Police in Estonia deem May 9-related provocations likely

Red carnations and grave candles placed at the former site of the Bronze Soldier in remembrance of the Bronze Night. April 26, 2018.
Red carnations and grave candles placed at the former site of the Bronze Soldier in remembrance of the Bronze Night. April 26, 2018. Source: Sander Koit/ERR

Police in Estonia consider provocations likely over the next couple of weeks, as this week marks the 15th anniversary of the Bronze Night, also known as the April Unrest, in Estonia and events are held in connection with Russia's Victory Day on May 9.

Tuesday marks the 15th anniversary of the Bronze Night, the start of several days of riots and violence that broke out in connection with the relocation of the Bronze Soldier, a Soviet World War II war memorial, together with the remains of some Soviet soldiers, from its original site in a small park on Tõnismägi in Central Tallinn to the nearby Defense Forces Cemetery of Tallinn in late April 2007. May 9, celebrated in Russia as Victory Day to mark the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, follows just under two weeks later.

No one knows what may happen or what conflicts may erupt in Estonia over the next couple of weeks, but the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) is preparing for the possibility of provocations taking place.

"I consider it quite likely that we'll be seeing provocations," PPA Director General Elmar Vaher said. "Provocations have various results as well. Someone may do something [provocative] for personal purposes — they still want to come with a [Ribbon of St. George] or flag, and it may seem like a provocation to us. In reality, it can't actually be taken quite that way. But at the same time, we have to consider that someone will consciously issue a call to put Estonian police to the test. Back on our radar is a group known as the Soldiers of Odin. Their goal is to come serve vigilante justice as well."

Last week, the PPA decided to ban public meetings between April 26 and May 10 that could incite hatred and where symbols of aggression could be displayed. Two notices were filed with the law enforcement agency for public meetings at Tõnismägi and on Tatari tänav on April 26, i.e. the 15th anniversary of the Bronze Night, and another three notices for public meetings on May 9. All of these events have been banned by the PPA.

The Riigikogu on Thursday also passed legislative amendments banning the public display of symbols of aggression, including various symbols and insignia being used by the Russian military in Ukraine already familiar from the media.

"There are four bases, i.e. a war crime, genocide, crime against humanity or act of aggression, and if anyone goes to justify or show support via various symbols which are currently tied to one or several of these four things, then these symbols must be banned," First Vice-President of the Riigikogu Hanno Pevkur (Reform) said. "This will be up to the police to assess in each instance."

In order for the bill of amendments to take effect, the law must be promulgated by the Estonian president and it must thereafter be published in the Riigi Teataja ("State Gazette"). Jurists have criticized the law over its hasty drafting, however, and it seems as though the head of state has taken time to mull it over as well. A speech he gave on Saturday possibly hinted at criticism of the law as well, when he noted that the Riigikogu "should not legislate based on moods of the moment, even if they are the right moods."

Thus, it is currently yet unknown whether the president will promulgate the law or note. Vaher said the PPA is basing its preparations for this critical period of time on the assumption that this new law will not enter into force.

While people inciting hatred using various symbols can be punished under the current version of the Penal Code, the entry of the latest amendments into force would nonetheless significantly simplify police officers' work on May 9.

"Just someone coming out and consciously displaying this symbol in public would suffice," the director general explained. "Now it really will be up to us to assess whether this display took place in a way that bothered people or whether this is a symbol that may bother people. So this will be made easier for us. If a symbol is displayed in a way that justifies [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's aggression, then that is a violation."

For the past two years, May 9 observances at the military cemetery in Tallinn have been peaceful as the public has had to adhere to COVID-related restrictions. The placing of flowers at the Bronze Soldier memorial is not banned this year either.

Previous years, however, have seen more action around the memorial as well, the likes of which this year would merit a chat with police.

If someone wears a black and orange striped Ribbon of St. George, police will now approach them and request that they remove the ribbon. Should they refuse, a more serious response will follow.

As the law does not include a specific list of banned symbols, the police will have to assess such symbols and make decisions on site. Vaher said that he also would have wanted a list, but understands why politicians chose not to include one.

"If we consider that we had explicitly included the Ribbon of St. George or the letter Z in the law, we can see that other symbols are used in Ukraine as well — the letter V, the letter O," Pevkur explained. "These symbols may change in time."

"Here's an example of my own — I have a car whose license plate includes the letter Z," Vaher said. "This is why I understand the results of politicians' and also jurists' deliberations — that symbols need to be assessed in the context of their time and place and act, as we're still talking about provocative activity. This is a violation, and this is forbidden."

Semiotic and Isamaa parliamentary group member Mihhail Lotman explained that compared with the Ribbon of St. George, Z and V are new symbols. Z can represent an attack on the West, for example. Another factor that makes these particular symbols unique is that they make use of the Latin alphabet; Russian is written using the Cyrillic script.

"But in the case of 'za presidenta,' or 'For the President,' then they use it," Lotman said. "As for the V, that is the appropriation of a foreign symbol altogether — they're taking over [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill's V for Victory."

The MP said that he personally wouldn't pay as much attention to symbols, which he referred to as scribbles, as he believed efforts should be focused first and foremost on fighting against crimes against humanity as well as views and actions inciting of hatred. He nonetheless acknowledged that he understood the emotional impact symbols can have on people.

"I was certainly no enthusiast in the banning of symbols, but I didn't vote against it either," Lotman said. "Generally speaking, combating symbols is like combating symptoms in medicine — you have to combat the disease."

In a 69-3 vote with 29 abstentions, the Riigikogu on April 21 passed legislative amendments aimed at banning the use of symbols of aggression.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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