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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Violent Clashes Over War Memorial

APPolice firing tear gas into a crowd of protesters in central Tallinn on Friday.
Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial from a central Tallinn square early Friday, after overnight clashes with ethnic Russian protesters killed one person and injured 99 others, including 12 police officers. More than 300 people were detained.

The move prompted demands from Russian lawmakers to sever ties with the Baltic nation.

Estonian authorities swiftly moved the bronze monument to an undisclosed location. The protesters rallied against plans to exhume the remains of 12 to 14 Soviet soldiers from under the two-meter-high monument and relocate them and the monument to a military cemetery outside Tallinn. Initially peaceful, the gathering turned into Estonia's worst riot since the country broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ethnic Russians, who make up one-third of the population, revere the monument as a tribute to the Soviet soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany. Ethnic Estonians regard the monument as a reminder of what they call decades-long Soviet occupation.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Friday that the monument's removal would worsen ties between Russia and Estonia.

"As far as bilateral relations with Estonia are concerned, the Estonian government has decided to make them not normal," he said at a news conference in Oslo.

The decision tramples on the values that emerged in Europe after World War II, Lavrov said, apparently meaning tolerance. "The Estonian government spit upon these values," he said.

Lavrov said everyone in Russia was indignant at police measures to disperse protesters who stood up for the "sacred" site.

Estonia has signed and ratified a border treaty with Russia, but Russia's ratification may now lie in jeopardy.

In Moscow, the Federation Council called on the government to break off diplomatic relations with Estonia, calling the monument's removal "barbaric" and the result of the victory of Estonian nationalists in recent parliamentary elections.

"It is repulsive and sacrilegious. We must express our position," said Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who floated the idea of severing diplomatic ties.

In a nonbinding statement, the State Duma unanimously demanded that the government recall the ambassador to Estonia, ban entry to Estonian political leaders that "besmirched themselves by the desecration of the graves" and restrict cooperation in transportation, energy and banking.

The Duma expressed support and gratitude to the Tallinn protesters and urged the government to discuss the monument's removal in the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Russia-NATO Council.

Estonia's Foreign Ministry hoped that Russia would not make any hasty decisions. "We hope that Moscow proceeds from common sense when making practical decisions that shape the future of our bilateral relations," said Estonian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ehtel Halliste, Interfax reported.

The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Rene van der Linden, expressed regret that the memorial's removal threatened to widen a rift between citizens of Estonian and Russian origin.

"When people in a country disagree, they should sit down together and talk about their future and about building bridges rather than dig into their past," he said in a statement. "I urge the Estonian authorities to respect the feelings of all those living in their country and immediately take steps leading to reconciliation rather than to division in their society."

In Moscow, pro-Kremlin youth staged a protest near the Estonian Embassy and at one point blocked the outgoing car of Ambassador Marina Kaljurand, Interfax reported. The embassy has stopped issuing visas until the turmoil is over.

In one voice of dissent, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said Russia could not criticize Estonia for dismantling war memorials because it does the same, referring to work to relocate a war memorial in Khimki, just outside Moscow. (Story, Page 3.)

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves defended the government efforts to quell the protest. "What we saw last night was looting, rampage and theft. It was a crime, and its participants are criminals," he said in a televised address to the nation. "All this had nothing to do with the inviolability of graves or keeping alive the memory of men fallen in World War II."

One protester died after being stabbed by a fellow protester during the violence, Estonian authorities said.

Some 1,500 protesters clashed with police after a small group tried to break through a police line protecting the monument early Friday.