TALLINN - Plans by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip to remove the controversial Bronze Soldier statue advanced on Nov. 14 when the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) passed the first reading of a bill designed to allow its relocation. The bill, which has divided the ruling coalition, will give the national government control over war graves and monuments, which are currently controlled by local governments.
Ansip's Reform Party was forced to align with opposition parties the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica and the Social Democrats to present the bill after its coalition partners, the populist Center Party and People's Union, fought against the removal of the statue.
The decision by Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar to oppose the removal was widely seen as an attempt to woo Russian votes in the March 2007 general election.
The Bronze Soldier, which stands in Tallinn's Tonismagi Park, is a memorial to Soviet soldiers. Russians perceive the monument as a symbol of the defeat of fascism, while Estonians feel it represents the beginning of their country's Soviet occupation.
The statue also stands over the graves of several Soviet soldiers who were buried on the site.
Ansip plans to relocate the monument to a war cemetery outside the city. He said to do so would be the only appropriate course of action in respecting the soldiers' graves.
The statue's current location has been the setting for regular disruptive gatherings, which are undignified for a burial site, Ansip said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry protested the Bronze Soldier's removal in a strongly worded press release issued on Nov. 9. In the statement, Russia said to remove the monument would trample on the graves of soldiers who helped defeat the Nazi regime.
"It should be realized in Tallinn what political consequences the implementation of this immoral idea would have for relations with Russia," the ministry said. "We hope that responsible Estonian politicians will be able to thwart the revenge-seeking plans of the Estonian radical nationalists."
The bill must go through a debate, have the opportunity for amendments and receive presidential approval before it comes into effect, a process that could take months.