Estonia removes Soviet-era tank monument amid Russia tensions

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Sergei Stepanov/AP</span>
Photograph: Sergei Stepanov/AP

Estonian authorities have removed a Soviet-era tank from its pedestal in the eastern city of Narva, the most significant removal yet out of an estimated 200 to 400 such monuments that the government has pledged to take down by the end of the year.

It was the latest move against Russia by countries in the Baltic region, with Finland announcing on Tuesday that it would cut the number of visas it issues to Russians to 10% of current volumes after mounting unease over Russian tourism.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Soviet monuments in Estonia were no longer just a local issue, the prime minister, Kaja Kallas, said on Tuesday. “No one wants to see our militant and hostile neighbour foment tensions in our home,” Kallas said.

The Baltic state was a Soviet republic from 1944 until 1991 and nearly a quarter of its population of 1.3 million people are ethnic Russians. “We will not afford Russia the opportunity to use the past to disturb the peace in Estonia,” Kallas said.

The government announced its intention to remove all Soviet-era monuments earlier this month, saying Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had “opened wounds in our society that these communist-era monuments remind us of”.

Related: Britain to commit 1,000 extra troops to Nato’s defence of Estonia

The announcement was met with hostility by some in Narva, on Estonia’s border with Russia, where only 4% of residents are ethnic Estonians and more than 80% are ethnic Russians, prompting the government to intervene quickly to counter “increasing tensions and confusion”, Kallas said.

Work on removing the T-34 tank and two other Soviet monuments in the city began under police guard soon after dawn on Tuesday and was completed by mid-morning. The tank will be displayed at the Estonian national war museum near the capital, Tallinn.

Estonia’s interior minister, Lauri Läänemets, said public order considerations were paramount. “Many locals care about the removal of the monuments,” he said, but the war must be commemorated “without conflicts and threat of provocations”.

The removal of Soviet monuments has caused unrest in Estonia in the past: the relocation of a statue known as the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn in April 2007 led to two nights of rioting and looting, during which a Russian protester was killed.

Moscow has criticised Estonia’s plans. “The elimination of monuments to those who saved Europe from fascism is outrageous, of course,” the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said this month. “It does no credit to any nation.”

In neighbouring Latvia, MPs passed a law in June requiring all “monuments glorifying the Soviet regime” not sited in cemeteries to be dismantled by 15 November, with works of artistic interest to be transferred to the Museum of the Occupation in Riga.

Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, meanwhile, said that from 1 September only one-tenth of the 1,000 daily tourist visa application slots currently available to Russian nationals would be on offer.

Finland will also join the Baltic states in jointly proposing the discontinuation of an EU visa facilitation agreement with Russia that makes it significantly easier and cheaper for Russians to travel to and within the EU, he said.

Increasing numbers of Russians are circumventing the closure of EU airspace to Russian flights by crossing into Finland and travelling to EU holiday destinations from Helsinki airport. “This maybe is not very appropriate,” Haavisto said.

He said an outright ban on grounds of nationality was not possible, and stressed that other types of visas – for family, work and study visits – would not be affected. Helsinki is also studying a specific humanitarian visa.

Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, has repeatedly said it is “not right” that tourists from Russia can holiday in Europe while its troops are killing in Ukraine, and Kallas, her Estonian counterpart, has called for an EU-wide visa ban.

Other EU leaders, however, are not in favour. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said on Monday that only those who were responsible for or profiting from the war should be punished. “This is not a war of Russian citizens, but Putin’s war,” he said.

EU rules require tourists from third countries to apply for a visa from the country they intend to visit, but allow them to enter the passport-free Schengen zone from any point and travel around it for up to 90 days in a 180-day period.