Is Estonia silencing its opponents?

  • 2007-08-15
  • By Joel Alas

FREE SPEECH? Police lead a Nashi protester away from Tonismagi. Eleven such activists have been deported for attempting to re-enact the pose of the Bronze Soldier statue since early June.

TALLINN - From the outset, it should be said that this article does not seek to support any group or cause, save for the right of all people to speak their mind.
It's a glorious day in early June. A young man stands in a park in central Tallinn cloaked in a soldier's cape and cap. He says nothing and does nothing but stand, and when police officers come to detain him, he obliges their orders without fuss.

According to the Estonian government, this young man 's and ten others who have followed in his footsteps 's poses a threat to the security of the state. His actions are considered detrimental to public order. He is deported to his homeland, Russia, and is forbidden from re-entering the European Union for ten years.
Like everything involving Estonian-Russian relations, the situation is complex and controversial. It's impossible to hold a rational discussion on the topic without invoking passion and patriotism on either side of the debate. But stripped of the emotion, the real question of the situation is this: Is Estonia upholding its values of democracy and free speech? Or is it stifling the discussion of certain topics when it comes from the mouths of certain people?
The young man in question is no ordinary Russian citizen. He's a member of Nashi ("Ours" in Russian), a radical political youth movement that pledges allegiance to Vladimir Putin and his increasingly belligerent administration.

The park in question is no ordinary location. It's Tonismagi, the scene of violent riots in late April following the removal of the Bronze Soldier, a Soviet wartime monument.
Dressed in army garb, the Nashi activist's silent vigil was an attempt to replicate the pose of the Red Army statue, which now stands in a cemetery on the outskirts of town.
Eleven such activists  's some of them teenagers 's have held silent protests at the same spot since June. Some managed to stand for several minutes before attracting police attention, others weren't able to get to the park 's caught by police in the side streets as they donned their costumes.
Police handed the activists to the Citizenship and Migration Board, which found they had violated the terms of their tourist visas by taking part in a political protest. Their subsequent deportation carries a 10-year re-entry ban that will apply to wider Europe when Estonia joins the Schengen visa zone in a few months.
Foreign Minister Urmas Paet justified the deportations, saying that Estonia had a right and obligation to assure public order and prevent provocations.

"Taking into consideration the seriousness of the events which took place in April, the demonstrations held in Tonismagi are considered as provocative undertakings which violated public order and instigated hatred among nations," Paet told The Baltic Times.
"According to the Estonian Constitution everyone has the right to spread ideas, opinions and convictions. This right may only be restricted when detrimental to public order. According to the law it is also prohibited and punishable to instigate hatred and violence."
Are these protesters inciting hatred and violating public order? Or are they simply standing in a park to mark their opposition to a government decision? Paet asserts that their actions could have led to further unrest, yet this remains a debatable point.

It is true that the activists violated the terms of their tourist visas, but in order to voice their opinion they had no choice. According to Estonia's Public Meeting Act, only citizens and permanent residents have the right to hold a demonstration. The right to hold protests 's even legal peaceful ones 's is not extended to foreigners. Non-citizens are allowed to take part in public meetings organized by Estonian citizens, but have no opportunity to apply to hold their own protest.
This puts Estonia out of line with several treaties to which it is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Both extend the right to hold peaceful demonstrations to all people, not just citizens.
Human Rights Watch, a respected international lobby group, said states can only limit the right to freedom of speech in extreme circumstances.

"Nashi and its agenda may be anathema to the Estonian government and offensive to many people in Estonia, but the government can't expel people solely for publicly expressing their views," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Europe and Central Asia.
"In line with human rights law, a person should not be expelled simply for the expression and exercise of a protected right. If there are other grounds 's for example, criminal acts 's  then that may be valid, but not for simply participating in a protest.
"Under Estonia's human rights obligations, the right to protest must be enjoyed by all within the jurisdiction, including residents and visitors. If non-residents and visitors want to hold a protest, it would be appropriate to have regulations governing how they can apply, and what restrictions might apply."
An entirely different point of view is offered by Merle Haruoja, who operates the Estonian Institute for Human Rights. EIHR's office is a small room in the National Library building which overlooks Tonismagi, the epicenter of the riots. Documents on Haruoja's desk flap in the breeze that flows through a missing window pane. It was smashed by a flying stone during the riots and is yet to be fixed.

"I was here, I saw what happened," Haruoja says passionately, "I am an Estonian, I am a mother, I am a grandmother. I am worried about these Russian young people. They have been brainwashed."
From a strictly legal point of view, Haruoja agrees that all people have the right to voice their opinion. But in this circumstance, she believes the right course has been followed. "I have no problem with the legality of it, because they have an avenue to appeal the decision. They have international human rights courts they can appeal to. But as a person, I feel we have a responsibility to help these young people because they have been brainwashed. They are not told the truth about history."

Unequal treatment
Consider another recent situation - the Tallinn Pride gay parade. On Aug. 11, a large number of foreigners joined almost 400 Estonians on a colorful demonstration through Tallinn's Old Town. What, in effect, is the difference between gay rights activists and Russian political activists?
Lisette Kampus, organizer of the Tallinn Pride parade, said the application of different standards to different people raised questions about Estonia's democratic standards.
"You can imagine the reaction from the rest of the world if the same thing happened to people who come to our parade," Kampus said. "I don't necessarily support those Nashi people, but I also didn't agree with the idea of removing the statue 's I think they missed the oportunity to do it 15 years ago."
The Foreign Ministry said there was a legal difference between the gay marchers, who were taking part in a legally authorized public meeting, and Nashi members, who were not. But, as previously stated in this article, Russian Nashi activists have no legal avenue to apply to hold a demonstration.

Consider another scenario 's how would Estonia react if the situation were reversed? Or if an Estonian young person were deported from another European nation for holding a silent protest?
Several Estonian citizens pointed out that Russia regularly surpresses protests within its territories. It should then be questioned whether Estonia should copy Russia's human rights practices or set its own benchmark.
In the course of writing this article, The Baltic Times purposely avoided contacting Nashi or any other Russian activist group to avoid suggestions of undue influence.