Estonia's Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo has sent the Tallinn city government notification of the start of excavation and identification works on the site of the controversial Bronze Soldier monument at Tonismagi in downtown Tallinn.
The purpose of the planned excavation is to establish the number and identity of persons who are assumed to lie buried on the site, the governmental press service said.
The Estonian government plans to move the monument to a nearby military cemetery, a plan which has drawn fire from veterans groups as well as from Russia, which continually berates Estonia over the issue. No firm date has been set for the move.
Aaviksoo later briefed members of the Cabinet on preparations for works to be carried out on the site pursuant to the War Graves Protection Act, and the government assigned tasks to state institutions to ensure that the work is carried out in an appropriate manner and in keeping with all international norms.
Members of the government agreed that the Interior Ministry will secure public order in the area during the excavation. The ministry's task is also to rearrange traffic if necessary.
The late 1940s Red Army monument, locally known as the Bronze Soldier, commemorates Soviet soldiers who died in World War II and has traditionally been a rallying point each May 9 for veterans celebrating the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany. Because the Red Army's invasion of Estonia at the end of the war and decades of Soviet occupation and repression, however, many Estonians find the monument offensive.
The monument has been a source of tension since last May 9, when police prevented a group of Estonian nationalists from demonstrating at the site, where a veterans' rally was already taking place.
The Tallinn city government has taken legal action to prevent the excavations. However, the administrative court did not accept the city's complaint as it was deficient. The court also rejected a repeat application for initial legal protection filed by the city government last Wednesday to stop the works from going ahead.
The previous defense minister, Jurgen Ligi, decided shortly before leaving office to start excavations at Tonismagi to remove the remains of Red Army soldiers believed to be buried there to a more suitable place as recommended by the War Graves Commission, a body set up at the Defense Ministry. He said the works to dig out war graves and identify the remains would start in April.
Meanwhile Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said at a news conference in Madrid on Wednesday that the plan to relocate the monument cannot be described other than as "blasphemous and an insult to the memory of those who freed Europe from Nazism," Russian news agency Interfax reports.
A poll taken April 13 - 16 showed that more than half inhabitants of Russia, 59 percent, believe the removal of the monument is discriminatory and provokes further tension in Estonian-Russian relations, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
At the same time 20 percent of the polled said both parties to the row over the monument should behave in a more restrained and wiser manner.