Interview | Pakosta: Revoking war grave protection unrelated to Ukraine war

List of hundreds of Soviet monuments published in an Estonian newspaper by the National Heritage Board. July 13, 2022.
List of hundreds of Soviet monuments published in an Estonian newspaper by the National Heritage Board. July 13, 2022. Source: ERR

In an interview with ERR, National Heritage Board Director General Liisa Pakosta says that revoking the heritage protection status of war graves, a process the board initiated this week, is purely a technical effort. According to Pakosta, the Constitution of Estonia doesn't permit the Heritage Board to determine whether a war grave marked with a memorial during the Soviet occupation may also be of historical value as well.

ERR: The National Heritage Board has initiated proceedings to revoke heritage protection status from 275 war graves. Upon whose proposal were these proceedings initiated?

Liisa Pakosta: These proceedings were initiated on the proposal of the National Heritage Board.

ERR: Why did you propose this and initiate these proceedings?

Pakosta: If the proposal has already been made, then initiating proceedings is the logical step forward from there.

ERR: But the proposal itself is of a technical sort. The Protection of War Graves Act passed in 2007 defines the priorities of national protection. The Ministry of Defense arranges for the protection of war graves. And doesn't even have to seek permission from the National Heritage Board [to do so]. In other words, the Ministry of Defense holds all the power in this matter regardless.

Pakosta: In a situation like this, maintaining double protection is an undue burden on the owner and the state and doesn't comply with good administrative practice.

ERR: This has been discussed since 2007 and the process now reached the point of a proposal?

Pakosta: I've been working here for a week. I can't comment on whether any previous discussions have taken place here or not.

ERR: But why is this being done right now?

Pakosta: I couldn't get to it any faster.

Drawing up this draft still required us to verify one by one whether they have been registered as war graves. We just couldn't do it any faster.

ERR: Is this related in any way to Russia's aggression in Ukraine?

Pakosta: No, this is a technical bill. This will eliminate the administratively pointless double protection.

ERR: As you said, these graves are protected by the Protection of War Graves Act. But in the 90s they were placed under protection as cultural monuments. Why was that done?

Pakosta: Why various objects have been granted double protection is something someone could explore in their research. But I suppose that has had a lot to do with the mark of a young country's evolution.

Those war graves whose double protection will be eliminated were placed under protection primarily between 1995-1997. At the time, it wasn't yet up to Estonia to regulate the protection of war graves the way it should be.

ERR: But exactly — why were these placed under protection as cultural monuments at the time? Was it specifically to protect war graves as gravesites, or did someone indeed see some sort of historical value in them? The way the National Heritage Board has long since led efforts to place Soviet-era military heritage under protection?

Pakosta: All democratic countries honor the war dead, regardless of what side they fought on. And at the time, it was decided to resolve the matter like that. But they later got as far as the Protection of War Graves Act as well.

If this law had existed in 1994, those war graves surely wouldn't have been placed under protection as cultural monuments in 1995.

ERR: Do these war graves and these Soviet monuments on top of the graves have any sort of historical or heritage value? If we leave aside the dead people under those monuments, is there anything at these sites for which things would otherwise be registered as a monument? Do they have substance to be preserved as history?

Pakosta: The National Heritage Board is an executive authority. We read the law. And if the law states that double protection isn't reasonable and if war grave protection provides stronger protection and if legislators have said that the National Heritage Board's position is not needed on this matter, then we have § 3 in the Constitution, which states that a public authority should not exceed its powers. It shouldn't be involved in things with which it has not been tasked by lawmakers.

In this case, lawmakers have stated in black and white that the National Heritage Board's permission is not required in these matters.

ERR: I don't think I expressed myself clearly.

Pakosta: You did. But I responded to you with § 3 of the Constitution.

You don't ask Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Director General Elmar Vaher what he thinks about planting new tulip beds in the park at Kirna Manor.

Every civil servant responds from within their area of competence — competence granted to them by the state. The Protection of War Graves Act states that the National Heritage Board's opinion is not sought on these matters. It's not appropriate to provide an opinion on the National Heritage Board's behalf.

ERR: Let me put it another way, then. There have also been instances in which not a single dead person is [found] under a monument. Suppose that they dig and no remains are found. Do such objects — that are purely monuments, without any dead bodies — have any sort of historical value?

Pakosta: We'll resolve issues in the order in which they crop up. Should it truly be the case that there is a monument somewhere that turns out not to be a war grave, it will likely be removed from the list of war graves. And should anyone believe that it is essential to protect this monument as a cultural monument of national significance, in that case they have the right to contact the National Heritage Board.

At that point, the National Heritage Board will convene an expert council which will assess whether the object is outstanding in its historical or artistic value. But all monuments bearing five-pointed stars and other Soviet symbols certainly haven't been deemed cultural monuments of national significance up until now either.

And we don't know of people having considered that it is essential that they be protected as cultural monuments of national significance either.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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