Estonia and Russia
The right to be wrong
From The Economist print edition
Estonia was unwise to provoke Russia—but deserves more support from its friends
FOR a small country living next to a bad-tempered big one, life is often difficult. So it is easy to sympathise with Estonia (population 1.3m), the closest that eastern Europe has to a real economic and political success story, in its spat with Russia (population 143m). The removal last weekend of a Soviet-era war memorial from the centre of the capital, Tallinn, to a military cemetery provoked rioting and looting by local Russians, and furious protests of “blasphemy” from Russia itself (see article). Dozens were hurt; one man died. Kremlin-sponsored heavies have blockaded Estonia's Moscow embassy and jostled the ambassador; oil exports have been cut.
Russia is grossly over-reacting. But Estonia's tactics were gravely mistaken. The country's prime minister, Andrus Ansip, made the future of the war memorial an issue in the run-up to the general election in March, hoping to gain votes from patriotic Estonians for his own Reform party. He won handsomely. But he was playing with fire. The monument offends many Estonians; some nickname the hulking bronze figure the “unknown rapist”. In 1944, a four-year Nazi occupation gave way to a more damaging, decades-long Soviet one. But for many ethnic Russians the bronze soldier symbolises wartime sacrifice and the defeat of fascism.
The damage done by Estonia's ill-explained move is out of all proportion to the gain. The government has now made the statue's removal a cause célèbre for every nutty Russian nationalist wanting to throw a punch. It has also undermined one of the great gains of the past 15 years: integrating many of the 300,000 Soviet-era (and often Soviet-minded) migrants and their descendants. Many have learned Estonian and acquired citizenship. They now feel their adopted country has betrayed them. The idea that Estonia's Russians might even set a good example for Russia itself has been derailed.
Worst of all, Russia may think Estonia is easily isolated. For days, a chilly silence prevailed in all big Western capitals, despite Russia's deplorable behaviour—first in whipping up sentiment in Estonia, and then in the grotesquely exaggerated responses orchestrated by the Kremlin. Relations with Russia are important, big countries mutter: why jeopardise them for a silly little country that has only itself to blame?
That risks making a bad situation still worse. Mr Ansip has blundered. But his country is nonetheless a commendably keen member of the European Union, and a loyal member of NATO too, contributing troops to the hairiest bit of Afghanistan. Estonia does useful work among other ex-communist countries, where it tries to promote reform, talk sense and calm rows. It deserves help, not to be left to twist in the cold wind from the east.
Russia should be told that its bullying is an intolerable echo of the past. Estonia's embassy in Moscow deserves proper police protection. Whatever their shortcomings, Estonia's politicians are not “fascists”. Contrary to the Russian media's allegations, the war graves around the monument have not been desecrated, but exhumed prior to proper reburial; the monument itself was not sawn up, but has already been re-erected nearby, in dignified surroundings.
The importance of this goes far beyond Estonia. If the Kremlin concludes that former Soviet satellites are not real members of Western clubs, but will be dumped by their allies once they blunder, the consequences for Europe's peace and stability will be lethal.