• 2007-01-17

cartoon by elizabeth celms

Last week, Estonia's parliament passed, and the president promulgated, the War Graves Protection Act, which empowers the government to relocate wartime burial sites on the basis of whether a certain location is "suitable" for the remains of fallen soldiers or if that location contradicts the "public interest." According to the law, either a war graves commission or the government can pass judgment on various grave sites.

The decision was entirely political. Estonia is not suffering from a dearth of commercial real estate or a wave of grave robbing that would warrant the sudden passage of such legislation. The law arose out of a bitter controversy over a monument to Red Army soldiers in Tonismagi, a park in downtown Tallinn, which features a prominent statue of a Soviet warrior, known as the Bronze Soldier. This statue has crystallized the conflict between Estonians and Russians over post-World War II history 's occupation vs. liberation 's and with increasing frequency in recent months the Bronze Soldier has been defiled and restored.
Exhausted by the never ending back-and-forth, Estonian legislators decided that the statue, together with the grave site, should go. In the words of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, "Monuments must unite people, but the monument in question is dividing people."

We beg to differ. Coming 15 years after Estonia regained independence, the war graves issue is artificially inflated. The Bronze Soldier is not dividing the Estonian people 's only its extremist elements. Far-right Estonian nationalists and radical pro-Russia movements have used the Tonismagi burial site as the focal point of a public relations war, which eventually spilled over into mainstream society. The average Estonian has either forgotten the bronze statue or learned to live (read, ignore) with it. But now, thanks to the rabble-rousers on the fringes, the burial site has won far more attention than it deserves.

The commotion surrounding the Bronze Soldier is more trouble than its worth. Simply moving the monument seems a half-baked measure. If indeed the Bronze Soldier is offensive to Estonians, then why tolerate its existence at all? Will the monument suddenly become less grating if it is moved from Tonismagi to Maarjamagi? We doubt it. The far-right extremists will simply move their protest to the new site.

We might also point out to Mr. Ansip that it is also politicians' job not to divide, but to bring people together. If the government goes ahead and moves the graves of the Russian soldiers, they will end up doing far more damage to society than the actual gravesite.