Andrus Ansip: 'We decided to solve the problem before it got out of hand' ({{commentsTotal}})

EU commissioner for the digital single market and former prime minister, Andrus Ansip.
EU commissioner for the digital single market and former prime minister, Andrus Ansip. Source: (ERR)

In 2007, the European Union’s commissioner for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, was prime minister of Estonia. In his interview with ERR, he talks about how he experienced the events surrounding the removal of the Bronze Soldier ten years ago.

“If the people had woken up in the morning, the city had been beaten senseless, and the only thing defended had been the Bronze Soldier on Tõnismägi, hardly anyone could have taken the Estonian government seriously anymore,” then prime minister Andrus Ansip commented his government’s actions in 2007. According to Ansip, Russia’s actions in Crimea and East Ukraine showed that the steps taken back then had been appropriate. The interview was conducted by ERR’s Epp Ehand.

ERR: Looking back, how do you see those days and months ten years back?

Ansip: After seeing what happened in Crimea and East Ukraine, one has to say we managed.

Do you see a straight line [from the Bronze Night riots] to those events?

Yes, the patterns have been very similar, with the Bronze Soldier issue the fire was poked up for years and years, more and more things came together. Our special services in Estonia said as well that if the Bronze Soldier isn’t removed immediately, then after three years at the latest we’ll have to do it anyway, but at a noticeably higher price to society. We decided to solve the problem before it gets out of hand.

How did you get to your view of the situation, and what did you base your decisions on?

The bulk of these problems developed over the years, but 2006 was a turning point in some respects. This was a year where the flag of the Republic of Estonia couldn’t be displayed in the center of the Estonian capital, when it was rolled up and taken to a police car, and of course that offended a lot of the Estonian people.

And as we had had to defend the Bronze Soldier against different attackers already for more than a year, it was fenced off with police tape, officers were on guard around the clock, and not only school kids, but kindergarten kids were taken there, the propaganda only increased, it was perfectly clear that the problem needed to be solved.

And again, we managed. We were ready and aware that events couldn’t always be controlled. Because of that we brought 780 additional officers to Tallinn. In some other countries governments weren’t able to manage similar situations.

What emotions, moments, decisions of those days and nights do you remember looking back?

Well I still remember everything. There aren’t a lot of days like that in life. The decision to relocate the Bronze Soldier, that was made already in May 2006, at least the way I remember it. From then on there were very active preparations. We famously had to create the legal basis to move the Bronze Soldier. There we had the help of Paul Varul’s law firm, which prepared the bill for the War Graves Protection Act, which was the basis for the relocation of the monument.

The actual events culminated with the fencing in of the area. That night only one car of Nochnoy Dozor was on the square. They had been very excited a day before, as the street surface was cut on Kaarli Avenue, and equipment was brought in.

So Nochnoy Dozor got excited and thought that the Bronze Soldier would now be removed somehow by means of these tarmac cutters, I have no idea how they thought that was possible. But they burned off their energy one night before Tõnismägi was fenced off. The events escalated the night after it was fenced off, the pressure built up, and that ended with the two-night riot in Tallinn.

What time did you go to bed?

The evening of the relocation I didn’t go to bed at all, of course. In the evening I was at home in Tallinn, of course I watched TV, I was in direct contact with the operative people and continuously received information.

At some point I decided that I needed to be in the old Kalev sweets factory, in the police building. That’s where we then decided that the Bronze Soldier had to be relocated without delay. Because if the people had woken up in the morning, the city had been beaten senseless, and the only thing defended had been the Bronze Soldier on Tõnismägi, hardly anyone could have taken the Estonian government seriously anymore.

If you’ve lost the initiative, but you want to win the battle or the war, you have to take back that initiative. This is the decision we made, and considering what has since happened in other places, I have to say it was the right decision.

Was it easy to decide in the middle of the events that night that the monument needed to removed immediately? What did you have to do?

We hadn’t planned to remove the Bronze Soldier in the dark of night, but basically we had prepared also for such a scenario, or, more accurately, we should have been even better prepared for this scenario. We even discussed moving the Bronze Soldier to the Defence Forces’ cemetery in a single night. This would have been entirely doable technically, but we weren’t quite ready for it.

Was it easy to find builders to come and take up work in the middle of the night?

First of all the crisis management committee had to be called together. The prime minister wasn’t a member of the crisis management committee. The committee met, but the people were tired, up already for the second night. Then we called an emergency government meeting for the morning. At night we had a conference call, we got the agreement of almost all government members to relocate the Bronze Soldier.

At the same time, we started the technical preparations already in the evening. We looked into where to get the equipment from. Two people from the Ministry of Defence were very effective and ready to help, and we found the people as well as the equipment. Then we followed via video camera how the Bronze Soldier was relocated—it was not cut up—and when the last piece of limestone had been lifted onto the truck, we decided to go to Stenbock House.

There was just an hour or a little more left until the press conference. We put together a press release still in the Kalev sweets factory. Everyone was tired, and first there weren’t a lot of enthusiasts who would have wanted to put together the press release. So I took paper and pen, though I wasn’t used to writing with paper and pen anymore, it’s a lot easier with the computer.

In the end there were five people around the table with computers taking care of that text, but I still have the original text of that press release, and its last sentences state that the government decided in a nightly meeting to remove the Bronze Soldier from Tõnismägi and to place it in the Defence Forces’ cemetery, and that the first part of the decision had already been executed.

After some time someone called Stenbock House and asked what that sentence meant, whether it meant that it had been removed. I said yes, it’s been removed. After that the radio, at an unusual time, not at the full hour and not the half hour, reported that the Bronze Soldier had been relocated. That was a turning point emotionally, a very important moment in all of these events.

When did you feel that you could go to bed, and that the situation was under control?

I don’t remember exactly, but I did the next evening. We were already pretty well prepared for the next night, and nothing particularly unexpected happened. But I still didn’t go to bed with peace of mind for about another week.

Looking back now, what changed after these events?

There probably were a lot of Russian-speaking people who understood thanks to these events that Estonia is a pretty independent country with its government and parliament, and that the decisions aren’t made in the Kremlin. Estonians, all of them, irrespective of their language, began to appreciate the state more. People began to understand that independence and freedom aren’t guaranteed for eternity, by no one, but that we all have to make an effort to preserve our freedom.

Of course we would have liked to solve the problem without pressure, but this wasn’t in our power. It needs to be recognized that we worked hard to find a peaceful solution. Even Patriarch Alexy helped us liaise with the Kremlin, but in the end he as well was forced to say that the Kremlin wasn’t interested in a peaceful relocation of the Bronze Soldier, they would never agree with it.

The message was very clear that they would take the road to letting the events escalate. From this followed the conclusion that the sooner this escalating problem could be solved, the better for all of the people.

A lot of people were hurt in this process. Not the ones that were rioting in the streets, but a lot of Russian and Estonian people. Damage was done on both sides to relations with each other. In your opinion, have these wounds healed, and how has it affected integration?

It would have been better without the pressure, but in its own way, all of these events made the picture clearer. If we remember how Estonians applied in masses to become assistant police officers, how many were ready to defend the country in the literal sense of the word. There were negative sides and positive sides, but looking at the broader picture, and again at what happened in Crimea, in Ukraine, one can say that we got off lightly.

One thing that happened after the Bronze Nights was that Estonia’s image as a digital country got stronger. We started directing more attention to cyber security, and turned this into our subject. Was this a success, and does Estonia need to fear cyber attacks in 2017 as well?

We didn’t push to become the spokespeople for cyber security in the world, but we were placed in this position. Estonia experienced pretty strong denial of service attacks for three weeks, and we managed pretty well responding to those attacks, most of all thanks to the fact that different institutions, but also people in the private sector worked together very fruitfully outside their job descriptions. Thanks to cooperation with the corresponding authorities of other countries most of these attacks that were directed at Estonia couldn’t even cross the border.

Some might say that this was indeed a wake-up call for all of the world. For the first time there was an understanding that cyber space and cyber attacks could be used to achieve political aims. Of course some then said that this was a protest campaign of someone in the civil society. At the same time there was someone in the Kremlin who said that they arranged these cyber attacks, even two individuals, in fact.

Nobody can say with certainty that just these people arranged the attacks, personally I don’t believe they did, but as they really wanted that to happen, we met them half way and put them on the European Union’s entry blacklist, and they couldn’t enter the EU anymore after they made these declarations.

But it was a pretty strong signal to the whole world that the means of cyber space could be used to attack democratic institutions in independent countries. Now, after the USA’s presidential elections and in the context of the French and German elections, this subject has become very current again. What happened in Estonia ten years ago gets mentioned a lot.

What changed in Estonian politics? Thinking back, the Reform Party as well as you suddenly became  more nationalistic than the nationalists themselves, and the Bronze Soldier was a topic of the 2007 elections as well. In a sense, you added momentum to a deepening conflict yourself. Did this change Estonia’s political landscape?

I wouldn’t agree with your statement that one of the main topics of the 2007 elections was the Bronze Soldier.

Not the main topic, but one of the topics.

This was never connected to the campaign promises of the Reform Party, this wasn’t an issue in the elections, there were attempts at making this an election issue after the relocation of the Bronze Soldier and the events that followed. But this certainly wasn’t part of the election campaign.

You mentioned it a lot, and so did the Reform Party.

No, I don’t agree with the statement either that the Reform Party became more nationalistic after the Bronze Nights. But I’m sure that for a great many people there was a certain clarity, a realization, an understanding what world we live in, and what its dangers are. A lot became clearer to many people. Whether this clarity was expected or feared, that would depend on the person, but that’s how it happened. We were taught a lesson. We didn’t ask for it, but we were taught a lesson, and I certainly think that we learned a lot from it.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

Source: ERR