War memorials are meant to honor the dead -- not lead to more of them. But that is exactly what has happened in the Estonian capital Tallinn on Thursday, where one person died and several more were injured in riots over a disputed Soviet monument.
Around 1,500 people gathered in downtown Tallinn on Thursday to protest against authorities' plans to move the controversial war memorial to a new location. The protests were peaceful until one small group tried to break through a police line protecting the memorial, sparking violent clashes. Demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at the police, who responded with stun grenades. One man was stabbed to death and at least 12 police officers and 44 protesters were injured. Around 300 people were arrested amid widespead vandalism and looting in the worst riots since Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The 2-meter (6.5-foot) statue, known as the Bronze Soldier, is a tribute to the Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany during World War II. The Estonian authorities want to move the statue to the Defense Forces cemetery outside Tallinn. They also plan to exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers buried near the statue, identify the bodies, and then move them to the cemetery.
The authorities claim that the monument, which they say attracts Estonian and Russian nationalists, is a public order problem and that it would be more respectful to the dead to be buried in a cemetary. They consider the statue a "kind of headstone," according to Defense Ministry adviser Andreas Kaju, and argue it belongs together with the soldiers' remains in the cemetery.
Many Estonians view the monument as a reminder of 50 years of Soviet occupation. However the country's sizable ethnic Russian minority -- which numbers around 300,000 out of a total population of 1.3 million -- feels that plans to move the monument are an insult to the memory of the soldiers who died fighting the Nazis.
The authorities decided in the early hours of Friday to remove the memorial and it is now being held at an undisclosed location. The decision was taken "to ensure that it cannot be used in the future as a reason or cause for extensive and dangerous rioting," the government said in a statement. It said the violence had shown that the protesters' "real goal was to riot, destroy, break and loot."
Russia, which has repeatedly asked its neighbor not to move the statue, strongly criticized the latest developments. "Yet again, we can qualify the actions of official Tallinn as sacrilegious and inhuman," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin as saying. Russian news agencies reported that the Russian upper house of parliament had unanimously adopted a resolution Friday recommending that the government consider breaking diplomatic relations with Estonia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has likewise warned that Moscow would "take serious steps" against the small Baltic country. "We must react without hysteria but also take serious steps which would demonstrate our true attitude to this inhuman action," Lavrov said on Friday during a visit to Norway.