Eastern Europe Confronts Ghosts Of Its Communist Past While Russia Bristles

Sunday, April 22nd 2007, 2:15 pm
By: News On 6

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) _ The life-size statue of a Red Army soldier stands at a crossroads in this Baltic capital, fist clenched and head bowed, marking the spot where Soviet war dead are buried.

But the statue is engulfed in bitter debate over the Soviet army's place in European history, which could come to a head this week if the Estonian government goes ahead with plans to dig up the tomb and move the statue to a park outside Tallinn.

Russians are appalled, and the Kremlin has warned of ``irreversible consequences'' for relations with Estonia.

Estonia is not alone. These days, throughout formerly Soviet-controlled eastern Europe, a battle of symbols and memories is being waged _ over statues, street names, the hammer and sickle, even Auschwitz. Now firmly entrenched in the West through NATO and European Union membership, many countries are showing renewed eagerness to erase the more visible vestiges of communism.

The dispute underscores the opposing views of the Soviet legacy in Russia and its former satellites. Russia's resurgent patriotism under President Vladimir Putin has only widened the gap as countries from the Baltics to the Balkans seek to shed the last vestiges of communism.

Russia views the Soviet troops as heroes who rescued the three Baltic states from a racist Nazi regime. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians say the Soviet regime that held sway over them for 45 years after World War II was even more repressive.

``This is not a monument to the victors of the war but a monument to the destruction of the Estonian Republic,'' said lawmaker Mart Laar.

The problem, says Eugeniusz Smolar, head of the Center for International Relations, a Polish think tank, is that ``Russia has never come to terms with its history.'' Russians continue to see themselves only as victims of World War II, he said, and ignore the dictatorial systems they imposed on the countries they liberated from the Germans.

Opposing interpretations of history clashed earlier this month in Auschwitz, where Polish curators of a museum at the former death camp refused to let Russia to open its exhibit.

Russia claimed that hundreds of thousands of ``Soviet citizens'' died in the Holocaust. The Poles vehemently rejected this, saying those victims, mostly Jews, were from territories occupied by the Soviet Union in league with the Nazis between 1939 and 1941.

Sergei Mironov, a senior Russian lawmaker, called the Polish decision ``sacrilegious,'' and its reasoning ``stupid.''

After regaining independence, the communist bloc nations tore down statues of Lenin, Stalin and the idealized socialist laborer. But respect for the Soviet role in defeating Hitler was not entirely erased. In Hungary and Lithuania, many of those statues now stand in parks and are major tourist draws.

In Estonia, there are scores of Soviet monuments that stir no anger _ one-third of the population is ethnic Russian _ but the Bronze Soldier stands out because it has become a popular staging point for pro-Russian rallies.

Poland's governing Law and Justice party has called for changing street names that have a communist taint. Romania has issued a 650-page report detailing and condemning communist atrocities.

In 2005 members of the European Parliament from former communist countries demanded that communist symbols be banned along with the swastika, citing the death toll inflicted by communist dictatorships. The initiative was rejected.

Estonian lawmakers are pushing for a ban on the hammer and sickle, while Latvian lawmakers have drafted legislation making it a crime to deny the Soviet occupation.

In Hungary, a right-wing fringe group has gathered 200,000 signatures calling for a referendum on removing a prominent Soviet war memorial in Budapest. However, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany is opposed. ``We are not the only ones who have national feelings,'' he told parliament. ``Stirring up this issue would bring Hungary more harm than good.''

But in Tallinn, the atmosphere is heating up. The government is determined to remove the Bronze Soldier, while Estonia's Russians, who make up approximately one-third the country's population, will try to prevent it.

A large pro-Kremlin youth group in Russia, Nashi, has promised to send young people to stand guard over the monument. Sergei Ivanov, Russia's first deputy prime minister and possible successor to President Vladimir Putin, called on Russians to stop buying Estonian products and vacationing in the Baltic country.

Vladimir Velman, a member of Estonia's parliament and a native Russian, warns: ``There's going to be trouble as soon as the shovel touches the ground.''