TALLINN - Diplomatic tension between Russia and Estonia escalated this month as the two countries exchanged tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.
Estonia initiated the row by deporting two Russian Embassy employees for alleged espionage, which Russia answered in kind.
On March 17 Estonia's Foreign Affairs Ministry gave two Russian diplomats, whose names were not disclosed, an order to leave the country in 48 hours. Though the service terms of both diplomats were to finish at the end of the year, they left by the end of the week.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry accused the two of involvement in the collection of classified information about its joining the EU and NATO.
Moscow was quick to respond.
"On March 22 Juri Arusoo, the Estonian charge d'affaires ad interim to Russia, was called into Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry, where he was told that for the activities incompatible with the status of diplomat and inflicting harm upon the interests of the Russian Federation, two officials of the Embassy of Estonia had been declared personae non gratae and must leave the Russian Federation within a two-day period," read a statement issued by Russia on March 22.
The expulsions came just one month after Lithuania kicked out three Russian diplomats on espionage charges. Lithuania's Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis told reporters that the Russian diplomats attempted to interfere in the privatization of local alcohol producers and also tried to obtain sensitive information related to President Rolandas Paksas' impeachment proceedings.
Oddly enough, the Russian side limited itself to a statement condemning the action as harmful for its bilateral relations and has yet to deport any Lithuanian Embassy employees in Moscow in return.
Information on what exactly the Russian diplomats in Estonia were suspected of was scarce.
MP Tiit Matsulevits, Estonia's ambassador to Russia from 1999 to 2001, said that many actions could fit the description of "activities incompatible with diplomatic status."
"It may be different in every particular case," Matsulevits added.
Mart Helme, Estonia's ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Russia from 1995 to 2000, who is working as an adviser to the Agriculture Ministry, said the deportation of diplomats was usually regulated by the Vienna Convention.
"Some country, of course, can allow itself certain voluntary actions and just expel any diplomat at will, but we cannot consider Russia that kind of a country," Helme said.
The distinction between allowed and forbidden diplomatic activities is not black and white, Helme explained, but there are certain actions, such as interference into the domestic affairs of a country or attempts to bribe local politicians, that would most likely be followed by deportation.
In August 2000 Yuri Yatsenko and Vladimir Telegin, workers at the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, were ordered to leave Estonia for activities incompatible with their status. The local press reported that the two were interested in the new sensor system used by the Estonian border guards. Two Estonian diplomatic workers were expelled from Russia shortly afterward.
In 1996, the security police videotaped the Russian Embassy's finance adviser Sergei Andreyev receiving classified documents from an adviser to the Estonian Parliament, for which he was deported.
The Andreyev case was significant in that it was the first time a former Soviet republic dared to expel a Russian diplomat, said Helme.
"That time everything was quite unusual. Estonian authorities presented the evidence received during the investigation in a TV show. It was necessary to show everybody that Estonia's secret services have to be taken seriously," said Helme, explaining that countries typically do not bother proving the decision to deport a diplomat.