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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tensions Flare Over Soviet Memorial

ReutersDemonstrators in Soviet army uniforms carrying flags of the Nashi youth movement on Wednesday during a protest in Moscow against Estonian policy.
Russian lawmakers launched a scathing attack on Wednesday against the Estonian government's plans to relocate Soviet soldiers' graves and a monument to the Red Army in downtown Tallinn.

"Estonia is meddling with victims and memorials. This is a historic mistake," Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said after the upper house voted unanimously in favor of a resolution condemning the relocation, Interfax reported.

In its resolution, addressed to the governments of all former Soviet republics and European countries the Federation Council called a law permitting the relocation of military graves "an attempt to legalize fascism."

"This will obviously lead to ... the further alienation of the peoples of Russia and Estonia," the resolution stated.

Lawmakers were not alone Wednesday in blasting Estonia's intention to move the graves and a Soviet-era bronze statue of a Red Army soldier that hails the Red Army as liberators of Estonia from German occupation.

On Manezh Square, hundreds of members of the United Russia party and the pro-Kremlin youth organizations Young Russia and Nashi protested the proposed move.

"The removal of the memorial amounts to the destruction of the memory of the liberators," Nashi spokeswoman Anastasia Suslova said.

Suslova said that if the statue were removed, a member of Nashi would stand in place of the statue as "a living monument to the liberator."

In Tallinn on Wednesday, the Estonian parliament considered a bill on the "removal of forbidden structures," which would have given authorities the right to move the Red Army statue, where many people gather to celebrate Victory Day each year.

Raivo Jarvi, a member and acting spokesman of the Estonian Reform Party, said by telephone Wednesday that the bill would also ban "structures that glorify the occupation of the Republic of Estonia," such as the Red Army statue.

Jarvi insisted the statue would not be destroyed, however, but moved to a Soviet-era seaside military cemetery. "People are offended by the presence of the monument in the center of the city," he said.

The bill failed on a second reading, however.

"The bill was rejected in its present form," Estonian parliament spokesman Gunnar Baal said.

Baal denied that Russian protests had influenced the outcome of Wednesday's vote. "A few more details need to be added before it comes up for another vote," he said.

Estonia's parliament did give preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would forbid the public display of Soviet and Nazi symbols, Interfax reported.

Timur Nisametdinov / AP
A monument commemorating the Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Nazis in Estonia stands in downtown Tallinn.

Also in Tallinn, members of various Russian organizations submitted a petition to Estonian President Toomas Hendrich signed by some 17,000 residents who oppose the removal of the Red Army statue, Interfax reported.

The remains of several Soviet soldiers are believed to lie in unmarked graves under a bus stop located a few meters away from the statue at a busy intersection in central Tallinn.

On Jan. 10, Estonia passed into law a bill on the protection of military cemeteries, which allows for the transfer of the remains of buried Soviet soldiers to clearly marked cemeteries.

The Geneva Convention, which came into force in 1950, forbids the burial of war victims in unmarked graves. The convention was ratified by Russia in 1954 and Estonia in 1993.

The conflict over the proposed removal has been escalating for several weeks. During a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Sunday, President Vladimir Putin said: "Estonia wants a seat in the front row and to gain some kind of advantage."

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, have also voiced their outrage in recent days.

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip weighed in Wednesday, criticizing Russia for using the threat of economic sanctions to solve political spats.

"The Estonian people will decide for themselves how to arrange their affairs in their republic," Ansip said, Interfax reported. "Russia's threats cannot influence the decisions of a democratic sovereign state."

Also Wednesday, the Council of Europe -- one of the addressee's of the Federation Council's resolution -- entered the fray.

Terry Davis, Secretary-General for the Council of Europe, said in e-mailed comments that Red Army soldiers deserved "respect and gratitude" for fighting against the forces of Nazi Germany.

"On the other hand," Davis continued, "the Soviet Army was an occupying force in Estonia, which is the reason why some Estonians object to the monument."

Davis called for the fallen soldiers to be treated with "dignity and respect."

At the heart of the dispute is the role that Soviet forces played in Estonia after German occupation ended in 1944. Russians take pride in the victory over the Nazis by the Soviet Army, which was hailed as a liberating force.

Many Estonians, however, view 1944 as simply a transition between two occupying armies that marked the start of decades of oppressive communist rule.

As Russian-Estonian relations have cooled in recent years, the statue in central Tallinn has been the site of sometimes-violent clashes between ethnic Russians and Estonians. Demonstrations there have been banned.

"Russian young people gather and wave the flag not of Russia, but of the Soviet Union," Jarvi said. "For Estonians, the Soviet flag is the same as the Nazi flag. Both occupations were by the same kind of totalitarian regime."