Government approves bill to remove Soviet-era insignia from public spaces

A Soviet star atop an apartment building in central Tallinn. This is the type of detail which will be caught by the new legislation and would need to be removed, if not placed under heritage protection.
A Soviet star atop an apartment building in central Tallinn. This is the type of detail which will be caught by the new legislation and would need to be removed, if not placed under heritage protection. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The government has approved a legislative amendment which will facilitate removing installations, details or other objects dating primarily from the Soviet era and which appear to glorify or justify that regime.

Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) said Thursday that: "It is not possible to set completely objective criteria for assessing the compliance of symbols on monuments or buildings."

The amendment concerns the Building Code and Planning Act.

In the case of disputes, a committee is to be set up to adjudicate, Danilson-Järg went on.

"When resolving disputes, it is important to ensure room for deliberation, so that aspects of security and social awareness can also be taken into account. The government committee evaluates each object on its merits and separately," the minister went on, speaking at the government's weekly Thursday press conference.

This would not affect items that were under cultural protection, she said.

"There is no need to fear the loss of protected cultural values. As long as the object is under protection, it cannot be demolished or rebuilt," the minister added, adding that doing so may carry a criminal penalty.

Items under heritage protection would still need to have a new permit, in many cases.

"In order to carry out the work necessary to bring the objects under heritage protection into line with the new requirements, a permit must first be obtained from the heritage protection board (Muinsuskaitseamet). If there is no common ground found with the authority, a binding assessment will be given by the newly-created government committee," Danilson-Järg went on.

"Here, the government must also be able to give these instructions very clearly, because the government is still responsible for security," she went on.

The bill establishes the requirement that the publicly visible part of a building, as well as a publicly exhibited monument, sculpture, statue or other similar facility, must not be adjudged to be inciting hatred, or supporting or justifying the commission of an occupation regime, an act of aggression, genocide, a crime against humanity or a war crime.

The bill creates a comprehensive legal framework, stipulating which buildings are prohibited, as well as supervision and dispute resolution arrangements. 

The ministry can intervene by imposing a fine or removing an offending object itself, if need be, under the terms of the bill, while it also provides for a committee, to be set up and overseen by the government but including a representative from the heritage board which will act in dispute resolution, while buildings and monuments under heritage protection will continue to be subject to the requirements stipulated in the Heritage Conservation Act.

A large part of the cultural heritage post-World War Two has not been placed under heritage protection, though some Soviet-era motifs, frescos, paintings etc. are subjectively seen to have some aesthetic value, whether they are under cultural protection or not.

Minister: I understand creative bodies' concerns, but this is matter of national security

Fourteen creative associations in Estonia from the fields of architecture, the theater, music and other cultural areas have signed a joint appeal relating to the bill, saying that the public space is for the public, while discussions on the matter should be held in the same spirit and be as broad-based as possible, taking into consideration the fact that many objects likely to be caught by the law change are not under protection.

The associations also want more representation on the committee for individuals who work in the field of culture.

The minister, however, said the appeal was not justified, adding that further clarification is needed to allay the concerns of the authors of the appeal.

She also said that creative bodies were not in the best place to be talking about national security matters.

"I understand that the idea of ​​creative associations is that only those who work in the field of art should be involved in the decision-making process, but we cannot allow this, since it not only concerns art issues, but here the topic is still very clearly related to Estonia's security," Danilson-Järg told the press.

The draft potentially also covers details adjudged to be inciting discord or glorifying conflict even from eras other than the Soviet occupation of Estonia, for instance during the Tsarist era, though such objects are more likely to be under heritage protection.

Once in force the legal owners of sites which display details caught under the law will have three months in which to carry out the necessary removal or alteration work, or face a potential penalty.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine brought the issue of monuments and war graves relict of the Soviet occupation of Estonia into the limelight. With regard to these larger installations, the issue is one for local municipalities, unless human remains are interred at a site as an integral part of the memorial. In this case, the matter is one for the state; human remains have been reinterred at a different location in Tartu, following the removal of a Soviet memorial and graveyard, for instance.

In the case of the Narva tank, while a matter for the city's government along the lines outlined above, this authority had failed to act on the issue, prompting the state to take over and relocate the item to a museum.

The new legislation, which must pass a Riigikogu vote to enter into effect, deals with the smaller details such as those to be found on, outside or even inside buildings.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Kryukov

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