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22 Sep, 2007 08:32

Minds clash in Estonia over history

September 22 marks the Day of Resistance in Estonia. The holiday was re-named this year after decades when it was known as The Day of the Struggle Against Fascism. The different interpretations between ethnic Russians and Estonians in the country are caus

The Soviet army entered Tallinn on September 22, 1944, and this day has gone down in history two very different ways. For Russians it is known as the day the city was freed from fascism. For Estonians it is the day when almost 50 years of Soviet occupation began.

The date was officially re-named this year and the two very different versions of history are still fueling a bitter conflict between local residents, and diplomatic tension between Russia and Estonia.

On Saturday, Russian and Belarusian diplomats laid flowers at the tomb of the Bronze Soldier in the Estonian capital Tallinn.

At the same time, hundreds of activists from the Russian youth movement ‘Nashi’ have been holding a rally near the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. Some participants were dressed in the uniforms of Soviet soldiers in memory of those who fought and died for Estonian freedom.

Later, leftist activists are going to replace them near the Embassy. They will protest against those who claim Estonia was a victim of Soviet occupation.

Russians make up one third of Estonia’s population and for most of them the re-naming of the holiday is an outrage. They remember things differently.

There have been severe complaints by some of the Russian nationals living in Estonia that legislation passed there in parliament in recent years violates their human rights.

Many of the Russian minority living in Estonia don’t have national citizenship.

The government claims attaining citizenship is easy, while the people say it’s just made to look that way.

The process is especially unattractive for Estonia’s older Russians who have lived in the country most of their lives. They consider themselves Soviet and are proud of the past.

But for many Estonians that is nothing to be proud of. Nazi and Soviet items lie side-by-side at Tallinn’s Museum of Occupation. While the swastika has been banned throughout Europe, Estonia aims to get rid of Soviet symbols arguing they represent the same ideas.

Just this spring, a Soviet war memorial was removed from the centre of Tallinn and soldiers’ remains were re-buried on the outskirts of the city.

The move sparked violent riots and worsened relations between ethnic Russians and Estonian authorities, and soured already shaky diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Europe's leading human rights body, the Council of Europe, has encouraged both sides not let the past spoil the future.

But it keeps coming back. In August, Estonian Prosecutors launched a case against Arnold Meri accusing him of genocide. They claim the first Estonian Hero of the Soviet Union supervised the deportation of hundreds in 1949 for life-long exile in Siberia.

However, two years after the supposed crime, Arnold Meri was stripped of his hero status by Stalin’s regime for conducting the deportation of Estonians too mildly. Russians there call the accusations against Meri absurd and often protest and say they will continue to fight for their rights.

Perhaps one day a common language will be found allowing Estonian people to embrace the freedom of today, rather looking back at the struggles of yesterday.