Russian policy is failing miserably in Estonia. On Friday, the U.S. Senate adopted a formal resolution supporting Estonia and condemning Russia in the dispute over the Soviet army memorial. An editorial in Investors Business Daily, which routinely puts out excellent commentary on Russian affairs, advises that the time has come for the West to show its true colors:
Time To Stand Up For Estonia
Russian brutality against tiny Estonia over the removal of a Soviet memorial is a brazen challenge to the West and nations that want to become part of it. A response is in order.Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia has had many disputes with its 14 former republics. Its reputation is that of a bully, but occasionally the blame goes two ways. That’s not the case, however, with its effort to intimidate Estonia this week in clear-cut acts of aggression. A string of events calls for a strong, unified response because this is not as small a case as it looks.
Last Thursday, Estonia’s leaders decided to move an imposing Soviet war memorial from a dominant spot in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn. Russian officials denounced the removal of the ugly Stalinist relic as “sacrilegious.” The memorial was put there by Soviet troops who invaded and annexed Estonia as part of Josef Stalin’s and Adolf Hitler’s secret 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact to divide up Europe. Estonia’s forced incorporation into the Soviet Union cost it five decades of freedom until it finally broke free in 1991. Given the Soviet efforts to erase it as a nation in that dark era, it’s a miracle Estonia survived at all.
Estonia’s leaders haven’t said so explicitly, but getting rid of the 1947 Stalinist eyesore was an important move toward acknowledging their nation’s hard-won freedom. Maybe that’s why the symbolic act of removing the memorial touched a nerve in Russia, which has never confronted the savagery of its communist past. Still, Russia’s response was disproportionate to any normal diplomatic disagreement. Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, pleaded with Russia to “remain civilized.”
Russia said it was only standing up for the many Russians who still consider their nation to be Estonia’s “liberator” from Hitler. But on a deeper level, Russians resent Estonia’s exit from the Soviet Union and its success afterward. Hence, the harsh — and illegitimate — chain of responses.
First, local Russian mobs — Estonia-based remnants of the Soviet colonizers — rampaged through the capital, looting and vandalizing shops. To Estonians who remember 1947, it no doubt evoked the pillage of Soviet troops.
But instead of the Red Army, these punks now belong to an ultranationalist mob called “Nashi,” meaning “Ours” in Russian. Besides stealing, they intended to intimidate. About 600 looters were arrested, with 44 injured and one dead in Estonia’s worst violence since ’91. The mobs’ message was clear enough, but it’s hard to prove they’re acting on orders from Moscow. It’s worth noting, however, Russian officials have loudly criticized not the looting but Estonia’s police response.
What can be more directly traced to Moscow is that Russia’s upper house of parliament, or Duma, voted by a wide margin to break relations with Estonia in a nonbinding move. The message got clearer when Sweden’s envoy to Moscow was harassed by Nashi thugs who surrounded the Estonian embassy on Tuesday. After that, Russia stepped up pressure on Estonia by cutting off energy shipments for rail “maintenance.” This revived doubts about Russia’s reliability as a nonpolitical energy supplier to the West.
Crazier still, Estonian officials say Russian computer experts are hacking into and shutting down Estonian government Web sites in a bid to paralyze its operations. The hackers are traceable to the Kremlin, the officials say. While it’s hard to determine the author of all this harassment, there’s little doubt these are escalating acts of warfare against one of Europe’s most upright members. Estonia is the greatest success story of the post-Soviet era.
That’s what makes this important. Estonia picked itself up from the gray rubble of Soviet colonization in 1991 and transformed itself into a first-world state with a true national identity. Its success is a standing rebuke to the backwardness of what Russia remains and what other oppressed nations can become if they are left alone.
Other countries in Eastern Europe are still trying to dig out from the legacy of the Soviet past. Estonia’s clean governance, low taxes, steadily growing economy, soaring foreign investment and 4% unemployment are an amazing and atypical transformation in just a decade and a half.
So far, the European Union and U.S. have issued fairly strong statements condemning Russia’s efforts to intimidate Estonia’s democracy. They need to keep up the pressure. At stake is whether a nation emerging from tyranny has any right to success and to determining its own course.
For more on the same theme from philosopher Andre Glucksman, click here.