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ISS: Russia exploiting war memorials to stir up conflicts abroad

The Internal Security Service published its annual review of 2017 on Apr. 12, 2018.
The Internal Security Service published its annual review of 2017 on Apr. 12, 2018. Source: Internal Security Service/Screenshot

Russia's use of history as a means of propaganda and policy continued in 2017. On top of the annual parades and events commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, a combination Russia that used to try to politicize Soviet and Russian memorials abroad.

Activities related to Soviet and Russian memorials also apparent in Estonia

In Ida-Viru County, a memorial stone dedicated to a Red Army pilot shot down in 1944 was moved from the village of Rääsa to a private plot in the town of Kiviõli just before May 9, Russia's Victory Day, and made the subject of a "solemn unveiling ceremony" on that occasion.

The move aimed to stir up conflict between local Estonians and Russians, and carried out with the knowledge, if not under instruction of the Russian Consulate-General in Narva. Two consuls were later expelled for having acted against Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which prohibits diplomats from interfering with another country's internal affairs.

Following the incident, the Russian embassy in Tallinn established a council for war memorials, headed by Ambassador Aleksandr Petrov. Apart from embassy personnel, the council also includes activists pushing the Kremlin's divisive policies in Estonia, including a convicted criminal.

The council again serves as a means to strengthen Russian influence with all those organizations that document memories of the fallen and investigate war graves. It also plans and coordinates activities such as history conferences, unveiling ceremonies, and commemorative events to run on Russian national holidays, the ISS writes.

Focus on memorials provides new direction for other pro-Russian organizations

As the Kremlin makes funding activities and events related to memorials a priority, the interest of what the ISS refers to as "professional" pro-Russian activists in war memorials is on the increase as well. This group of activists is ready to back anything, as they are paid for their contribution, which means that there are now various interest groups as well that are looking to make money by participating in this line of divisive activities.

On top of that, the Kremlin is also working to strengthen its control over veterans' organisations. By running different events, Russia is providing them with a network and sets them up as pressure tools to be used against governments in other countries.

An example is a conference titled "Honour Their Memory" held in Warsaw in October last year. The conference discussed the condition of Soviet monuments in Poland and included representatives of veterans' organisations of various countries, including Estonia. Among other things, the conference adopted a petition that condemned the treatment of Soviet war memorials by the Polish authorities.

Efforts to instruct and guide media aim at causing local scandals, supply state media with new stories

While local involvement in protests typically varies, stories whipped up about monuments neglected, disrespected, or about to be torn down by foreign governments are popular means to consolidate nationalist sentiment along the Kremlin's line of political preferences.

At the same time, activities aiming to scandalize the treatment of monuments work to divide the different ethnic groups in other countries.

Though outside the scope of the ISS' 2017 annual review, events surrounding German war graves discovered in early January this year at a construction site on the plot of Tallinn's Maarjamäe memorial immediately triggered a stream of stories in the state-controlled Russian media alleging that the Estonian government was about to tear down a Soviet monument on the site while in fact the local debate tended towards its protection rather than its destruction.

As the ISS writes in its annual review, Russia's attitude towards the USSR's war victory and its annual commemoration on May 9 is increasingly turning into one of revanchism. Beyond the demonstration of power by means of a military parade on Moscow's Red Square, reintroduced by President Vladimir Putin, the state supports campaigns distributing St. George's Cross ribbons, and also backs the so-called Immortal Regiment, which arranges marches to commemorate the fallen in WWII on the Soviet side.

Minutes of a meeting of the "Victory" organizing committee referred to by the ISS that outline directions for media coverage of these events "contain clear guidance to Russian state agencies and government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs)," the ISS writes.

According to the ISS, this guidance isn't limited to Russia’s attempts to establish pro-Russian narratives in propaganda conferences and (Russian-language) media: "It also provides for various activities in the public sphere of other countries. For example, Russian agencies must identify, preserve and popularise cultural and historical monuments related to Russia’s historical past abroad. They must assist the Russian War History Society and Russian compatriot organisations and activists in the establishment of memorials, monuments and memorial plaques dedicated to Russia’s war history and victory over fascism. Agencies are directed to establish contacts with and encourage foreign organisations searching for the remains of Russian/Soviet soldiers and documenting memories of them."

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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