Traditional day of protest loses red color

  • 2002-05-09
  • Sergei Stepanov

With its depressed economy and majority Russian population living right next door to their giant ethnic homeland, Narva has the potential to be the most unsettled town in Estonia. But this year's commemorations of May 1, which used to be a major Soviet event celebrating the workers of the world, seemed to suggest that the revolutionaries have lost the fire in their bellies.

In fact, you would have had to look very hard to find any fervor at all. Compared with previous demonstrations in Narva on what is now officially called Spring Holiday, everybody seemed to take a day off from activism.

Even well known rabble-rousers had a hard time getting a following.

Take Esya Shur, for example. A controversial pensioners' and human rights activist from the northeastern town of Sillamae, he organized a demonstration at the Russian Consulate in Narva demanding financial and political support for Russian citizens living in Estonia.

Just seven die-hards turned out for this event.

Even protests that were slightly better attended seemed to indicate that there is no solidarity among those dissatisfied with the status quo. About 300 people turned out for a rally in Narva's main square, and then went home.

Just 12 people took up an invitation from the Union of Russian Citizens of Narva for a further march through the streets. Banging pots and pans to indicate hardship, an idea copied from protests that rocked Argentina earlier this year, the dozen looked more ridiculous than angry.

Yuri Mishin, head of the union, had a hard time making his speech defending Russians' rights heard above the din from a nearby amusement park.

A major reason for the low turnouts was that trade unions boycotted the Russian-led events this year. Instead, some of their members attended a concert jointly organized with the Moderates, a mainstream political party.

In Tallinn, the only significant meeting took place in Hirve Park in the Old Town, site of mass pro-independence demonstrations in the late 1980s. About 500 people turned up, including some bigwigs such as Social Affairs Minister Siiri Oviir and Kadi Parnits, head of the Estonian Trade Unions Association.

According to Katrin Reimann, spokeswoman for the association, people in Estonia needed this holiday.

"Every person has something personal about that day, and we think the workers need an occasion so everybody can gather and have a good time," said Reimann.

It seems that having fun no longer includes raising the red flag.