From The Economist print edition
Russian hypocrisy and heavy-handedness towards a former colony
CLUMSINESS on one hand, unprecedented bullying on the other. That is the story of Russia's reaction to Estonia's decision to move a Soviet-era war memorial and 12 unmarked graves from a prominent position in the capital, Tallinn, to its international military cemetery.
Handled better, the move might have ruffled fewer feathers. But Estonia's prime minister, Andrus Ansip, first raised the issue for party advantage. He wanted his Reform party, founded by zealously free-market ex-communists, to pinch some patriotic votes from other centre-right parties in the March parliamentary elections. His country is now paying a colossal political, social and diplomatic price.
After the Estonian authorities sealed off the monument last weekend, hundreds of people, mostly from the 300,000-strong ethnic Russian population, rioted in Tallinn. They attacked the main theatre and the Academy of Arts, chanting “Fuck Estonia”, and “Russia, Russia”. Secondary-school pupils unfurled a banner outside parliament reading “USSR forever”. The supposed aim was to protect the war memorial—a bronze “liberator” that Estonians see as a symbol of their country's decades-long enslavement by the Soviet Union. But the main activity was looting. Dozens of shops were raided. The police, initially overwhelmed, made 1,000 arrests. One man was stabbed to death—in a row with another looter, Estonia says.
The rioting was not wholly spontaneous. Russian embassy officials had previously met leading protesters in curious places such as a botanical garden, according to pictures leaked by local spy-catchers. After the riot, another front opened: state websites were swamped by attacks from computers with Kremlin IP addresses.
That was swiftly followed by a blockade of Estonia's embassy in Moscow by protesters from Kremlin-run youth movements; they have attacked it with eggs, stones, paint and deafening music, ripped down the flag, and jostled the ambassador. They now threaten to demolish the embassy on May 9th, a public holiday that marks Soviet victory in Europe. Estonia has protested. So has NATO, mildly. Russia says it has stepped up security and blames Estonia for “stoking tensions”.
Then on May 1st Russian oil and coal exports to Estonia stopped, pending railway “repairs”. Freight transit through the country is lucrative for Russian business. But like other threatened boycotts, the move will not hurt Estonia much. Previous Russian sanctions have forced Estonian firms to trade chiefly with the West. Still, gas supplies are truly vulnerable, while the thriving tourism industry is nervously counting cancelled bookings.
Russia's rhetorical onslaught has been ferocious. Ignoring the looting, media there claim that “anti-fascist schoolchildren” trying to stop Estonians “demolishing” the memorial were “tortured” by the “inhuman” police. Russia's foreign minister said Estonia was behaving “disgustingly”. A delegation of Russian politicians, invited to see that the monument had been moved, not demolished, called for the government's resignation before setting off. On arrival, they repeatedly insulted their hosts, while demanding that “political prisoners” be freed.
This has scary echoes for Estonians. In 1940 a Soviet delegation issued similarly phrased demands. Weeks later, Estonia was wiped off the map. The protests also sit oddly with the ruthless way that entirely peaceful and purely political protests are squashed in Russia, as well as with the often casual treatment of war memorials there.
Estonian nerves are jangling. The riots punctured the illusion that local Russians were integrating smoothly. Meanwhile a country that was for long a European darling has been left pitifully exposed by its allies' muted and belated response.