TALLINN - Prime Minister Juhan Parts this week visited Lihula, where earlier this year a controversial World War II monument had been erected and then forcibly removed by government decree, in an effort to establish a Christmas peace with the town's residents.
Parts met the county district officials, visited the Matsalu national park, mingled with students and teachers of the town's high school and laid a wreath at the Independence War Monument in what was one of his most trying days as head of government.
The rating of Parts' party, Res Publica, plummeted after the Lihula affair, which triggered acts of vandalism against WWII monuments across the country.
But despite the gesture of repentance, some Lihula residents felt Parts didn't go far enough.
Lehte Ilves, editor of the Laane Elu regional newspaper, said that Parts did not apologize clearly and directly for the turmoil surrounding the monument's removal. "Parts did not apologize directly. He was beating around the bush, but he somewhat did express that he was sorry," said Ilves.
But Erki Peegel, spokesman for the government who accompanied Parts to Lihula, said, "The prime minister apologized for the inconvenience caused by the monument's removal."
Ilves did admit the locals were quite excited about the visit. Many came to see the prime minister, while even more speculated whether the visit would go smoothly.
There were no disturbances during the visit.
Parts, who has been known to strike out verbally against his political opponents, apologized to Lihula residents for the fact that they have Tiit Madisson as the head of their county district.
"People applauded to this one," recalled Ilves. "But again, it was put in such a sophisticated way I doubt everybody understood what Parts meant."
Madisson, a former dissident who supported the monument project, expressed his doubts last week whether it was the right time for Parts to visit Lihula. Madisson also said that Parts shouldn't lay a wreath at the Independence War (1918-1920) Monument since many locals could take offense after the WWII monument's removal.
Madisson excused himself from a Dec. 21 lunch meeting with Parts and the prime minister's staff, citing health problems.
Parts, who had promised after the monument removal in September to visit Lihula at some point, reportedly ended the meeting in the school after a local doctor asked whether the prime minister was concerned about his safety in Lihula.
According to Ilves, locals said they were glad that Parts eventually had made the trip and at least tried to make amends. He added that a peculiar anecdotal incident occurred when Parts, surrounded by children, approached the Independence War monument to lay a wreath to its base. A young boy, about eight-year-old, asked the prime minister whether he would take away this monument, too. Parts responded negatively, and the boy confidently agreed, saying "this one was too big" to be removed.
On Sept. 2 evening Rescue Department workers, backed up by about 40 police officers decked out in riot gear, removed the Lihula monument, which had been erected to commemorate Estonians who fought against the Bolsheviks in World War II.
The forcible removal of the meter-and-a-half tall stone monument caused outrage among local residents, who responded by throwing rocks at the police and the crane crew. The hail of stones damaged several vehicles and led to the first use of pepper gas against a crowd since the restoration of independence in 1991.
The monument was eventually taken away, however.
The government backed its decision by claiming the monument was standing on state-owned land without permission and had caused controversy because of its design - an Estonian freedom fighter dressed up as a German soldier.
Experts from the Police Department Council later concluded that the monument removal operation suffered from the lack of proper communication and police's inexperience in handling similar scenarios.
As a result of the incident, the rating of the Parts Cabinet fell dramatically and reached a record-low of 4.6 points in November, according to the Emor pollster.