TALLINN, Estonia – Estonian officials exhumed remains believed to be those of Soviet soldiers from a Red Army memorial in the heart of the capital Saturday, pushing ahead with an operation that sparked widespread rioting by infuriated ethnic Russians.
The streets were largely quiet after two nights of unrest but tensions were still high among the country’s majority Estonians and minority Russians. Local media reported that several graves of famous Estonians had been desecrated, as well as some belonging to Soviet soldiers and the Nazi troops they fought during World War II.
Protesters gathered Saturday night in the largely ethnic Russian towns of Johvi and Narva, near the Russian border, leading to dozens of arrests. But there was nothing like the violence that resulted in the death of a Russian citizen, over 100 injuries, including two dozen policemen, and more than 840 arrests over the previous two nights.
The rioting in the capital and largely ethnic Russian towns was the worst seen since the Baltic state won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week described the decision to remove the graves and statue known as the Bronze Soldier as, “absolutely repulsive.”
Some 50,000 Soviet soldiers were killed by Nazi troops on Estonian territory. Estonia’s Russians – less than one-third of the country’s 1.3 million population – regarded the monument as a shrine to the war effort, but ethnic Estonians consider it a painful reminder of hardships during the half-century of Soviet rule that followed World War II.
For 15 years Estonians tolerated the statue’s presence in a prominent Tallinn square. Then in May many Russians were seen waving the Soviet flag while celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The incident triggered a major debate about the fate of the Bronze Soldier in the run-up to Estonia’s parliamentary elections – which took place in March – and even led to a draft bill banning Soviet symbols.
About 15 people are buried at the small park adjacent to where the Bronze Soldier monument stood. The exact number of bodies and their identity is not known.
The Estonian Defense Ministry said it would rebury the remains in a military cemetery about two miles from the present location. The Bronze Soldier statue will also be moved to the cemetery, where Russians will be able to visit.