Free speech questioned as Estonia prepares to ban Soviet, Nazi symbols

  • 2006-12-06
  • By Joel Alas

HAMMER AWAY: If Parliament accepts a new bill outlawing Soviet and Nazi symbols, the hammer and sickle could become a forgotten relic.

TALLINN - Estonia is set to place a ban on the display of Soviet and Nazi symbols if a new bill is adopted by Parliament. Ammendments to the penal code will make it illegal to show such symbols as the hammer and sickle or the swastika in a way that incites hatred or disturbs public peace. The government accepted the bill last week. In the words of Justice Minister Rein Lang, one of the aims of the ammendments is to prevent people from waving the Soviet flag at memorial events, such as the May 9 ceremony commemorating the fall of the Nazi regime, known in Russia as Victory Day.

The new bill has drawn outrage from Moscow and raised an international eyebrow, with some academics questioning whether the law will restrict free speech.
While several other European nations prohibit the provocative display of the swastika, few other nations have issued a blanket ban against the hammer and sickle.

Lang said the symbols would not be entirely stricken from public display, and said the law 's if approved by vote in Parliament - would be open to judicial interpretation.
"It will be decided case-by-case if a display of the occupying regimes' symbols incites hatred and thus constitutes violation of the law or not," Lang told a press conference on Nov. 29.
"Nobody is going to ban the Soviet and Nazi symbols from being used in a theatrical performance or in research. But waving the red Soviet flags at the Bronze Soldier should be punishable as it incites hatred," he explained.
According to a Justice Ministry briefing memo, the reforms are required because the current wording of the law is too ambiguous.
"The use of certain symbols will be punishable only if two conditions have been fulfilled - if they are used to incite to hatred or disturb the public peace," the memo said.

Along with the swastika and hammer and sickle, the government also plans to ban the symbol of the Nazi SS, or secret police.
"The list is not exhaustive, it only specifies the symbols of the regimes that occupied Estonia, because their use is more likely to incite hatred due to historical reasons."
The ministry said wearing the symbols on clothing would not necessarily be considered illegal, but could be interpreted as inciting hatred depending on the circumstance.

Punishment would range from fines to prison sentences of up to three years.
The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately issued a furious statement, saying it was "blasphemous" to compare the Soviet symbol with Nazi emblems. A ministry spokesman told Russian press that the actions were deliberately provocative and would seriously aggravate relations between the neighboring countries.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted by Interfax as saying, "From a political standpoint, I do not see any explanation [for the ban] other than a desire to create artificial problems under conditions when we need to solve real problems including the problem of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia and Estonia," Lavrov was quoted.

Independent analysts were skeptical of the ban, but for different reasons. Tartu University lecturer Heiko Paabo, a researcher in transition studies, questioned the reforms, which he said could again turn the hammer and sickle into a symbol of resistance.
"On one hand, it limits people's ability to express themselves and can be seen as a threat to expression," Paabo said. "On the other hand, these symbols are very strongly related to violence and values which are not accepted in West European society," he said.

"I would prefer using different means to deal with [the problem], namely educating people about the meaning of these symbols. If you prohibit something, it brings even more sympathy or support than should exist," he said.
The academic added that it was difficult to determine where to draw the line, and questioned whether the ubiquitous image of Che Guevara 's another infamous violent revolutionary 's should also be banned.
"Should we ban all such images, or allow them to exist but try to give the symbol its proper significance?" Paabo asked.
Social commentators in Estonia have also questioned interpretation of the law and raised the example of party costumes as an area that could cause confusion.

"What if I decide to dress up as a pioneer [Soviet equivalent of a boy scout or girl scout - ed.] to go to a party 's should I be put in jail?" one member of the public asked on an Internet bulletin board.
The European Union shied away from introducing similar laws in 2005.
Latvia already bans the display of both Nazi and Soviet symbols at public meetings, while Hungary has adopted a blanket ban on symbols of both occupying forces.

Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis has called for a Europe-wide ban on communist symbolica.
Parliament is due to consider the reforms at a later sitting.