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Baltic Tensions

DW staff (th)October 11, 2007

In a speech to the European Jewish Congress on Wednesday, Oct. 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is dismayed by Estonia and Latvia's glorification of Nazism. Europe needs to take notice, Putin said.

A man runs by exploding flares launched by rebels on a street of central Tallinn during the second night of riots in Estonia.
Tensions between Russians and Estonians escalated in April in TallinnImage: AP

Putin, speaking in Moscow to the European Jewish Congress, said he was shocked when an annual Waffen SS parade took place in Latvia in March. He added that it was disturbing that the European Union has largely ignored the problems of pro-Nazi groups in these countries.

"Some facts which we come up against in several countries of eastern Europe have provoked open astonishment and incomprehension," Putin said. "The activities of the Latvian and Estonian authorities openly connive at the glorification of Nazis and their accomplices. But these facts remain unnoticed by the European Union."

In 2006, Latvian officials banned an annual parade that glorifies the Latvian Waffen SS against Russia's Red Army. Some far right supporters marched anyway.

Legacy of mistrust

World War II memorial in Tallinn
A controversial war memorialImage: AP

Putin's remarks are the latest volley in a political war of words between the Baltic countries and Russia. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, in part to seek protection from their domineering former rulers in Moscow.

Soviet forces annexed the Baltic countries during World War II. The war split the population between those who fought for Nazi Germany and those who supported Russia. In Russia's view, it liberated the countries from Nazi occupation in a victory that cost it 20 million lives. Germany's defeat is seen as an important historical event and it rejects the accusation that it occupied eastern European countries.

But many people from the Baltic states see the Red Army's arrival as the beginning of five decades of Soviet rule. During that time, thousands of Estonians were deported to Soviet prison camps and Russians settled in the country.

Strained relations continue

People lay flowers at the Bronze Soldier statue at its new location
Paying respectsImage: AP

Animosity flared up again earlier this year when Estonian authorities moved a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier from a downtown Tallinn square and moved it to a military cemetery. Rioting caused by the decision to relocate the war memorial left one person dead and a dozen injured. Further protests by pro-Kremlin youths at the Estonian consulate in Moscow lead to scuffles with bodyguards.

In June, Estonia buried the remains of eight Soviet soldiers who had been exhumed from the Tallinn war memorial. The soldiers were reburied in the Estonian defense forces' cemetery, the same place where the statue was relocated.

A month before the reburial, Estonia came under massive cyber attacks, crippling government and corporate Web sites for nearly three weeks. The Estonian government suggested that Russia could have been behind the attacks and asked for help from NATO, which agreed to investigate the incident. Russia has denied any involvement in the cyber attacks.

Germany has participated in some behind-the-scenes negotiating on various issues between Russia and the Baltic countries, but the EU has largely refrained from inserting itself in the disputes.

Russia wants an apology

Russian youth in Estonia
The Baltics have a large population of Russian minoritiesImage: picture-alliance / ZB

The situation in Estonia remains volatile. Russia's EU ambassador has said that Estonia still owes Russia an apology for moving the monument. Without an apology for moving the monument, protests could continue, he said.

Putin brought up the war memorial issue Wednesday.

"We are seeing a position on the limit of hypocrisy by certain European structures over the moving of the liberation soldier monument in Tallinn," Putin said.

Putin noted that since Estonia's independence in 1991, "not a single Nazi criminal has been condemned."

Putin admitted there were acts of anti-Semitism in Russia as well as "chauvinistic, xenophobic and nationalistic demonstrations."

Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress, asked Putin to recognize the International Holocaust Day, which was introduced by the United Nations in November 2005. Russia seemed to support the declaration but has not implemented it, Kantor said.

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