Long-time mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov claims that his former Tallinn colleague Edgar Savisaar never asked for money for the Center Party during their meetings but admits discussing involving Tallinn's Russian-speaking population in local politics to a greater degree. “So that Tallinn's Russian-speakers would have their own status. /…/ How to involve them in active life,” Luzhkov (80), one of Russia's most influential politicians during his time as mayor in 1992-2010, said.
I know you are a big fan of at least one Estonian – you like to listen to Georg Ots.
I organized a major concert in honor of Georg Ots' anniversary here. I remember we put together a special film using a selection of his performances and movie roles. It was a full house of course as people loved Ots. I would like to emphasize how he sang entirely without accent in Russian. Of course I have heard him live. It was a miracle how he sang.
When I recently attended Mintimer Shaimiev's (the first president of Tatarstan – J. P.) birthday in Kazan, there were young singers there performing arias Georg Ots loved; however, I have to say they did not manage to rival him. He was a beautiful person in every way, both his soul and his talent. The city government decided to install his bust in a Moscow children's art school. It is a great shame I never managed to meet him in person.
I'm sure you know Edgar Savisaar personally. Do you know him well?
Of course. He was mayor of Tallinn for long years. There was a cooperation agreement between our cities that saw us meet almost annually. We also repeatedly met during international events involving the mayors of major cities. Edgar Savisaar also met with the management of United Russia (Luzhkov served as co-chair of the Russian ruling party's supreme council in 2001-2010 – J. P.)
I value Savisaar as a levelheaded person who is a master of logic and statesmanlike thinking. He always went beyond what his city needed; he understood the need for cities to work together. Realized that it took cooperation, also with Russian cities. The main thing is that he wanted to pursue balanced policy, just as we did in Moscow. I'm convinced he has been instrumental for his country.
Savisaar was always reluctant to talk about his visits to Moscow and your meetings. What did you mainly discuss?
Times were tough, both for Moscow and the citizens of Tallinn. Savisaar tried to find ways to alleviate these tensions. It wasn't so much political… We mainly shared experiences in the field of utility and discussed cultural cooperation. For example held Tallinn culture days in Moscow and vice versa.
Of course we also discussed Tallinn's Russian-speaking residents having their own status, that it would be necessary to take into account the actual structure of Tallinn's residents. We talked about how to involve Tallinn's Russians in active life to a greater degree as they had become Estonians, whether voluntarily or as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was necessary to make them fuller citizens of their country.
I'm convinced it is an important matter as the Russian-speaking population could be greatly beneficial for the Baltic countries as full and equal citizens. It is still an important topic. I'm very sorry Estonia opted for a policy that forced a lot of Russian-speaking people to go look for work abroad. I believe it delivered a serious blow to Estonia's competitiveness.
Savisaar never asked you for money for his party or for elections?
You must be mad to ask me that! Our relationship was entirely different. There was never anything of the sort you're implying. I categorically refute such claims
Savisaar is an absolutely honest person in my eyes who would never stoop to what you're suggesting. Our contact had nothing of the sort.
Can you recall any direct results of your cooperation with Tallinn city government under Savisaar?
Schools. We had a school in Moscow that taught Estonian. (Estonian is taught at the Moscow State University and the Institute of International Relations neither of which have anything to do with Moscow city government, while neither Tallinn city government nor the Estonian foreign ministry have any information on Russian being taught in general education schools in Moscow – J. P.) And cultural projects, especially in the field of folklore. We had folklore festivals. Our artists traveled to Estonia and yours came here. Savisaar paid it great attention.
Did you discuss any interesting ways in which Moscow could emulate Tallinn during your time as mayor? Like Moscow's adoption of Tallinn's paid parking system. True, this happened after you had left.
Tallinn was interested in new technologies in public services and amenities and energy. Moscow analyzed Tallinn's experience in organizing housing. As concerns paid parking, I must admit I had not heard Tallinn has been an example for Moscow there. I must also say that my focal point is social benefits. I believe benefits should not be undermined by various fees, like road tolls or paid parking in the city and near homes.
You've also met with other well-known Estonian politicians. Years ago, you gave your famous peaked cap to then mayor of the town of Maardu Georgi Bõstrov. Why did you do that?
Unfortunately I cannot recall. However, as concerns Estonian politicians, I still remember Viktor Andrejev, who was head of the Russian diaspora in Estonia for years and one of the founders of the Estonian United People's Party (EÜRP). We discussed serious matters tied to supporting the Russian diaspora.
What kind of support did you talk about?
One of the main issues was support for [war] veterans who remained in independent Estonia. We were helping a lot of veterans in Moscow and in that we also supported veterans in the Baltic countries and Crimea. Mainly it was of course moral support for the diaspora and cultural meetings associated with memorable moments from history. We implemented a lot of practical social projects with help from Andrejev.
Why did Moscow city government support Russian parties in Estonia so actively in the 1990s and early 2000s?
When the Russian empire fell apart in 1917, it turned out 2.5 million Russians were living outside their homeland. It was a major genetic disaster for Russia as these were mostly highly educated and cultured people who were replaced by people of more modest education and cultural background, which later manifested in Stalinist atrocities.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, the number of Russians living outside the federation had reached 40 million. It was our task to somehow help the part of the Russian world that found itself living abroad. It was not about supporting parties but rather those millions of people. That included the diaspora in Estonia. I categorically rule out there having been any material aid [for Estonia's Russian parties' campaigns]. Recall how many Russian-speaking citizens you had at the time. Russian parties represented their interest in exchange for which they were supported.
Back then there were these so-called Luzhkov stipends Moscow city government handed to Russian-speaking youths in Estonia. Do you remember?
Of course, they were created to make sure young people would not lose touch with the Russian language.
These grants were handed out by the EÜRP under Andrejev that decided who would get to go to university in Moscow. It turned out the party used your scholarships to boost its political authority among Russian-speaking voters in Estonia. Was it intentional that these decisions were made by a single political party?
It was because the EÜRP was the only force in favor of the idea. It was a relevant idea and the right thing to do as the disappearance of Russian proficiency in the Baltics would have hit them in the long run.
I'll tell you an interesting story. Our family has a house in London; however, we also bought a run down household just outside the city. The house was completely dilapidated.
When we were looking for workers to fix it up, where were they from? They were from the Baltics: Latvians, Lithuanians, and one Estonian. They restored the buildings. They all spoke Russian, which was great for me as I found it easier to communicate with them.
Give my best to that lucky Estonian workman!
Unfortunately I don't remember his name, but he was a good worker.
When you were mayor, Moscow city government employed former KGB general Alexander Perelygin. Do you remember him?
The media in Estonia wrote in the late 1990s in no uncertain terms that he was the one who curated Moscow city government's communication with Estonia. Was that the case?
Yes, he was in charge of Estonia.
What was his task?
He was concerned with humanitarian problems of compatriots. More specifically, he curated the distribution of the aforementioned stipends.
Estonian newspapers wrote that his mission was to steer the policy of Russian parties in Estonia in directions Moscow needed.
No such talk! There were no politics there. They were humanitarian, cultural, and mutual relations between people. And what is paramount – support for the Russian diaspora in Estonia.