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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tiny, Valiant Estonia Slugs it out with Giant Russia on the pages of the British Press

The Guardian (hat tip: David McDuff) has published dueling op-ed pieces from the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma (Konstantin Kosachev) and the Estonian ambassador to Britain (Margus Laidre):

First, the Russian:

The marks of the second world war can be seen all over Europe, in restored buildings, destroyed neighbourhoods, war cemeteries, painful memories and memorials to the millions who died in the war against nazism. In almost all countries the memorials are treated with respect. In Normandy fallen British and German soldiers lie in adjacent cemeteries. Their graves are well kept, so that families may visit their last resting place, and new generations be reminded of the horrors of war.

But in Estonia a new law threatens the very principle of the sanctity of the war dead. The War Graves Protection Act will allow the memorial that stands in the centre of the capital, Tallinn, to be dismantled, and the bodies of unknown soldiers beneath it to be disinterred and reburied elsewhere. While Estonia's President Toomas Ilves has for now vetoed on technical grounds the part of the act that obliges the government to demolish Soviet war memorials within 30 days, he has waved through another law permitting the reburial of the remains of Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Nazis.

The Russian government is deeply concerned as this plan threatens to upset relations between Estonians and Russians living in the country and hopes of improving our friendship as independent, neighbouring states. The children and grandchildren of men and women who fought fascism will no longer have a place in central Tallinn where they can honour those heroes. Meanwhile in Estonia, as in Latvia, it has become permissible for veterans of the Hitlerite SS not only to form associations, but to hold rallies in city centres.

In other words, it has become politically correct among some EU members to honour those who tried to bury European civilisation and were responsible for a five-year catastrophe on our continent, while they make it more difficult to honour those who gave their lives to stamp out the cancer of fascism.

Estonians argue that the liberation of their country by Soviet soldiers was in fact the beginning of a new occupation. But a distinction must be made between the political realities of the day and the ordinary people who fought in the war. The Stalinist, communist state that according to Estonian radicals occupied Estonia also brought political repression for millions in the rest of the Soviet Union. The secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which assigned the Baltic states to the Soviet sphere of influence, were condemned by the Soviet parliament as long ago as 1989, and declared null and void.

Moreover, the men and women who fought in the Red Army believed they were ridding the world of fascism - and that is what they did. They and their children can't be held responsible for crimes committed later. It is unforgivable to equate liberators with occupiers.

President Putin has described the plan to demolish the Tallinn war memorial as an "ultra-nationalist and very short-sighted policy". As a response some in Russia advocate sanctions against Estonia. But this should be an ultimate option. If the war-graves laws are not implemented, the opposite should happen: economic and trade links should be strengthened.

Before any attempt to wipe out the memory of the sacrifices that Soviet (and Estonian) citizens made to save Europe from nazism, we need a period of reflection. The second world war still strikes a deeply emotional chord in Russia, as elsewhere in Europe. As a last resort, Russia is willing to rebury the sacred remains of our soldiers in Russian soil. But let us hope that in the interests of friendship between our nations and respect for the war dead, this does not have to happen.

Here's the Estonian response:

Konstantin Kosachev claims that Estonia now permits SS rallies - but plans to pull down memorials to those who died fighting fascism. This is not true. Different colours can be used to paint history. For Russia the years 1941-45 mean the great patriotic war, in which the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union and were defeated. For Estonia, alongside Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the second world war began two years earlier in August 1939, when Stalin and Hitler divided Europe into spheres of influence. As a result Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lost their independence for 50 years.

Unfortunately, Russia does not want to recognise the words of its first president, Boris Yeltsin. In Hungary in 1992 he said that, after the destruction of fascism, another ideology of violence descended upon eastern Europe. Yeltsin, who apologised for the actions of the Soviet Union, said that one must know one's own history, because without the complete truth justice cannot be restored, and without the complete truth there can be neither remorse nor forgiveness.

According to Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Duma's international affairs committee, "a distinction must be made between the political realities of the day and the ordinary people who fought the war". Russia admits to winning the second world war, but elects not to see any connection with the barbaric crimes against humanity committed by the same regime. For Estonians, the September 1944 re-entry of Soviet troops into our capital, Tallinn, only meant replacement of one occupation regime with another. The loss of human lives during the Soviet and Nazi occupations in Estonia (1940-45) was huge: proportionately, it was as if today's Britain had lost 12 million people.

The Soviet "liberators" deported my aunt to Siberia for 17 years. To survive she had to drink her own urine. The "liberators" shot her husband without trial; the "charge" was that he was a bank director and supported a liberal market economy and she, his wife, was an accomplice. There are tens of thousands of similar stories.

The International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, established in 1998 by the late President Meri, has published its first voluminous compendium of 1,337 pages, which describes the first Soviet occupation and the German occupation. Estonia dares face her history whereas, 60 years after the end of the war, Russia still has not.

According to Mr Kosachev, President Putin has described the plan to demolish the Tallinn war memorial as an "ultra-nationalist and very short-sighted policy". But unlike in Russia, which recently demolished a 30-metre second world war memorial in Stavropol with full approval by the authorities, the issue in Estonia is not about dismantling a monument, but about moving it to a more suitable location (a cemetery).

There are no neo-Nazis marching in Estonia's streets. But how is it possible that, having defeated Nazism 60 years ago, Russia today is home to more than 50,000 neo-Nazis? Such developments give cause for real concern - even Putin has admitted as much. It is in Europe's interests to help Russia re-evaluate the past and combat neo-Nazism. Estonia is ready to lend a hand.

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