Samost ja Sildam: Authorities should admit mistakes over COVID-19 protests

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Anvar Samost (left) and Toomas Sildam on a previous edition of the eponymous Vikerraadio show. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The substantial police presence at anti-lockdown protests in Estonia recently was the topic of Sunday's Vikerraadio head-to-head current affairs discussion show "Samost ja Sildam". The topic split the titular presenters, with Samost saying that involving the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) on the scale that had been done was a mistake, while Sildam felt the response had been proportionate.

The crackdown, which saw several people detained at protests on Tallinn's Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) exactly a week earlier, on April 11, was widely disseminated through the week, and Anvar Samost said he had expected either a senior police officer or a government minister to publicly admit the error (the interior minister, Kristian Jaani, is himself a former police chief – ed.). Some of the PPA personnel present were armed.

"It is clear that the fact this was a mistake has been understood internally; since Monday, the police have no longer vectored a similar number of armed PPA officers on to a couple of dozen people with the same number of armed police officers, which is, I think, a reasonable step, and this disproportionate demonstration of power in the center of Tallinn has come to an end," Samost said, adding that some people would get a kind of satisfaction in being able to stand in front of the [Russian Orthodox] Nevsky Cathedral, for instance, with a placard, only to be driven away by the PPA.

"It's not worth offering those type of people the satisfaction," he added.

Toomas Sildam said that he did not believe the PPA had acted irresponsibly.

"Give advice to the police on what they should do [instead], then. We have a health crisis, there are restrictions where people should be dispersed in groups of up to ten, but you have to keep a distance of two meters. There are also health board officials who, quite legally, tell the police to 'please intervene', so what is there to do?" Sildam said.

Sunday's protest was the culmination of a week-and-a-half's worth of demonstrations, which had seen as many as around 100 people, according to reports, snaking their way over Toompea, past the Riigikogu and in the surrounding area. While these events attracted little to no media coverage, from late on in the week preceding the Sunday protests, the PPA erected barriers aimed at dispersing the crowds – who were not adhering to the restrictions, the PPA said.

The protests were themselves focused both on coronavirus restrictions and a bill which would give the PPA greater powers in ensuring compliance with same, so Sunday's events became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The current coronavirus restrictions, set to run to April 25, ban large outdoor gatherings in any case.

Anvar Samost said that nonetheless, some of the restrictions had been uncalled for, including that on demonstrations as whole under the current regime of regulations.

"I think this restriction on demonstrations is completely unnecessary and uncalled for, and in fact it should be the first thing that expires on April 26," he said.

"All those restrictions that prevent people from expressing themselves freely, in the open air could be removed," he added.

The protests mirror many similar events going on across Europe and further afield.

Samost noted that while the lifting of restrictions is not the responsibility of the PPA, the authority could still use common sense: "As they have been doing since last Tuesday. There have been no more problems; I believe that they will not arise today, nor did they arise yesterday."

At the same time, a boy-who-cried-wolf situation whereby the demonstrations are used as a threat to constitutional order from any direction should be avoided, Samost said.

"I would be very surprised if the Internal Security Service (ISS) of the Republic of Estonia would need to carry out any risk assessment on the basis of the presence of these demonstrators, where any threat to the Estonian constitutional order had been apparent," he said, adding the very phrase "threat to the constitutional order," which has been touted in the wake of the April 11 protests, is not simply a slang term but has a specific content and refers to a coup d'etat.

Toomas Sildam said that the protesters were a mixed bag, with possible agents provocateur potentially included along with those who are genuinely concerned about the law change, or just their jobs, the economy, and other day-to-day issues.

"Certainly, various groups have joined them, including those who, according to Elmar Vaher, PPA, were also identified during the events of April 2007," he added.

Sildam was referring to the Bronze Solider night riots, in fact several nights' rioting, which took place almost 14 years ago to the day, on April 26-29 2007, and saw ethnic Russians living in Estonia protesting the removal and relocation of a World War Two-era memorial to the Red Army, along with the remains of some who fell, which were also reinterred from the original site on Tõnismägi in central Tallinn.

The riots saw stores and businesses looted, the city center become a no-go area, the Estonian border closed and one fatality.

"In my opinion, it is only natural that the PPA should, in any case, theoretically look a few steps ahead in such cases," Sildam said.

Anvar Samost reiterated his calls for the PPA or the Health Board (Terviseamet) – whose personnel were also present and who issued several precepts for non-compliance with restrictions – to admit publicly that they made a mistake, something which the PPA's subsequent activity reveals to be the case.

"For me, the only thing missing here is that the Minister of the Interior should come from a position of saying that a mistake had been made, and secondly, Üllar Lanno, the Director General of the Health Board, who, I understand, was their (i.e. the PPA's -ed.) mediator in carrying out the measures," Samost said.

"They could also state that the events had crossed a line. These people could take on the same responsibility, which many ordinary PPA officers now apprehensively share, and who would most likely not have deployed forces on that scale without an order from the Health Board," he added.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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