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Estonia to remove Soviet memorials in Russian-speaking city

Estonia’s majority Russian-speaking city of Narva will have all of its public Soviet memorials removed, the government said on Tuesday, citing rising tensions in the city and accusing Russia of trying to exploit the past to sow division in society.

Estonia, formerly a republic within the Soviet Union, is a member of both NATO and the European Union. The country has been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on February 24, fearing like its other Baltic neighbours that they could be next.

Tallinn has been anxious that the ethnic Russians, constituting nearly a quarter of its population of 1.3 million, could succumb to the Kremlin’s attempts at playing the note of ethnic allegiance. By extension, Estonia’s fears are that Russia could use the Russian minority as a pretext for an invasion.

In this climate, Estonian authorities in Narva removed at short notice, a WWII-era Soviet tank from the city on Tuesday using a crane, according to footage from national broadcaster ERR. Police told the BNS news agency that the military had been brought in for the operation.

Today Estonia rids itself of one of the most significant and controversial symbols of Soviet occupation. A tank monument in the bordertown Narva. There is no place for monuments of lies of terror, death and destruction to dot our independent land.

Photo: Andres Putting/Ekspress

— Riho Terras (@RihoTerras) August 16, 2022

The tank’s removal was ordered, according to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, “since tensions are rising in and around Narva”, and Estonia must not give Russia the opportunity to exploit the country’s past in order to further divide society, BNS reported.

My government has decided to remove Soviet monuments from public spaces across #Estonia. As symbols of repressions and Soviet occupation they have become a source of increasing social tensions – at these times, we must keep the risk to public order at a minimum.

— Kaja Kallas (@kajakallas) August 16, 2022

She did not provide details of any potential interference.

Bordering Russia and including Narva, Estonia’s north-eastern Ida-Viru county is three-quarters ethnically Russian, according to official statistics.

Estonian history suffers from a particular dissonance. Invaded by both Nazi German and Soviet forces in the war, Estonia had its people on both sides of the conflict. The Soviet era left a painful scar on Estonian society with the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberian labour camps.

In 2007, Tallinn saw rioting by mainly Russian-speaking youth when Estonia removed a Red Army WWII monument from the centre of the capital. At that time, Moscow called the move an insult to the Soviet fighters who drove the Nazi occupiers out of Estonia.

In its statement on Tuesday, the Estonian government also said it would go a step farther in removing more Soviet monuments in Narva, such as a Soviet-era monument to war victims, which would be replaced by “a neutral grave marker”.

Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu also said that any foreigner opposing the removals would have their residence permit revoked, news agency BNS reported.

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