Ansip: I would do it even sooner today

Tuuli Koch
, reporter
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Photo: Margus Ansu

There was no choice: security assessments said the bronze soldier would have to be moved from the heart of the capital sooner or later, former PM, European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip now admits.

Which moment of the Bronze Nights most often haunts your dreams?

None of them. And were you to ask whether it was the toughest time for me as PM the answer would be a definite no.

Removing the monument was an act of courage though.

No, I would not call it that. Tensions had been piling up for a long time.

Did your predecessor Juhan Parts' decision to remove a controversial monument to Estonians who fought in German uniforms during WWII from Lihula serve as an example in some way? Whether it was the stimulus or not, the Reform Party turned it into an election campaign.

No, the Reform Party did not build its campaign on that decision. It were the Pro Patria Union and Res Publica that tried to turn the prohibited structures bill into a campaign and paint themselves as the ones who removed the soldier.

The law to remove the bronze soldier monument had already been passed by then. It was the protection of war graves act a part of centrists had also supported, even though it is possible they did not realize it would be used to move the Soviet monument at the time.

For me, the decision to move the monument was made in 2006 when it was no longer possible to wave the Estonian flag in the heart of the country's capital. That was the last straw for me.

Political gain or not, you are definitely one of the symbols of the Bronze Night.

Yes, I played a decisive role. However, it was due to my office. Anyone else would have done the same thing in the prime minister's shoes. Let us not overemphasize it.

The government was looking for a peaceful solution; we tried to negotiate with the Kremlin via the late Patriarch Alexy, until one day we received a concrete reply that the monument would not be moved. This was a clear message that a conflict is seen as preferable.

I would take this moment to commend our special services: the security police, and information board as their threat assessments were unequivocal in terms of the need to displace the monument at one point. That it would be absolutely necessary in three years' time by which point the price society would have to pay would be far greater.

Someone once said that what happened ten years ago was a solo act by our security services based on no kind of threat assessment – that is an outright lie. The assessment was clear: the bronze soldier would have to be moved away from the heart of Tallinn sooner or later.

I believe that those who criticized the decision at the time have changed their mind by today after witnessing similar beginnings escalate in the eastern part of Ukraine or Crimea. First demonstrations, public outrage, followed by seizure of government agencies – it all looks quite similar in hindsight.

Were you in contact with mayor of Tallinn at the time Edgar Savisaar?

Yes, we had one phone call; however, it was of little use. I cannot even remember what we talked about. Rather he was worried about cleaning up the city.

When the rioting began...

... I was at home and constantly on the phone with the police and special services. Next they convened the crisis committee the PM is not a member of. I called by bodyguards and went anyway.

On my way downtown I called defense minister Jaak Aaviksoo who was in charge of moving the monument. Let us say he did not show excessive initiative. I told him this country will not have a government with any authority to speak of should people be allowed to wake up in the morning to find the city ransacked, with the bronze soldier the only thing left standing. It needs to be moved!

If we had lost the initiative in the removal process, we now had to take it back. We had two kids from the defense ministry, Lauri Tumm and Meelis Oidsalu, rearing to go, with interior minister Jüri Pihl the first to say that the monument needs to be moved post haste. I commend Pihl as his party, the social democrats, wanted to give the monument new meaning by placing a mother and a child holding a cross next to the soldier.

Oh dear.

Yes, that would have done nothing to change the situation. Let us recall: the monument was under police protection, surrounded by a do-not-cross line for a year. There were races of who could place a wreathe of barbed wire around the monument's neck first, attempts to run to the monument with flowers. Tensions had been escalating for years and reached a point where kindergarten and school kids were brought to the monument.

We could see no scenario where those tensions would ease up. The cause of the conflict had to be moved, and we could not allow something like that to happen again. We held a government sitting over the phone that night to have a legal basis for the decision. The negotiations over the phone were handled by myself and Pihl, with Aaviksoo eventually agreeing to the removal plan when he arrived.

I would have preferred to place the monument at the military cemetery that very night as we had also considered that scenario. However, there was no sense in performing that feat in the dark. Were the statue to one side in the morning... Best not.

There was not enough, light, manpower, time...

Yes. However, people who say the government had not foreseen this eventuality are dead wrong as we had not moved an additional 780 police officers to the capital two days prior had that been the case. Naturally we knew events might spiral out of control at some point. Tarmo Miilits showed himself to be a natural born leader in the operational headquarters.

It was the second night, and people were really tired by then. The second night with no sleep. I did not have my laptop with me, and iPads weren't a thing yet. I wrote on a piece of paper that the government decided during its night sitting to remove the bronze soldier monument from Toompea and install it at the military cemetery in Tallinn, and that the decision has been executed.

And then someone asked me, a little before seven in the morning, what that sentence meant. Has it been moved? It was a great emotional touchstone in that entire series of events. People were given back faith in their country. That it is not a case of orders coming down from the Kremlin, that everything is not just „Rossiya-Rossiya“ and „nashi-nashi“.

Preparations for the following evening were very thorough, and we clearly had the initiative. The police acted decisively.

A lot of people thank you today.

I would not throw accusations at those who didn't move the soldier before. To a cemetery where it belongs and stands as a memorial to everyone who fell in the war. There the message is grief. It was a connection to a less than friendly country and its propaganda in Tõnismäe.

We later learned that officers of a particular country who specialize in fomenting mass unrest were present in Tallinn at the time. We know that the person who was supposed to document these events, who later turned out to be an FSB agent, locked himself in the bathroom and got drunk (traitor Aleksei Dressen – T. K.). The cyber attacks that hit Estonia were painted as civil protests...

Had it all happened today, ten years later. After Crimea, after Georgia.

The solution would have come very quickly today. No one would have waited as long. These examples from the region would have caused the government to not lose a moment. All manner of debate over giving the monument new meaning would have ended. Every government thinking of Estonia's interests would have done the same. It is a wonder it was not done before!

Was it lack of courage?

Perhaps the problem was not as ripe yet. There was hope it would all calm down. Our actions were based on threat assessments that were clear in terms of the monument and the need to move it. If not now, then one day.

The Reform Party gained a slogan for success.

No, the party had nothing to do with it. None of our election promises included that action. Nothing in our program pointed to moving the soldier. We did not use it for political ends; however, it often happens in life that you gain support from places you've not sought it.

Edgar Savisaar in those days?

People from the city government told us – and we knew it to be true – that Savisaar did not believe the monument has been moved for at least a week. He said the government is lying and buying time, waiting for the right moment to move it.

Was that when he became an agent of influence?

I believe that he made his conscious choice around that time. However, to be honest: when we set about forming the new coalition [after the 2007 parliamentary elections], he would have been willing to agree to move the bronze soldier. So he was not a principled defender of the monument where it was.

That aside – the Bronze Night was a manifestation of patriotism and a clear message that Estonia is an independent country with its own Riigikogu and government, and that we do not take orders from the Kremlin. Yes, it was a relatively painful and expensive lesson; however, it is done. Let us cherish what is dear about the country. Let us not squander what has been created.