Friday, April 25, 2008

Baltic puzzler


Baltic puzzler

Apr 24th 2008

Tallinn's bronze soldier one year on

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HOW many people does it take to cause a real riot? Three: two to fight, and one to film it. It is easy to get some yobbos to attack a policeman; if he hits back, the footage can be made to look disproportionately brutal. That is what worries Estonians as the anniversary of last year’s “bronze soldier” riots in Tallinn looms.

Few people can look back on those events and reckon they got everything right. Estonian politicians used unfortunate rhetoric, and may have been overhasty in moving the capital’s best-known Soviet war-memorial in what seemed to at least some local Russians as an act of vindictiveness. That provoked (perhaps stoked by the Kremlin) the worst unrest in Estonia since independence.

The bronze soldier replaced a wooden memorial blown up in 1946 by Aili Jurgenson, then 14, and Ageeda Paavel, who was 15. Both were punished with long terms in the Gulag. The two girls were upset by the way in which Soviet forces had been systematically obliterating memorials to Estonia’s fallen soldiers from the war of independence.

That highlights the gulf in perception about what the “victory” was about. The Soviet soldiers may have sincerely thought that they had “liberated” the Baltic states (just as many of those who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 believed they were in West Germany). But for the locals, they were just one occupying force replacing another.

The monument now stands in a dignified and prominent position in a multinational military cemetery, along with British and German war dead. But that will not appease the Kremlin, which seems to be relaunching a propaganda offensive against Estonia and Latvia. At the NATO summit in Bucharest, President Vladimir Putin blamed the alliance for not forcing the two countries to give equal rights to “Russians” (by which he meant Soviet migrants stranded by the empire’s collapse).

That issue can’t be solved neatly. Fairest to the remaining non-citizens—about 300,000 in Latvia and over 100,000 in Estonia—would be automatic naturalisation. That would be perhaps more palatable now for the host countries than it was in the early 1990s, when reborn statehood seemed terrifyingly fragile. But it would be unfair to the people who have suffered most from the ruinous occupation that started in 1940: the citizens of the prewar republics and their descendants, who were close to being a minority in their own countries by 1991.

Grim post-Soviet mortality rates will shrink the problem eventually. But for now it is hard to see a good outcome. One approach would be to put more money and effort into encouraging many more non-citizens to take local citizenship (which chiefly involves passing a language exam). Tens of thousands have already done this.

Second is continuing with the existing approach; this will need increased efforts to maintain foreign support as Russian pressure increases.

A third option would be to make a radical change, liberalising the citizenship law. The danger with that is that the Kremlin would swallow the concession, lick its lips, and demand the next course: the introduction of Russian as an official language, perhaps.

The biggest shortage in the Baltic states now is political vision and imagination, both in solving domestic problems (including integration of non-citizens), and in seizing the initiative abroad. It would be nice to think that instead of sitting around worrying what the Kremlin and its local allies were planning for the demonstrations' anniversary, a team of bright-eyed Estonian information warriors were planning a series of clever, witty and headline-grabbing stunts that would leave their opposite numbers in Moscow flummoxed.

Don’t hold your breath.

1 comment:

Andreas said...

I think you've got it just about right with the options we've got. Especially with the third one. Bartering with our neighbours has demonstrated, that strategy isn't even a zero sum game for them; when we concede something, there's always a new demand down the line. And the rational is that its not particular policy they're interested about; its about maintaining a strategic and lasting quarrel on soft issues that enable to demonstrate the former members of the SU as states who are naturally part of the wider Russian sphere of (also cultural) influence but who quite simply are not capable of living with their own history and even worse, constantly become entangled in minor scuffles and debates due to an inability to pull themselves together and see the broader picture, are a nuisance and a menace in an otherwise beautiful EU-Russia relationship :)