Dispute over Soviet war memorial heats up

Thursday, May 3, 2007

MOSCOW -- Young Russians staged raucous protests in Moscow on Wednesday to denounce neighboring Estonia for removing a Soviet war memorial from its capital, and the Estonian ambassador said pro-Kremlin activists tried to attack her as she arrived at a news conference.

Sweden said its ambassador also was assaulted as he left the Estonian Embassy after a meeting Wednesday, saying protesters surrounding the compound kicked his car and tore off a Swedish flag.

The protests were the most disorderly in Russia since Estonian authorities took the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier from a downtown square Friday. The monument, which commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, was put in an Estonian military cemetery this week.

Escalating tempers

Ethnic Russians also have rioted in Estonia over the removal, which they see as the latest discriminatory move by ethnic Estonians since the Baltic nation broke away from the Soviet Union. The action has worsened tensions between Estonia and Russia, and officials elsewhere in Europe expressed alarm over the escalating tempers.

Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand summoned journalists to the offices of a Moscow newspaper to demand that Russian authorities increase security at the Estonian Embassy, which has been besieged by activists since late last week.

She was met by a crowd of protesters, and she said her bodyguards had to use a pepper-style gas to protect her. The news conference was delayed for an hour while police dragged protesters from the building.

"Apparently the attack was aimed against me, but nobody got through to me. Nobody touched me," Kaljurand said.

Protesters earlier tried to block Kaljurand as her car left the embassy compound, not far from the Kremlin, chanting "NATO lackeys, hands off the Russian soldier!"

As she arrived at the Argumenti I Fakti newspaper, dozens of activists with the youth group Nashi and other groups mobbed her and stormed into the building. A newspaper official said several youths broke into an editor's office, ransacked it and shouted: "Let's get her."

After the rowdy protests, the European Union urged Moscow to honor its obligations under diplomatic treaties to protect the Estonian Embassy. European Commission spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann criticized violence at the embassy.

Germany's government, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said it was "gravely concerned" over the dispute between Estonia and Russia and is talking "with all parties" to help calm the situation.

"Given the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the Soviet war graves in Estonia, it would be advisable to have a dispassionate dialogue on the matter," the statement said.

In Tallinn, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves issued a statement urging Russia to calm the heat

"I turn to Russia, Estonia's neighbor, with a clear message: Try to remain civilized!" he said.

Ilves also lashed out at cyber attacks on Estonian government Internet sites that he and Kaljurand said were being waged by computer hackers linked to the Kremlin.

"It is customary in Europe that differences ... are solved by diplomats and politicians, not on the streets or by computer attacks," Ilves said.

There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin to the accusation.

Estonia's foreign minister, Urmas Paet, urged EU nations to take a common stance on Russia and said Estonia was considering seeking a postponement of an EU-Russia summit planned for May 18.

Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, who was visiting Tallinn, opposed putting off the summit, saying the EU needed to keep open dialogue with Russia.

The leader of Nashi, Vasily Yakemenko, said activists barged into Kaljurand's news conference because organizers would not allow them to ask questions. "If we didn't come here today, our voices wouldn't be heard," he said.

Protesters have camped out on the sidewalk across from the Estonian Embassy, erected barriers trying to prevent diplomats from coming and going and staged loud demonstrations. Over the weekend, activists pasted mock "Wanted" posters with Kaljurand's face on buildings in the neighborhood.

Embassy spokesman Franek Persidski said some Estonian diplomats and their families were leaving Russia, but insisted that no mass evacuation was taking place and that the embassy continued to operate. The embassy's consular service has suspended operations.

At the delayed news conference, Kaljurand said some of the cyber attacks against Estonian government Web sites have come from Internet addresses registered to the Kremlin.

"Based on information of the Estonian side, the attacks are being carried out from IP address of the Kremlin administration, among others," she said. "The European Union will take concrete measures with regards to Russia."

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said Wednesday that it was immoral for the Estonian authorities to move the war monument.

"Fighting against the dead, against the soldiers who have always been honored by all nations, is the most unworthy deed," Patriarch Alexy II was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying. "It is immoral to profane the memory of the dead."

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