Racism comes into sharp focus in Estonia

  • 2001-07-26
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - The activities of racist extremists in Estonia should be prevented before they spiral out of control, Interior Affairs Minister Tarmo Loodus warned last week.

According to police in Tartu, several gangs of skinheads and other hooligans are wreaking havoc there.

The latest incident took place in the town at the beginning of July, when a group of drunk men insulted and provoked an African-American security officer working at the Baltic Defense College.

The officer chose not to report it to the police and described the incident as a bunch of drunk boys messing around, according to his colleague Ants Laaneots, who works at the Defense Studies Center.

The council of Tartu University has been dismayed by the splashes of intolerance that have been taking place across town over the last year or so, and sent an official request to Loodus and Tartu City Mayor Andrus Ansip on June 1.

"The council of Tartu University is seriously bothered by the frequency of racist incidents in Tartu and elsewhere in Estonia. We consider it impermissible when non-Estonian students at the university do not feel safe in this university city," the letter read.

The university council demanded action from the officials and asked for public feedback on the matter.

It took Loodus five weeks to reply.

"I am sure Estonian power structures can still control racist-minded young people, the number of whom is few compared with some neighboring countries," Loodus wrote in the daily newspaper Postimees.

But to keep the situation under control, he added, society should join in the effort. Educational institutions should lead the way in promoting tolerance, "as most racist youths are poorly educated and have a freakish world outlook."

Ansip stated that to make police action more effective people who suffer from racism should address the police directly. Most cases, however, are reported to the police by third parties.

Estonians use the word "neeger" freely, which, they say, is without any negative undertone. But recently the word "mustanahaline" (dark-skinned person) has become widely used in the media, most certainly with negative connotations intended.

In the comments section of the largest Estonian Internet portal Delfi, it is easy to find offensive comments if a particular story is related to black people or local national minorities.

While four cases of racist offenses were registered in Tartu last year, none have so far been registered in 2001.

The cases that occurred last year were not so harmless. An American soldier wearing civilian clothes was attacked by several youngsters in Tartu's Town Hall Square last July. The police caught the attackers. They spent two days under arrest.

Last August, a 16-year-old spat on the suit of a black American citizen and was fined 530 kroons ($31).

Two weeks later a Japanese citizen was harassed by a teenager, who was later fined 552 kroons.

Olari Valtin, a spokesman for the security police, told The Baltic Times that there were some young people in Tartu who used skinhead symbols and try to behave like them.

"However, in comparison with German or Russian skinheads they neither have strong leaders nor proper organization," said Valtin.

The police cannot change people's minds by force, he said. "Everything starts in schools, from families, from society."

While police and medical specialists continue to arrange anti-drug lectures and courses at schools, no programs about tolerance are being carried out, added Valtin.