Brawl breaks out in shadow of bronze memorial

  • 2006-05-24
  • By Joel Alas
TALLINN - His eyes are closed, his head downcast. The Bronze Soldier is blind to the chaos that surrounds him. Yet last weekend protesters covered the controversial statue in blue and white paint, while police quelled violent clashes between supporters and demonstrators.

On May 22, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip weighed into the debate, saying he believed it was time the statue was removed from Tonismagi in central Tallinn. In a radio address, Ansip said the monument had ceased to commemorate fallen soldiers but had become a symbol of Soviet occupation. The statue's location is even more inappropriate, he added, as it sits next to Kaarli Lutheran Church, which is an important landmark for Estonians. In light of the fiery conflict, the prime minister said the monument should be removed to quell tensions and restore public order.

His comments were in response to a brawl that erupted on May 20. Police said several hundred people were present, while organizers claimed up to 1,000 took part. The protestors carried banners and placards denouncing the "red monument" and calling other Estonians to join their cause. Speakers told the crowd the monument would one day be dismantled stone-by-stone and moved to the Occupation Museum. One demonstrator attempted to hang a noose around the neck of the Bronze Soldier but was chased away, while a Russian-speaking man received a bloody nose as he attempted to interrupt speeches and pull down an Estonian flag.

Police reported that most participants were peaceful. However, a middle-aged man was detained after hitting a woman, who subsequently required medical attention. Two men were arrested after pouring blue and white paint on the legs and face of the statue on May 21, police reported. A second group of vandals added more paint to the statue's face the following night, but were not caught. The Estonian Nationalist Movement has offered to help the vandals pay any fines handed down by the justice system. Aavo Savitch, a protest organizer and Estonian Nationalist Movement member, told the Baltic News Service that the demonstrations were "like a continuation of the singing revolution."

The fresh scuffles are the latest in a string of demonstrations at the feet of the Bronze Soldier.
On May 9, the anniversary of Allied victory over the Nazis, a much smaller group of protestors gathered at Tonismagi in an effort to raise awareness that, for Estonians, the day marks the beginning of Soviet occupation. On that occasion protesters agreed to be removed by police for their safety after they were chased away by Russian supporters. Despite his high office and staunch opinion, Ansip's words are effectively powerless. The statue was erected on Tallinn City Council land. And since the council is currently controlled by the Center Party, which gathers many of its votes from the Russian community, chances that the soldier will be removed are slim.

Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar, the national Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications, said the Bronze Soldier should remain in its place. Removing the statue would create further unrest, he added, pointing to rallies over the removal of Russian monuments in Latvia as an example. He said it would be wise to heed the mistakes of others and avoid such demonstrations. Savisaar has been criticized for forging ties with United Russia, a political party in Russia that was established by the Kremlin and rubber stamps Kremlin policies. More displays of patriotism from both sides are expected to take place in September, which will mark 62 years since the Soviet army took control of Tallinn.