Fate of Soviet-era motifs to be decided after relevant legislation passes

Soviet monuments in Lääneranna (now removed).
Soviet monuments in Lääneranna (now removed). Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

This Thursday, the draft bill will reach the cabinet which aims to remove any Soviet-era symbols justifying that occupation of Estonia, within a three-month period of an order to do so. A committee is to be set up in the case of disputes, though this committees exact tasks and composition will be revealed only after the law passes a Riigikogu vote.

The bill was also subject to differing opinions between two ministries, namely the Ministry of Justice, who proposed altering the law relating to buildings, and the Ministry of Culture, who saw a complete purge of all symbols, motifs, decorations etc., even those which could arguably have some aesthetic or cultural/historical value, as somewhat extreme.

Examples might include a red army fresco to be seen tucked away behind an R-Kiosk close to the Tehnopolis district in Ülemiste in Tallinn, or the Stalinist-era building on Tartu mnt and Liivalaia, also in the capital, which sports a Soviet star on its roof and other period details.

The hammer and sickle, and a red star, also adorn the Russian cultural center (Vene Kultuurikekus), while, since the law refers to symbols of occupation, older symbols such as coats of arms relating to the Baltic German ownership of Estonian lands, or the crusades of the late middle ages, whether these should also be removed has also been speculated upon.

Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) says the draft bill also includes an obligation to gain permission from the state Heritage Protection Board (Muinsuskaitseamet) before removing any potentially protected object.

Danilson-Järg said: "If this consent is not received by the board and there a dispute remains, then the bill provides for a government committee, which will separately evaluate whether the object in question should really be removed or if any symbols should be removed from the building."

There is also the possibility that some historic buildings display symbols characteristic of the occupation regime in such a way which does not support or justify the occupation as such, the minister said.

Nonetheless the proposed committee's final decisions would be binding, she added. "So the heritage protection board, together with the minister of culture, should act accordingly, either by granting permission to carry out some kind of work on the object which is under heritage protection, for example by removing symbols from a building, or to dismantle the edifice wholesale."

However, the committee's statements do not carry legal weight, meaning if no consensus is reached on a dispute, the matter would go to the government itself. Danilson-Järg says she does not foresee this happening often, however, adding the committee's opinion should normally be sufficient.

She said. "It would not be a logical situation quite, if the position of the Heritage Protection Board somehow carried more weight than the government committee's opinion, ie. that the government was not able to fulfill its security responsibilities."

The committee nonetheless will contain at least one person from that board.

The committee's full tasks to be revealed later

The minister also said that what the committee decides on one case or another would also depend on its composition, as well as on the kind of code of conduct, scoring system or other criteria the committee may use to evaluate cases. As it stands the draft bill only states that one member of the committee must represent the heritage protection board.

The remainder is to be put in place by the government after the law passes at the Riigikogu, assuming it does pass – which is highly likely given the topic. For instance, the government could create a committee which would call for the removal of hammer and sickle motifs on a building on Küün Street in Tartu, and yet a subsequent administration could create a committee which held the opposite viewpoint.

Danilson-Järg added that: "This committee's decisions should reflect the political consensus and societal feeling and decide on the issues based on that," adding that the Riigikogu cannot set inflexible rules. "Since symbols also change [their meaning] over time," the minister added.

The committee is not pressed into action for all cases; only when a dispute needs to be resolved, for example between the owner of a building and the local government, or between the municipality and the Ministry of Justice, or the ministry and the heritage board.

The very first person responsible once the law is adopted is the owner of a monument or building which displays an symbol adjudged to be inappropriate. If that owner does not take action, the municipality must force them to.

If the municipality does nothing and the offending symbols have not disappeared within three months, the Ministry of Justice will start administrative supervision of that municipality.

Under the terms of the bill, the Ministry of Justice will also have the right to use direct coercive measures during the supervision process, in effect meaning the summonsing of law enforcement agencies.

The minister said: "This coercive measure is certainly intended for those situations when there has been inaction on the part of the municipality."

"However, if the activities are ongoing and the municipality gives a good reason why delays are taking place, we will take that into account also."

Under current Estonian law, the removal of Soviet-era monuments is a matter for local government; however, in one high-profile case the state stepped in, removing a T-34 tank located just outside Narva, where it served as a war memorial, after the local government fudged the issue.

The exception to this is if a monument contains human remains as an integral part, for instance in the case of war graves. In that case, the responsibility is the state's, via the defense ministry and two of its subordinate bodies.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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