During the Bronze Night riots, the Estonian embassy in Moscow was surrounded by protesters, most of them members of the Nashi and Molodaya Rossiya. They threatened the embassy and its staff. Then-ambassador Marina Kaljurand told ERR News in an interview how events unfolded in the Russian capital.
ERR News: You were Estonia’s ambassador in Moscow ten years ago. When the discussion surrounding the removal of Soviet monuments entered its hot phase in early 2007, did you expect a reaction as extreme as the riots?
Marina Kaljurand: For some years already before 2007, the site of the Bronze Soldier was used by some people not for honoring war veterans, but for provocative protests. On one side there were Estonian extremists calling Russians occupants, and on the other side there were Russian extremists calling Estonians fascists. So I wouldn’t have ruled out that some protests or demonstrations could accompany the removal of the Bronze Solider.
But I never imagined that the riots could be so massive and so violent. I think that it isn’t in the nature of Estonian people—Estonians, Russians, others—to be violent, to beat people, to loot shops. I also think that the riots wouldn’t have become so violent without external provocations.
Russia lobbied for frequent and emotional discussion of the matter in the Russian-speaking media. You must have followed the Russian press during those days. How were Estonia and the discussion surrounding the monument portrayed?
The Russian media were very, very biased. The Estonian government was portrayed as a fascist government that does not honor the fallen, and wants to demolish the Bronze Soldier. As the Estonian ambassador, I tried to explain and set the record straight. It was very difficult, almost impossible. I was never allowed to speak on air on any Russian TV channel. I had a couple of recorded interviews, but all of them were twisted and did not provide accurate information based on facts.
I managed to speak on only one Radio Channel, Ekho Moskvy, and give one press conference at Argumenty i Fakty (a weekly newspaper; ed.). Everything else was restricted. Even more so, I was portrayed as the fascist ambassador, the center of Moscow was full of my picture, with text saying “Wanted: ambassador of a fascist country”.
The Russian administration was afraid to let me speak, because I could have ruined their negative image of me as well as my country, especially speaking in fluent Russian, which is my mother tongue.
Can you tell us about the days and hours leading up to the Bronze Riots?
My efforts were targeted at explaining the policy of the Estonian government, providing objective information, and finding ways of cooperation with the Russian government. I think that the removal of the Bronze Soldier could have been done in close cooperation and with the support of the Russian government. Because at the end of the day, buried there were Russian soldiers. Unfortunately the Russian government did not want to cooperate, and even escalated the situation with propaganda and provocations.
After the riots began, what was the reaction in Moscow?
The Estonian embassy was besieged by Russian nationalist youth movements, there were attempts to violate the immunity of the embassy and also attempts to physically attack me, the Estonian ambassador. Fortunately they didn’t succeed trying to enter the embassy or hurt me, thanks to the very professional work of the Estonian police officers who were guarding the embassy.
Did the Russian authorities do what they could to protect the embassy?
It was a clear violation of international law, supported and orchestrated by the Kremlin. Why am I so sure? Under international law, all states are obliged to guarantee the immunity and safety of diplomats and diplomatic premises. In other words, you don’t attack diplomats, on the contrary, you are obliged to guarantee their working conditions, safety, privileges, and immunity. A group of young people—whatever their political views—can’t stage a siege of an embassy without clear support and instruction by Kremlin.
Protesters belonging to youth organizations Nashi and Molodaya Rossiya were paid between 500 and 1,100 rubles to continue the protests. Both organizations are at least passively supported by the Russian state. Were there other attempts at making the events drag on?
The Russian authorities could have ended the violation of international law in minutes, but they didn’t, because they didn’t want to. They intervened and ended the siege only after strong statements of the international community, including by the European Union and NATO, demanding of them to comply with international law. Some of the leaders of the violent youth organizations were later promoted to high positions in the Kremlin or the Russian government.
The intensity of the clashes and reports in the international press hinted at a universal backlash in Russia. Was this really the case?
It was interesting that all the Russians I talked to in the street later on, at public events, said that they were embarrassed by the actions of the Russian government. They said that they didn’t agree with all of Estonia’s politics or actions, but said that neighbors needed to talk, and not attack diplomats.
In Estonia, the protests spawned several Russophone youth organizations that continued to disrupt public life months later. Do you see signs of their activity today?
I don’t think that the Russian youth organizations have any influence in Estonia. At some point they became dangerous and uncontrollable to the Russian authorities, and were closed down. I don’t have knowledge of any activities of the organizations in Estonia that were behind the riots or supported the riots in 2007.
The Estonian decision to meet the cyber attacks that followed with the setting up of cyber defense structures has since made the country a pioneer in the field.
We learned our lesson, starting with the need of an all-nation-approach to cyber security, and concluding with the importance of international cooperation. Cyber security has become part of Estonia’s national security, and an important topic in the international security and defense community. Estonia’s experience is valuable, and we are very much engaged in international cooperation at the United Nations, the EU, NATO, within the OSCE, and so on. International cooperation is crucial if we want cyber space to be peaceful, predictable, safe, and open.
The foreign press illustrated the events as the possible beginning of serious ethnic conflict in Estonia. In your opinion, was there ever a danger of that? Is there today?
There is always the risk of political interference or provocations coming from and organized by another state. The riots could have had more serious casualties, including deaths and wounded people. This was avoided thanks to the well-organized response of the Estonian authorities, and the professionalism of the Estonian police officers. I don’t see any reason or signs of possible ethnic conflict today. But we have to take seriously what happened in 2007, and one lesson that we learned is that a timely and resolute answer to any provocation is important, no matter whether internal or coming from abroad.
Editor: Dario Cavegn