin recalled an incident last month when three locals attacked an employee of the American Embassy. They didn't know that the guy was a marine, and two of them were hospitalized.

Of course, there is a difference between this American defending himself and the peacekeepers who went out looking for trouble. I can understand how hotheaded young guys would feel in such a situation, but they should have shown a better understanding of the tensions in the country and a higher level of professionalism as soldiers.

Taili didn't say whether the soldiers only beat up civilians who didn't speak Estonian. But he did say that all of them would be punished.

"We want to find out everything that happened there as soon as possible," he said. "All of those who are found guilty will be discharged."

That sounds about right to me.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter with The St. Petersburg Times.