TALLINN - The controversial Bronze Soldier monument, dedicated to Soviet soldiers who fought in WWII, is set to become a key election issue, now that Parliament has enacted laws allowing its removal.
Although the government has the power to dismantle the Soviet-era structure, it is unlikely to do so before the March 4 elections because of stifling disagreements within the ruling coalition.
While the liberal Reform Party wants to see the statue removed, its coalition partner 's the populist Center Party 's is against the decision.
On Jan. 10, the Reform Party rushed legal amendments to the War Graves Protection Act, which transfers the control of war graves from local councils to the government, through Parliament by cooperating with opposition parties. The move was yet another sign that the governing coalition is unlikely to survive the forthcoming election.
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves promptly promulgated the legislation on Jan. 11.
The Bronze Soldier has been a dividing issue in Estonia for years, but the controversy came to a head on May 9, 2006, when patriotic Estonians clashed with Russians who had gathered at the site to mark Remembrance Day, celebrating the end of World War II. While Russians regard the Bronze Soldier as a monument to those who fought against fascism, Estonians see it as a symbol of Soviet occupation.
Supporting parliamentarians said the War Graves Protection Act respected the Geneva convention, and would permit the remains of Soviet soldiers buried beneath the Bronze Soldier to be relocated to a more peaceful location, rather than the busy and often raucous Tonismagi Park in central Tallinn.
Analyst Vello Pettai, professor of political science at Tartu University, described the passing of the laws as a "half event."
"The law is there, but the actual bulldozers aren't going to move in any time soon," Pettai told The Baltic Times.
"The laws leave it up to the government to decide when and how [the Bronze Soldier's relocation] will happen, but given that the current coalition is in deadlock, it's not likely before the election."
Pettai said the question of removal would now be a key factor in the election, with Reform and the Centrists standing at opposite ends of the debate.
Nevertheless, the passing of the law has caused outrage in Russia.
The Duma (lower house of Russian parliament) is considering asking for the soldier's remains to be returned to Russia, and has suggested that economic and trade sanctions be imposed against Estonia.
"The passing of this law is another chapter of the heroization of Nazism in that country," said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma International Affairs Committee. "The memory of the more than 70,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the liberation of Estonia from Nazi occupation will be disturbed and desecrated."
Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin also criticized the act's adoption.
"I am generally against the state removing monuments. Times change, but monuments bear our history. Besides, monuments pertaining to World War II are not connected with Estonian history alone," Lukin told the Interfax news agency.
One Russian politician and businessman proposed buying the land beneath the Bronze Soldier.
Alexander Lebedev, part owner of the National Reserve Bank, said he had written to President Ilves offering to buy the plot.
"I sent an official proposal to the Estonian president today in which I underlined that I am ready not only to buy the land, but also to maintain it, along with renovating and protecting the monument," Lebedev told Interfax.
The banker, who is also a member of the United Russia party, said his proposal was "a decent and civilized way to avoid vandalism by the state towards the monument."