The city of Tallinn is assessing the damage after two consecutive nights of violent rioting by gangs of mostly young local Russians. The third night passed relatively quietly. Ostensibly triggered by the expected relocation of the Red Army monument (the Bronze Soldier) from downtown Tallinn, the protests turned into a rampage, with drunkenness and plunder overriding the political or ethnic motivations.
Compared to the first night of rioting, April 26-27 (see EDM, April 27), the night of April 27-28 featured even younger mobs, partly under 18 years of age, looting shops in the downtown Viru Street and Vabaduse Square, after having devastated the shops on Tatari Street the preceding night. They particularly sought out sports clothes and liquor. Rioters holding bottles of alcoholic drink became the iconic image of both nights. They also smashed windows at the Estonia Theater, the Estonian Academy of Arts, and the governing Reform Party’s offices.
In a rare political gesture, a large group of secondary-school students demonstrated outside the parliament building under the slogan, “USSR Forever.” Occasionally during both nights, rioters waved the Russian flag or shouted “Russia, Russia;” but such episodes were isolated and uncharacteristic of the events as a whole.
Youths arriving from the Russian-settled northeastern towns of Narva and Sillamae rioted in the nearby Estonian-majority town of Johvi. There they set on fire the monument to Alexander Tonisson, commander of Estonia’s successful defense against Soviet Russian forces in 1918, who was killed after the 1940 occupation by those same forces.
According to Interior Minister Juri Pihl, speaking after the second night, the rioting did not seem to reflect organized preparations, planning, or clear leadership, but for the most part a mob spirit and spontaneous dynamic. The red-brown group Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch) was clearly an instigator, but did not seem capable of controlling the events. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet, noting that most rioters were “Russian-speaking” youths, stated that the police also detained some Estonian youths who had joined in the looting. The police had to bring reinforcements to Tallinn from elsewhere in the country as well as volunteers from the civil-defense league (Kaitseliit).
The police was outnumbered and in difficulty at critical places and moments. Ultimately it used light and sound grenades, tear gas canisters, dry powder extinguishers, and water cannons to contain the rampage. During the three nights it detained almost 1,000 rioters, although it promptly escorted many under-18s to their parents. Forty-six persons, half of them non-citizens, remained in custody for pre-trial proceedings as of April 30. Approximately 120 rioters and some 30 policemen were treated in hospitals for injuries. One rioter, identified as “Dmitry,” was stabbed to death by another rioter, initially identified as “Oleg.”
Russia’s state-controlled television channels misleadingly claimed that the monument had been “cut to pieces,” whereas it is actually being transferred intact to a military cemetery on the outskirts of Tallinn. The Russian channels reported very little about the vandalism and drunkenness. Instead, they blamed Estonian police for “brutality,” characterized the gangs as “Russian school pupils,” “monument defenders,” and “anti-fascists,” and ran archival footage of Soviet-era festivities around the monument. Russian TV generalized that “British MPs” disapproved of Estonia, only to produce the eccentric leftist George Galloway expressing that view.
In remarks broadcast to the country on April 27, President Toomas Ilves commented, “The criminals who struck last night were not united by ethnicity, but rather by the wish to rampage, demolish, and plunder.” He characterized the actions as ordinary crime and the participants as liable for criminal prosecution under the law. Vandalism has nothing to do with honoring the memory of soldiers killed in the war, Ilves noted, implicitly answering Moscow’s attempts to politicize and ethnicize the events.
The rioters’ social profile is extremely unrepresentative of the Russian/”Russian-speaking” population of Estonia and specifically of Tallinn. That population on the whole did not become involved in any protest activity, although many of them clearly resented the removal of the Bronze Soldier. The hard-core protest constituency that had recently assembled at the site consisted largely of Soviet-era veterans, with a sprinkling of politicized Russian youths. The rampaging groups, however, burst as new entrants upon the scene. Their activity seems at least in part to fit French sociologists’ description of Arab youths’ riots in France as “émeutes ludiques” — rioting for the excitement of it — barely, if at all, related to political grievances, but subject to manipulation by political forces.
On the other hand, a sense of Soviet nostalgia does seem to be emerging among some local Russian secondary-school students in Estonia and Latvia from age cohorts with no experience of Soviet rule. This development reflects the impact of Russian television channels presenting the Soviet Union in an attractive light. Local Russian hardliners and Moscow can politicize and misuse this particular segment as a protest constituency. However — as former prime minister Mart Laar and others pointed out — 99% of local Russians stayed away from these protests despite instigation by Moscow’s television coverage and politicians.
(BNS, Interfax, Russian Television Channel One and NTV, Reuters, AP, April 27-30)