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Estonians Under Siege in Moscow

3 minute read
Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow

Rioting by ethnic Russians in Estonia in protest at that country’s removal of a World War II memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers has subsided, but not in Moscow. For the past six days, a pro-Kremlin youth movement has been blockading the Estonian embassy, demanding that either Estonia apologize for its desecration of the memorial, or else that the embassy be razed. These activists deny access to the embassy to Russian citizens and to Western diplomats, and in a violent attack on Tuesday they tore down Estonia’s colors from the embassy flagpole. The embassy is paralyzed, and local authorities have made no move to end the nationalist blockade.

When the Estonian ambassador appeared at the editorial office of a Moscow weekly on Wednesday to give a press briefing on her country’s position, more than 200 aggressive young people broke into the building and tried to assault the diplomat. The Russian police failed to intervene, leaving it to the ambassador’s bodyguards to handle the situation by firing tear gas to disperse the attackers. Then, for hours following the briefing, the toughs wouldn’t let the Ambassador’s car return to the embassy. This violence forced the Estonian embassy to close down its consular office in Moscow. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told the Estonian Parliament in Tallinn Wednesday that family members of the Moscow embassy staff have been evacuated from the compound where they also lived.

The state-directed propaganda against the tiny Baltic nation of 1.3 million — as well as the apparently officially sanctioned interference with the functioning of its embassy in Moscow — is even more belligerent than a similar effort mounted against Georgia last year, following the arrest there of Russian personnel accused of spying. On Wednesday, state-run Russian railways halted transits of oil and coal through Estonian ports. Although the excuse offered for the move was sudden railway repairs and a lack of wagons, the move was clearly an attempt to punish Estonia financially. Russian exporters are urgently rerouting their deliveries through other transit countries.

Despite decrying “the desecration” of the Soviet memorial in Tallinn (which in reality has been moved to a military cemetery where it will be formally reopened with full military honors next week), local authorities in Moscow just two weeks ago had razed a monument and moved the graves of six heroes of the Soviet Union who had died defending Moscow in 1941. The reason? Their burial site stood in the way of a planned office facility. Similarly unnoticed was the action by city authorities in Stavropol to destroy a similar World War II monument about 18 months ago, in order to ease the flow of traffic.

Selective as it may be, the protestors’ action in defense of the the memory of the millions of Soviet soldiers and citizens who died fighting the Nazis from 1941-1945 may be part of a wider campaign to fan nationalist hysteria in Russia ahead of December’s parliamentary and the presidential elections scheduled for next march. Just as in Soviet times, there’s nothing like the specter of an external enemy to keep up “the unassailable unity of the party and the people.”

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