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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonian 'Sacrilege' Prompts Outrage

APDemonstrators Thursday parading large photographs of the Bronze Soldier.
Estonia's parliament voted Thursday to remove a Soviet war memorial from the capital, Tallinn, eliciting an immediate and furious reaction from Russian officials.

"Taking this step out of spite and defying all the protests that have been issued by so many countries is a mistake and an act of sacrilege," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The 101-member Estonian parliament voted 46-44 to ban any monuments in any public place that glorify what Estonian officials call "the occupation" and "mass repressions" that took place in the Baltic country.

It was the provision in the ban calling for the removal of the Bronze Soldier that drew the most Russian ire. The monument commemorating the Soviet victory over the Germans in World War II had become a rallying point for Estonia's ethnic Russians.

While Estonian President Toomas Hendril Ilves said after Thursday's vote that he would not sign it into law, that may not matter.

According to the Estonian Constitution, the president has 14 days to make his formal opposition to the bill known. If the parliament then passes the bill for a second time, Ilves has the option to seek Supreme Court intervention. If the court finds the measure constitutional, it becomes law.

Lawmaker Raivo Jarvi of Estonia's Reform Party, which backed the bill, said that in recent years the number of people rallying near the Bronze Soldier during the Soviet-Russian May holidays had grown. Many people from Russia came to wave communist-style red flags and show support for the demonstrators.

"For ordinary Estonians, the Soviet flag is a reminder of occupation," Jarvi said by telephone from Tallinn.

Estonia enjoyed a brief period of independence following the Nazi retreat in 1944 and before the Soviet Army's arrival. This has fueled many Estonians' deeply held belief that the postwar Soviet period was little more than occupation, Jarvi said.

"People had appealed to the government to do something, and our prime minister, Andrus Ansip, promised to solve the problem," Jarvi said.

Ansip is the leader of the Estonian Reform Party.

Enn Esmaa, head of the Estonian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the Estonian Center Party, which opposed the bill, said the measure was driven by domestic politics.

Esmaa said parliamentary elections in Estonia were scheduled for March 4.

Esmaa was buttressed by Ilves, the Estonian president. "Some politicians," the president said, "were driven by a desire to use the so-called Bronze Soldier issue merely to draw attention to themselves, not by a wish to find an effective solution."

Ethnic Russians lawmakers from the three parliament factions that back the bill did not vote.

Ethnic Russians account for about one-third of Estonia's 1.3 million people.

Still, Esmaa took issue with Russian officials who insisted the measure was simply a glorification of or an apology for Nazism.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, said Thursday the "adoption of this law is a shame for Estonia and its lawmakers, and a way to revive Nazism."

Mironov and other Russian lawmakers called on the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly, somewhat enigmatically, to "react harshly" to the bill.

Esmaa voiced doubt that the Council of Europe would exert pressure on Tallinn. "They know that no one in Estonia, including those who rallied for the bill, supports Nazism," he said.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov warned that the new measure would complicate Russian-Estonian relations.

In the weeks leading up to the final vote -- Thursday marked the third and final "reading" of the measure -- Russian political leaders floated different options for dealing with the situation in neighboring Estonia.

Options included asking Tallinn to move memorials onto Russian soil and punishing Estonia with economic sanctions.

"Russia cannot introduce any sanctions against Estonia because it is a part of the European Union, which has unified trade policies," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a political analyst and editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs.

What's more, Lukyanov said, demanding that European officials intervene will not do any good because issues related to memorials and monuments fall under national jurisdiction.