TALLINN - Perturbed by incessant criticism in the Russian media, Estonia finally reacted this week, with Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland labeling the campaign as "demagoguery" and comparing it to Moscow's attempts to block Baltic independence in the early 1990s.
Also, last week's decision by Estonia to forbid visas to a group of Chechen teenagers sparked an outcry in Moscow, with officials accusing the Baltic state of "discrimination" and "humiliation."
Speaking at a press conference on July 15, Ojuland stated that the recent wave of pressure on both Estonia and Latvia, mainly regarding the rights of the ethnic Russian segment, reminded her of the situation in the early 1990s when Moscow used the same issue to oppose the restoration of Baltic independence.
The difference this time, the minister said, was that the campaign was a reaction to the countries' accession to the European Union and NATO.
Ojuland pointed out that even though EU officials believed Estonia's minority policy was in line with the Copenhagen criteria and that there was no reason to restore international monitoring in the Baltic country, Russian pressure was aiming to do just that.
Moscow responded immediately to the minister's comments, claiming that Russia was trying "to help" Estonia with its minority situation.
"Without commenting on the emotional evaluations that the Estonian foreign minister made and that hardly correspond with the tone of a foreign minister's public appearance, we have to note that Ms. Ojuland's attempts to falsely depict the Russia-EU discussion of the problems surrounding the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia can only cause regret," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 19.
"We would like to stress once again that Russia is far from trying to discredit Estonia, as Ms. Ojuland claims. Russia is trying to help this country solve a number of known problems that obstruct its further democratic development and pose a threat of complicating its real integration into a single Europe without borderlines or double standards," the statement read.
To show that its concerns about the minority situation in the Baltics were shared in Western institutions such as the EU, the Foreign Ministry statement included allusions to a statement made by outgoing European Commission President Romano Prodi and the OSCE parliamentary assembly's recent declaration in Edinburgh.
In a separate development, Russia also used Estonia's recent refusal to issue visas to a group of Chechen teenagers who had wanted to attend a language camp as additional ammunition in its media onslaught.
Several Russian papers and TV channels carried news about how Estonia had discriminated against and humiliated the Chechen children, the Postimees daily reported.
The Russian daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, for example, titled its article, "Estonia Wants to Know Nothing About Russian Children," while the Russian TV channel Pervyi Kanal described the incident as a violation of human rights.
"These were not terrorists who wanted to come to Estonia - but children. And this is what they do," Alu Alkhanov, a pro-Kremlin Chechen official was quoted as saying.
Six Chechen teenagers had wanted to attend the language camp in Estonia for 13 - 18 year-olds, but three of them were aged 19 and one was a month away from turning 19.
The visa applications, submitted at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, also reportedly contained errors.
Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament, said the reaction of the Russian media and politicians to the incident showed that Russia was taking advantage of even the smallest event to mount its propaganda war against Estonia and Latvia.
"There wasn't a day this week without a statement from Russia," he said. "It included the absurdity of the Russian Foreign Ministry issuing a press release saying Russian linguists recommended that 'Tallinn' be written with one 'n,'" he added.
Mihkelson said President Vladimir Putin and his team had made the decision of launching an extensive propaganda campaign against the Baltics at the end of last year, though the Estonian MP did not know what they wanted to achieve with the campaign.
"I cannot say whether the aim is some kind of real provocation in Estonia," he said. "The case with the Chechen visas shows their very serious desire to keep the campaign hot, because it would have gone unnoticed in any other situation."
Andres Herkel, chairman of the For the Protection of Human Rights in Chechnya deputies group in Parliament, agreed that the Russian propaganda machine was in full gear. He said the Foreign Ministry was partly to blame for it, adding that it should explain to the public why the Chechen girls were not given visas.
"But I don't doubt that even if Estonia had issued the visas Russia would have seen this as a reason to launch a propaganda war. But in that case we would have felt better ourselves," Herkel said.