The victory of the opposition Center Party in Estonia has given rise to hopes for a thaw in the relations with Russia. But these hopes are not coming true as new Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas and his government are acting very much like their predecessors.
This year, Estonia is celebrating the centennial of its statehood. And Ratas’s recent visit to St. Petersburg was part of these celebrations. In fact, it was the first visit an Estonian prime minister had ever paid to Russia. So, many experts rushed to conclude that it marked a thaw in Estonian-Russian relations. Their key argument was that Ratas’s Center Party had lots of Russians among its voters and was even blamed by rivals for being pro-Russian.
Few people in Russia know that the first demonstration for Estonia’s independence took place in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) on Apr 8, 1917. On that day, almost 40,000 Estonians went into the streets to claim autonomy for their homeland. They set out from St. John Church and moved towards the Tauride Palace, which at that time was the residency of the Russian Provisional Government. Four days later, that government approved a law granting autonomy to Estonia. According to it, the governorate of Estonia and the northern part of the governorate of Livonia were united into the national governorate of Estonia, later an independent state.
Ratas came to St. Petersburg with the only aim to attend a liturgy in memory of that very demonstration. And even the last terrorist act in St. Petersburg was not able to wreck his plans. Even more, he laid flowers at the site of the terrorist act and said that the world community had to unite and to jointly oppose and punish terrorists. Later, in St. John Church, Ratas said: “Never again will the Estonians be forced to struggle for their liberty in the streets of a foreign capital.”
In an interview to EADaily, political analyst Alexander Nosovich said that Ratas’s visit to Russia was not official: “Ratas just attended an event organized by the Estonian consulate in St. Petersburg. He had no meetings with Russian officials. So, his visit could not change anything in Russian-Estonian relations. Though quite unnoticed in Russia, in Estonia, this visit was in the headlines and there were lots of politicians who were trying to prove that Ratas should not have visited Russia.”
No signs of regret
Assistant professor at St. Petersburg University Natalia Yeremina has told EADaily that it was an important visit. “It was important for the Estonians. It was an exploratory step aimed to see if the Estonian people and politicians are ready to improve their relations with Russia. One of Ratas’s motives might have also been to see how the Russians would react to his visit so as to know how to act in future. The Russians were not very enthusiastic about the visit even though some of their mass media welcomed his decision to lay flowers to the site of the last terrorist act in St. Petersburg. So, we can say that Ratas’s visit was to prove that there are lots of factors in global politics even though for the Estonian establishment this is not an argument. In any case, the visit was a sign that something is changing on a global level,” Yeremina says.
Let’s not forget that Estonian-Russian relations froze in April 2007 after the so-called Bronze Nights. It was then that the Russians began reducing their economic contacts with the Estonians. But the latter are showing no signs of regret for what they did ten years ago. Former Estonian Prime Minister and incumbent Vice President of the European Commission Andrus Ansip, who was the one who gave the command to remove the Bronze Soldier from the center of Tallinn, said recently that that firm decision helped the Estonians to realize that they had actually become an independent nation.
Once a high-ranking Communist, Ansip is sure that the Estonian government was right in April 2007. “Now that we have seen what has happened in Crimea and Ukraine, we realize that we were right,” Ansip says. He sees some parallels between the Bronze Nights in Estonia and the conflict in Donbass. “The schemes are very similar. Tensions over that Bronze Soldier were growing and our special services warned us that if we lingered, we would pay a much higher price. And we decided to solve that problem long before we would prove unable to do it,” Ansip says.
Editor-in-Chief of Stolitsa new portal Alexander Chaplygin is indignant: “Today, they have as little brain and conscience as they had in 2007. Ansip’s decision caused a split in the Estonian society and economic losses amounting to billions of euros. Estonia is still unable to overcome that shock.” But what Ansip said was just the official viewpoint of the Estonian government. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid blames Russia for the events of 2007. “It was a crisis provoked from outside. I am sure that it was for a reason,” the Estonian president said recently.
Tallinn will not take the first step to meet
But in Estonia, there are also some officials who, though sticking to the general line, are still showing some signs of self-criticism. Urve Palo from the Social Democratic Party, who was Minister of Population and Ethnic Affairs at that time, believes that the key mistake of the government in Apr 2007 was that it refused to negotiate with the Russian-speaking citizens. “Representatives of the Russian community came to my office and expressed their concern that the government was going to change the place of the Bronze Soldier or to do something to it. They had no specific information. Nor had I as I was not part of the committee that was considering that question,” Palo says.
“Loyal” pro-governmental journalist Olesya Lagashina says: “Our authorities acted indelicately. We all remember their statements saying that buried there (in the graves near the Bronze Soldier - EADaily) were mostly looters and that a year before that Martin Helme (radical Estonian politician - EADaily) had laid a wreath of barbed wire on that grave. It was all but good for inter-ethnic relations in Estonia. That situation spoiled everything. Before that, we had no problems. We peacefully coexisted. But that incident tore as apart.”
In the meantime, more and more businessmen and even politicians in Estonia say that the Estonians should improve their relations with the Russians. One of their arguments is that the Estonian economy needs to be saved. But here we need some real steps on Estonia’s part, like, for example, the punishment of those who killed Russian citizen Dmitry Ganin during the Bronze Nights. But after years of inaction, the Estonian will hardly rush to do this. Assistant professor at St. Petersburg University Natalia Yeremina has no illusions here.
“This is a political case. Here we are dealing not only with symbols of common past but also with the Estonian law enforcers’ attitude that the Russian community must be kept in awe. Under such circumstances, we cannot expect the Estonian authorities to be impartial on this case. So, we can hardly expect any changes in Estonia’s position,” Yeremina says. If what she says is true, the Russians will hardly be the first to extent their hand for a handshake as they do not think much of Estonia and prefer negotiating with its “bosses” in Washington and Brussels.