The statue at the centre of the dispute commemorates
the deaths of Russian soldiers in World War Two [AFP]
Estonia's decision to move a Soviet monument has sparked protests in both the Estonian and Russian capitals, and exposed tensions between Russia and the Baltic state, now a part of the European Union.

But the dispute has also exposed concerns over how Estonia treats its sizeable ethnic Russian population, as well as how the EU should respond to Russia's treatment of its former territories.

The Soviet Union officially annexed the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940, as part of an agreement, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in 1939 between Joseph Stalin, the then Soviet leader, and Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany.

Although the pact affected independent countries, it was termed a non-aggression treaty by Germany and Russia and was rendered effectively void when Germany invaded the Soviet territories in 1941.

By some estimates the Soviet Union suffered military losses of almost 11 million people during World War Two, with equally large figures recorded for civilian casualties.

Under Soviet rule in Estonia, which lasted until the early 1990's, tens of thousands of Estonians were killed or deported.

Dispute

Nearly 100 people were hurt and one person
was killed in the protests in Estonia [AFP]
The monument at the centre of the current dispute commemorates the sacrifice of Soviet soldiers who died fighting against Germany during the war.

In April, Estonian authorities had the monument, a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier, removed from the centre of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, and relocated to a military cemetery.

They also sanctioned the excavation of the remains of Soviet soldiers buried beneath the monument.

While many Estonians were pleased to see the statue moved, the monument's relocation sparked protests in the capital, mainly amongst Estonia's ethnic Russian population, who gathered near the National Library, close to the monument.

One Tallinn-based blogger reported the crowd was made up of "all kinds of folks, from school children to elderly people".

The protests later turned violent, with Estonian police cracking down on the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. Nearly 100 people were hurt and one ethnic Russian was killed.

While Russia has had a long history of migration to and from Estonia, a large number of Russians relocated to the Baltic states as part of an effort to aid reconstruction after the Second World War.

Many see this as part of a 'Russification' programme ordered by Stalin.

Today, ethnic Russians are thought to constitute as much as 26 per cent of Estonia's population and Moscow says Estonia treats them as second class citizens.

Many Russian speakers in Estonia say they face discrimination and find it difficult to get jobs because of the country's strict language laws.

Protests in Moscow

Estonia's decision to relocate the monument
also sparked protest in Moscow [AFP]
Estonia's decision to relocate the monument also sparked protest in Moscow, the Russian capital, where demonstrators surrounded the Estonian embassy, barricading Estonian diplomats inside the building.

Many of the protesters were part of Nashi, or "Ours", a pro-Kremlin youth movement established in 2005.

While Russia said it was taking steps to ensure the situation was under control, Nato, the US-led western military alliance, and the European Union spoke against Russia's handling of the situation.

Both organisations have been a cause for concern for Russia in the past.

Nato, established in 1949 as a military alliance aimed at providing collective security for its members, has expanded twice since the end of the Cold War, each time encompassing former Soviet territories.

Moscow has been riled in the past by suggestions that Nato might be further extended to include Georgia and the Ukraine.

Estonia joined the alliance in the second round of expansion in 2004. That same year, it also joined the EU.

Critics have accused the EU of not having an effective common policy towards Russia, but Moscow is very conscious that the EU's newer members include Poland and the Baltic states, all of which have been critical of Russia.

In the past, the EU, aware that Russia remains Europe's biggest single energy supplier, has criticised Russia over its willingness to use its energy resources to "bully" smaller neighbours.

Russia, likewise aware that the EU constitutes its largest market, has often accused the trade bloc of being arrogant in its attitude towards Russia.

Source: Al Jazeera