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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stumbling Over the Past

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The past matters, and an incomplete understanding of the past can become a chronic illness. The Estonian government's decision to transfer a monument in Tallinn that Russians call the Soviet soldier-liberator generated open hostility from ethnic Russians living in Estonia and in Russia itself. The results were riots in Tallinn that killed one person and a new stumbling block in relations between Russia and Europe.

There is no absolutely right or wrong side in the current conflict. Both countries have their own version of history. Whether moving the monument and the remains of soldiers interred beneath is in line with the Geneva Convention is a question for European institutions, but the political damage has already been done.

Both sides willingly shifted the conflict into the political arena. It was clear what the reaction from the Russian side was going to be from the outset, so Estonia could have simply left the monument alone, or at least waited. For its part, Russia could have held back from offering its stock reaction in such cases -- threats to boycott goods or cut off oil supplies.

This kind of pressure hasn't delivered much in the way of success. The conflict with Tbilisi, which could also have been solved by more diplomatic means, ended with a complete economic and transportation blockade of Georgia. The Georgian economy adapted, and now the country has been lost as a potential partner for the foreseeable future. After the gas war with Ukraine, not only the pro-Western political elite but also the pro-Russian Party of the Regions and big business now favor greater integration with Europe. There has been an increase in concern over the country's dependability as an energy supplier.

It is starting to look as if official Moscow, without hope of any discernable political benefit, is glad for any opportunity to argue with its neighbors. This chance to stand up to its neighbors may make it possible for officials to talk about the recovery of Russia's place on the world stage, but the reality is that it's position is worsening: Over the past few years, measure of attitudes toward Russia in the West have plunged into the negatives, and post-Soviet republics have been transformed into enemies. Ignoring the technical date for the break up of the Soviet Union, the real and final disintegration has come in the first decade of the 21st century. With each new conflict the former Soviet republics move further away from being abstract enemies for Russians and toward being real foreign policy opponents for the country.

The roots of the conflict with Estonia all lie in the past. Russia's foreign policy looks like a holdover from the Soviet variety, and those responsible for making it live in a "cold" world, surrounded by enemies. Economic recovery and the strengthening of Russia's position on the international arena have had the ironic effect of narrowing the world surrounding the country to the geographic borders of the state.

For Russia to hope to have more friends in a world that has broadened, and not narrowed, it needs an entirely different foreign policy that is oriented toward the future with an understanding of the past.

Besides its Soviet and imperial heritage, Russia has a multitude of cards to play that would allow it to act effectively on the international stage, including its location, the state of its economy and, perhaps most important, its great cultural tradition.

But to start living in the future, the past has to be transformed from a stumbling block to a common understanding. In order to chase away the ghosts of the past, you first have to reconcile yourself with them.

As long as Russians continue to turn a blind eye to parts of the history of Soviet repression -- living peacefully with both Stalin's national anthem and the two-headed eagle, with Lenin's body on Red Square and Tsar Nicholas II canonized -- the past will only continue to get in their way.

This appeared as an editorial in Vedomosti.