Concern grows about savage teen conflict

  • 2001-10-25
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Ongoing riots between Estonian and Russian teenagers in the Estonian capital are forcing city officials to think fast about ways to improve dialogue with younger residents and fill teenagers' time with a wider choice of leisure events and attractions.

Police managed to prevent one fight between rival gangs in Oismae, a suburb of Tallinn, already on Sept. 29. Now the problem seems to have shifted to Lasnamae, populated largely by Russians.

On Oct. 10 police captured 31 young Russians aged 15 to 17, who had gathered on Katleri Street allegedly to have a fight with dozens of Estonian kids of their age. The arrested teenagers claimed they were just out socializing, and no one admitted the police version was true.

Three days before that, police arrested 40 Russian-speaking teens in the north-east Estonian town of Johvi armed with knives and clubs. They said they were planning to arrange a fight with a similarly sized gang of Estonians, who were never traced.

According to the Statistical Office of Estonia, Russian speakers make up about 40 percent of Tallinn's population.

A similar conflict took place in Lasnamae, which with over 100,000 residents is Tallinn's largest suburb, five years ago. It lasted about a week, and was sparked by a fight between a small group of Estonian and Russian schoolboys.

The scrap was characterized by a series of mass teen romps, as large gangs wandered about the neighborhood beating up anyone of a different nationality. No one was badly injured or killed, and the police ended the disorder with one coordinated action that led to dozens of arrests.

The teenagers are adamant that their violent urban exploits go undetected and unreported. SL Ohtuleht, Estonia's largest daily tabloid, sent a reporter and photographer to Karberi Street in Lasnamae on the evening of Oct. 15 to try to track down any large gatherings of local teenagers.

They found one. As a result, the reporter had to flee under a heavy rain of stones. The photographer, Arno Saar, got his cap stolen and photos destroyed.

"We were standing at a bridge, watching the kids gathering and passing us by. When I took out the camera and made a test shot, they shouted and charged at us," said Saar.

The reporter ran off, but he could not follow her as he had a camera in his hands and a heavy bag of equipment. The kids, aged from 10 to 16, surrounded the photographer and demanded he take out the film and destroy it.

"I told them there was no film as it was a digital camera. I showed them the shot I managed to take," says Saar. "They said the police might enlarge it and recognize their faces, so eventually I deleted the photo."

"In the meantime I felt somebody grab my cap, and somebody hit me on the shoulder," he added.

The police started a criminal case on the basis of the story.

Rein Voog, chair of Tallinn City Council, said on Oct. 19 that city officials would have to cooperate with local media more fully.

On the same day the council decided to "speak openly with Lasnamae's youth about what city officials can do about the organization of leisure and free time."

"We could invent a number of events ourselves, but the young people might want something different," said Voog.

Youth inspectors, city officials and the police will be brought into the dialogue, Voog said, adding that young people and officials must achieve some sort of consensus throughout the city.

Anneli Berends, a spokeswoman for Tallinn City Council, told The Baltic Times that there were no concrete plans yet on how the city could solve the problem of teens having too much spare time on their hands.

"But we're going to hold round-table sessions this week to let the kids share their opinion with psychologists and police officers," she promised.

To provide maximum safety to the rival round-table participants from the Russian and Estonian communities, the city council is keeping the time and place of the events a secret. No teachers or other adults who can later identify the kids will be there. Similar talks for the parents will come later.

Berends said the council has received letters full of panic about the dangerous situation on the streets of Lasnamae.

"But personally I think there's no ethnic conflict at all in the city. It's just a media bubble," said Berends.