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Published:May 3rd, 2007 02:32 EST
Small Country, Big Problem

Small Country, Big Problem

By Krzys Wasilewski

Very few people have heard of Estonia. This number shrinks even more when you subtract the 1,500,000 people who constitute the country's entire population. If you add the fact that Estonians speak a language incomprehensible to everyone else, the veil of oblivion falls over the country. Yet, this small Baltic state, at the very end of northeastern Europe, has recently caused quite a rumpus on the international stage.

In its more than one thousand year-long history, Estonia has enjoyed full independence for only 38 years. If it wasn't occupied by the Swedes, it was the Poles, Germans, or Russians. The latter seem to have fallen in love with this country so deeply and so whole-heartedly that they stayed there, with short interstices, for over two centuries. As it usually happens in a relationship where one side is particularly stronger and more possessive than the other, this one could hardly be called reciprocal. The Russians wanted Estonians to speak and write in Russian; Estonians, not surprisingly, stuck to their own language, which derives from the same root as Finnish and, to some extent, Hungarian.

This ping-pong of atrocities and grievances would have lasted much longer had it not been for World War I and the October Revolution in Russia. First, the czar's army had been defeated on all fronts with the German forces getting dangerously close to Sankt Petersburg, the Russian capital at that time. Then, against all odds, the world’s first proletarian revolution spread through the hidebound and rural country, which had fewer workers than in an average British town.

Having wiped out the czar's family as well as most of Russia's aristocracy, the new Bolshevik government annulled all the acts of the ancient regime, including that of incorporating Estonia and other Baltic states. It did not matter really, since dilapidated Russia– red or white– had no power over its western territories whatsoever; yet, it turned out a neat public relations trick which propelled Lenin to political stardom on the continent.

Nevertheless, going back to Estonia, tiny and weak as it was, it managed to defeat the rumps of German and Russian armies, and it quickly declared its independence on February 24, 1918. Very few people outside the country noticed the event– the entire European continent had been reshaped after the Great War, with Estonia being only an insignificant piece of the puzzle, not necessarily matching the rest of the picture.

The roseate future of the country, which had been vivaciously predicted by more optimistic politicians, was to never materialize. Years of Western-style democracy ended as soon as Estonia began to experience the global economic crisis of 1929. For a young country still struggling with even the basic issues, such as education and social benefits, the crisis reflected on the domestic economy with double the strength.

In 1934 the parliament in Estonia was dissolved, thereby following suit of other Central-European states. Apart from suspending democracy (which wasn't that unusual in more “civilized” countries, such as Germany, Spain, or Portugal), Konstantin Pats, the president for life, significantly improved the living standards of the average citizen, securing food supplies and ushering in an era of prosperity.  Pats was a true father of his nation, and the way he ended his life could not have been more symbolic.

In June of 1940 the Russians reappeared, this time as the Red Army, and had no intentions of withdrawing. Instead, the Estonian people were given a choice: whether they would peacefully let the Soviets stay and take care of their little country, or the Red Army soldiers would do that with their guns unloaded. Even then, Uncle Joe, as President Roosevelt liked to call Stalin, needed rigged elections to make Estonians understand that he didn't give a damn about their opinion. In August of the same year Estonia officially ceased to exist as an independent state and began its half century-long episode as a Soviet republic. Konstantin Pats was quickly arrested, declared insane and locked in an asylum somewhere in the impenetrable depths of the Soviet Union. He died deserted and forgotten, just like the country he had founded.

The summer of 1941 changed everything. Having crushed Poland and France (as well as other neutral countries such as Holland, Belgium, Norway, and Denmark), Hitler moved his murderous forces further east, blatantly breaching the secret anti-aggression pact with the Soviet Union from 1939. Estonia was one of the first terrains that the Germans snatched, not without help from the natives.

While all of Europe repelled Hitler, some Estonians thought him to be their chance to escape from the suffocating Russian grip. Unlike Russians or Poles, they weren't Slavs– their fair hair and blue eyes would pass for the touchstone of the Nordic race; and, they were ready to fight for their independence. Some of them joined the notorious SS units which operated mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. Waffen SS, which is what the Estonian regiment was called, took part in destroying the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

The Waffen SS was also present during the pacifying of the Warsaw Uprising one year later, when it was clear that the Germans would not win the war. In 1945 when Hitler, along with his clique, lay dead in his bunker and the Allies seized Berlin, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill nor Stalin discussed the future of Estonia. It had been a Soviet Republic before the war, it would be one after.

For more than 40 years political life in Estonia was frozen. With the falling of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the country reappeared in Europe as an independent state. It quickly adopted a liberal economy, redirected itself to a pro-European line, simultaneously getting rid of all the signs of the Soviet's half century-long domination.

If joining NATO in March 2004 and the European Union several weeks later went smoothly, forgetting the past turned out to be much harder. Especially that, due to Stalin's demographical policy, the Russians comprise almost one third of the Estonian population. What is more, the legacy of the communist era: monumental sculptures with the red stars as well as dozens of memorials to the Red Army were constantly reminding Estonians who their liberators were. One Estonian joke states that if all the Soviet monuments suddenly disappeared, the country would be raised a few feet.

Among the remnants of war and international crises are widowed women, abandoned ambitions and crushed dreams; but, never a monument. Never, until last week, when the Estonian government made a decision to remove a six-foot-high monument to “the Soviet Soldier-Liberator” from the center of Tallinn, the capital, to a suburban military cemetery.

Thousands of the Russian-speaking citizens took to the streets, to protest against “an attempt to falsify history.” When the angry mob began to ravage shops and Tallinn's quaint streets, the police were sent to quell the disturbances, and quell they did rather brutally.

In response, the Russian parliament threatened to suspend diplomatic relations with Estonia, calling on other countries to do the same. Although it was just an insignificant declaration, it proved enough to give some policy-makers in Brussels a ferocious headache. Estonia, as a member of the European Union, may want to engage other member states into her dispute with her powerful neighbor while to irritate the Russian bear is the last thing the EU needs. With unsteady Arabic countries, Russia remains the only serious supplier of crude oil and gas, to say nothing of its vast nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet era– half rusted away, but still dangerous.

Some politicians see in the latest feud between Estonia and Russia a deeper problem which touches the entire Central Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regional countries had to fight off Russia's imperial resentment. Neither the accession to NATO nor the European Union nor tightening ties with the United States prevented Moscow from exercising influence over her former satellite states.

In 2006 Russia imposed an embargo on Polish meat even though it was scrutinized by numerous EU controls and deemed healthy. Despite declarations, the embargo has not been lifted since then. Lithuania, another former Soviet republic, learned what it meant to irritate the Russian Bear when Moscow threatened to withdraw its signature from the border treaty between the two countries. So far, Lithuania remains the only EU member without having its borderlines completely regulated.

That tense relations with Russia are not an exclusively Central European problem as the rest of Europe learned last winter when a dispute between Russia and Belarus over gas prices efficaciously turned off the supply to western countries for a considerable period of time.

A fight over a monument may sound like meaningless trivia, but it is not so. When countries have no other arguments, they load historical ammunition. Often does it happen, however, that such a tactic turns against the attacker. Russia still has not resolved her problematic past, with her colonial-like politics in Baltic republics being only a short episode in her long imperial history. By protesting against the removal of a symbol of constraint, like the monument in Tallinn, Russia risks instigating a debate over her own past.

Please send comments to: krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com