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Removal of Bronze Soldier was forced step - Estonia's Aaviksoo

BNS
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Photo: Liis Treimann

While initially the government planned to relocate the so-called Bronze Soldier monument from Tallinn's city center to the military cemetery with honors some time in the summer of 2007, its dismantling on the night of April 27 and subsequent removal to the new location was a forced step, Estonia's Minister of Education and Research Jaak Aaviksoo told BNS in an interview.

"I've been thinking a lot about the decisions that were made back then. We have never set the goal of pulling down the monument. For understandable reasons, we wanted to transfer it from the city center to the cemetery of the defense forces, but with honors -- that was our aim. We have to concede that, formally, we achieved that goal, but unfortunately through conflict and tensions, which I at least tried to prevent," said Aaviksoo, who served as minister of defense in April 2007.

"We didn't succeed in doing everything the way we would have wanted -- maybe some of the decisions that were made were wrong, maybe we should have slowed things down or something else still, I don't know. But for me the most important thing was that it happened with respect for the casualties that the Red Army incurred in World War II. I know that many Russians are annoyed at these actions, but the intentions of the people who took part in the relocation were honest," he said.

"We knew in spring 2007 what kind of things had happened in 2006, 2005 and 2004 -- tension around the Bronze Soldier was mounting. May 9 was approaching. Utterances could be heard that the government that had taken office on April 5 intends to relocate the monument. The plans were such: first, to conduct excavations to know what we're dealing with. We didn't know how many people and exactly where were buried there, whether anyone at all had been buried there. In the end it came out that the burial site was in a totally different place -- under the trolleybus stop," Aaviksoo said.

"With my participation it was decided that we will fence off the territory -- first, in order to make excavations possible, and second, to technically prevent a repetition of the conflict that took place on May 9 the previous year," the minister said.

In his words, the government understood that making known the date when the territory would be encircled with a fence would have given rise to various kinds of political manifestations, rallies and pickets. "It means that it was possible to do it only by putting the public before a fact. That we also did. The operation took place relatively successfully, but unfortunately the situation assessment hadn't been able to foresee the events that started in the evening," he said.

"There was no intention to relocate the monument that night. I was going to bed about 11 p.m. when I received a phone call informing that the situation had aggravated to the point where it was necessary to hold a night meeting of the government. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said a situation has emerged where [storefronts in] central Tallinn had been shattered to pieces, we had a large-scale conflict like we had seen only on television so far. It was a shock not only for members of the government but for residents of the whole country. Politically, it would have been an unacceptable situation if the only thing left intact in Tallinn by the morning would be the Bronze Soldier. In such case it would have been already impossible politically to take any next steps. I understand and share that logic," said Aaviksoo.

Finally, the decision to dismantle the statue was made that night and the ministry organized the dismantling. "Unfortunately, we were forced to take that step, although we didn't want to. The relocation was supposed to happen in summer, some time in July or August, after excavations, after discussions. That's what the original plan was," he said.

Asked by BNS whether he thinks the course of events could have turned out different had the people listened to the government's promises that the relocation will happen with military honors, Aaviksoo said: "Let me put it this way -- the Russian-speaking population is not uniform. Most Russian-speaking residents, I believe, have the same interests as Estonians." But there are also more radical groups and organizations that are interested in organizing a conflict one way or another, and they took part in that process in 2006, he added.

"Maybe, I'm even convinced in it, if we had been able to clarify things to the larger portion of the Russian-speaking population and create a higher level of trust, then maybe we would have managed to avoid such a conflict. But perhaps we were more afraid of the actions of radical groups in relation to our steps at Tonismagi, and thought more about them as a result, not the majority of the Russian-speaking population. Maybe it was our mistake, because we underestimated the necessity of communication with the majority of the Russian-speaking population. But we didn't have relevant experience and had little time -- the new government started work on April 5 and three weeks later these events took place. If we had had more time, we could have avoided some things," he added.

When asked whether the forecasts have now come true that predicted an end to further integration of society, the minister said: "Of course, the events of 2007 delivered a blow to that process, the amount of trust declined substantially on both sides, but I think that by today we have overcome that decline. Although a lot still remains to be done."

As Aaviksoo said, sovereignty sometimes requires clear and understandable decisions, sometimes decisions that are black and white. "But I would like to emphasize that there was no hostility toward the Russian-speaking population then nor is there any now, to my mind that's not possible in principle. If it wasn't this way, we wouldn't be living in the Republic of Estonia today the way we do. I simply do not sense a strategic conflict, and I believe that during the six years we have become wiser and perhaps also calmer," he said.

"We understand very well that it's common problems that we are having more and more of -- economic and political alike.For instance, alienation from the power can be seen in the whole population. I find that in terms of mutual understanding, integration, socio-economic matters and education we are in positive territory today compared with 2007," Aaviksoo said in the interview given to the Russian news desk of BNS Estonia in Russian on April 23.

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