Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Anniversary of Anguish over Bronze Battle

This weekend past saw the first anniversary of the Estonian Bronze Soldier crisis - over the removal of a soviet WW II monument from central Tallinn. As the crisis evolved it ignited a bilateral quarrel between Tallinn and Moscow, in the end setting Russia and the European Union at loggerheads. As the first anniversary of the Bronze battle drew close, a certain extent of anguish and apprehension arose among Estonian authorities. What was to happen this time over? The simple answer was - next to nothing.

On Saturday, some 100 demonstrators gathered in a park in central Tallinn to commemorate last year's events, and to call for the resignation of the Estonian government led by Andrus Ansip. The event was peaceful and heavily monitored by police and the Estonian secret service (KAPO).

That the demonstration actually rallied less of a crowd than the number of people merely injured last year must be considered a fundamental failure for Russian "minority" interests in Estonia. Not least so as, just a few weeks ago, an organization to unite Russians in Estonia held its first congress. That Saturday's demonstration had such a poor showing may thus point to a waning significance of the Russian issue in Estonia. Or should perhaps alternative explanations be sought?

What evolved over a few weeks last spring was that the same methods used during the coloured revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and the Ukraine, were now applied by Russians themselves. As the protest was reaching its crescendo, actions and debate were coordinated by sms, e-mail, and blogs targeting largely unprepared Estonian political leaders and authorities. The subsequent cyber attacks on Estonian web-servers proved the peak in efforts to paralyze society. Someone had obviously done his homework.

In terms of the Russian-speaking population of the Baltic States, Russia has long propagated that these "minorities" are consistently discriminated against, and has even ventured so far as to compare the situation with Apartheid. Last year's events also gave Moscow an opportunity to highlight the issue on the international scene. Although much of recent bravado has mysteriously evaporated, Russia has e.g. demanded an addendum on the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia in ongoing negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union.

Still, much indicates that Moscow came out of the 2007 conflict with the EU on the wrong end of the stick - besides the PR-fiasco for Moscow's international image - why such demands are most likely to be ignored. Also, Russian policy towards the Baltic States since 1991 has largely proven a failure. Already in 1997, Russia's Council for Foreign and Defence Policy - an influential think-tank - in a report characterised Moscow's policy as counterproductive, if it intended to safeguard the interests of Russian "minorities".

It is far too seldom argued that what is not said and done may be as interesting as what actually is. So may be the case also here, although reporting on something that did not happen - as the Bronze battle anniversary - would hardly qualify as breaking news or of interest to a larger audience.

Turning to the case in point, the Bronze Soldier crisis has fundamentally been interpreted as an ethnic conflict. In fact, few issues are as politically sensitive as ethnic tension. Recent history has witnessed oppression and even genocide on minorities to an extent that has shocked world opinion. However, this also has made us prone to see far too many societal conflicts with ethnic lenses.

So, why did the anniversary of the Bronze Soldier crisis pass by next to unnoticed? May it be that there are alternative or complementary explanations to last year's turmoil than the ethnic angle? Before trying some hypotheses, it should be clearly stated that the removal of the Bronze Soldier from central Tallinn unequivocally was the igniting factor of the 2007 crisis. It is quite obvious that the Estonian government acted in haste and with poor judgement. Thus, they partly brought the crisis upon themselves.

Still, that does not explain the absence of protests a year after the so far largest protests by ehtnic Russians in post-soviet Estonia. The situation has not altered and the reasons for, arguably, Russian discontent with conditions in the country has not changed for the better - rather the opposite as a fact. Political forces traditionally safeguarding interests of Russians have partly been rendered obsolete. In socioeconomic terms, nothing has really happened, as illustrated in a report by Marju Lauristin last autumn.

So, except for Estonia's monumental mistake and obvious Russia-related explanations of lacking protests this year - the upcoming presidential installation on 7 May and last year's domestic need in Russia to rally around a cause - what might serve as alternative or complementary hypotheses for the difference between last year and now?

One reason largely unexplored is the transit of Russian goods and products through Estonia. Russia has long wanted to divert this trade to Russian harbours instead of having to pay the costs of transit. Furthermore, Kremlin-sponsored Russian companies had long been eager to out-compete those companies that controlled and profited from the Estonian transit trade. The same applied for control over export-harbours in Estonia. For most observers, it serves as no surprise to state that the transit trade involves enormous sums of money. One can only imagine how much by pointing to the fact that Estonia lost some 6,3 billion Estonian Kroonas in transit revenues due to a few weeks of Russian blockade.

Consequently, just a week or so before the April 2007 events, Russian vice Premier, Sergei Ivanov, held a speech in Murmansk, in which he propagated curbing transit trade and diverting Russian exports to ports in the Petersburg region and Gulf of Finland.

Negotiations for transit quotas and pricing on Russian goods by Estonian railway were to be held in May 2007. In 2006, the Estonian state re-nationalized Estonian Railway (Eesti Raudtee), why preconditions for influencing the outcome of negotiations had been altered to the detriment of Moscow's interests.

As for harbour facilities, the ports of Tallinn and Muuga represented around one-quarter of Russia's total refined-product exports, thus by far outweighing any Russian harbour. Control over harbours in Tallinn, Muuga and Sillamäe had long been coveted by Russian business interests. As previously reported, last year's crisis also saw a transfer of trade between these ports to the benefit of Russian interests.

Then, there is also the question of shipping. The crisis and the subsequent Russian trade blockade is said to have favoured shipping operations, controlled by Swiss-based Gunvor Group. Gunvor is owned by Swedish oil trader Torbjörn Törnqvist, with interests in e.g. Surgutneftegaz. In November last year, Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky made allegations in the German newspaper die Welt that Putin had amassed a personal fortune of some 40 billion USD, and that part of this was held by a 50% share of the Gunvor Group.

Although these rumours and allegations cannot be corroborated, and in fact have been denied by most concerned parties - among others Törnqvist himself - one cannot but stop to wonder what role business with a Russian stake had in the 2007 Russian-Estonian crisis. The example of controlling the transportation system - railways, harbours, and shipping - of Russian exports by way of Estonian transit might thus arguably be one alternative or complementary explanation to why last year's Russian-Estonian crisis was allowed to escalate to the level it did.

Russia's imposition of a trade blockade on Estonia for a few weeks last year was a hard hit on the transit trade. The transport of Russian goods by rail, road, and boat was halted. The companies involved in this line of trade, were among the all too evident losers, and many of them were more or less put out of business - both Russian companies and Estonian with often large Russian ownership interests. These companies were not sponsored by the Kremlin. Instead, it appears that the blockade wiped out annoying competition, and that mightier Russian business interests moved in to take over the transit trade, once the blockade was lifted. Such methods would not be a novelty in Russian business practices and thus serve to surprise nobody. Big business in Russia regularly gets Kremlin's blessing to move in and wipe out competition in order to monopolise a market. The difference in what would arguably be the Estonian case, is that these practices were now applied on another state not in the CIS, but on a member of the European Union.

So, apart from speculations and conspiracy-theories that normally surround events such as the Bronze Soldier crisis, it would seem worthwhile to test such alternative or complementary hypotheses as accounted for above. Who stood to gain from a blockade halting transit trade, and who has actually done so? However, if proven right, such an argument would not only expose that the Kremlin serves its own interests, but also a blatant disregard by Russia for the interests of the Russian "minorities" in the Baltic States, because the greatest losers of the conflict would turn out to be the very same Russian minorities that Moscow claims to defend.

Consequently, it may actually have been the Russians in Estonia who lost most out of the Russian-Estonian conflict over the removal of the Bronze Soldier. Russians were hit by losing the revenues from transit trade, both in terms of profits and employment. Furhtermore, Russians were the ones who were most exposed by raising the issue of disloyalty to Estonian society as a whole. For any minority in any country, such cross-pressure may prove highly detrimental to their future prospects of finding a place in society in social, economic and political terms, and still Moscow decided it was worth to run this risk.

Perhaps, in the end it is safest not to test such hypotheses as forwarded above, because - if validated - they would bring the perceived cynicism of Russian leaders to new and even higher levels. Moscow's indignation and heavy hand towards Estonia was officially motivated by the public outcry among Russians over the removal of the Bronze soldier. General opinion held that Moscow now finally had to step in to protect the Russian "minority" in Estonia. In stark contrast to this official policy, a proven transit trade hypothesis would - to the opposite - paint a picture of Russians abandoned by Russia and their cause sacrificed for the sake of petty business interests. One cannot help but wonder what the Russians who took to the streets in both Tallinn and Moscow in protest against "fascist Estonia" would think if confronted by proof to that effect. In the meantime, such hypotheses are, of course, just a fidget of one's imagination - or are they?

8 comments:

Lyndon said...

Vilhelm, this is really quite interesting. I recommend you check out some Duma reports (the first few in the list here) from earlier this decade which might flesh out your points. I just ran across them accidentally while researching something totally different. While of course you can't always take the Duma's statements about "compatriots" seriously, you can certainly take their statements about financial interests seriously, since they are likely talking (albeit indirectly) about their own financial interests!

kloty said...

Hi Vilhelm,

another great article regarding Estonia. Among all bloggers writing about Estonia, you have the deepest inside view and even if I follow all the news, you still are able to bring facts on the table I had no idea they exist. Thanks for that.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Kloty,

Thank you very much for your praise! You make me blush of pride.

Still, I only take well-known facts and put them into new perspective. Perhaps, I am simply too detached from preconceptions to interpret things as most others do.

Sometimes though, I feel somewhat like the X-files: "The truth is out there". The only thing is that I know that truth in these matters is relative, and I forward some alternative hypotheses that differentiate themselves from conventional explanations. Whether they are true or not, or to what extent they really are significant, I leave to my readers to evaluate.

After all, without a critical eye, I would not myself be able to speculate on these matters, so I can only encourage any reader to be critical him-/herself.

Yours,

Vilhelm

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. Better than almost anything I have read in the local Estonian press. I've sent it around to several people.

Drazen said...

Interesting article however some clarification would be necessary:

“What evolved over a few weeks last spring was that the same methods used during the coloured revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and the Ukraine, were now applied by Russians themselves. As the protest was reaching its crescendo, actions and debate were coordinated by sms, e-mail, and blogs targeting largely unprepared Estonian political leaders and authorities. The subsequent cyber attacks on Estonian web-servers proved the peak in efforts to paralyze society. Someone had obviously done his homework.”

Do you have anything to substantiate this allegation? Your article itself contradicts this statement. If protest were better coordinated how come they were so unsuccessful especially compared with previous protest? Claim political leaders were unprepared is outright laughable given that you yourself state they use totalitarian state methods like secret service to monitoring protesters.

“In terms of the Russian-speaking population of the Baltic States, Russia has long propagated that these "minorities" are consistently discriminated against, and has even ventured so far as to compare the situation with Apartheid.”

Why do you place minority under quotations?

“Consequently, it may actually have been the Russians in Estonia who lost most out of the Russian-Estonian conflict over the removal of the Bronze Soldier. Russians were hit by losing the revenues from transit trade, both in terms of profits and employment. Furhtermore, Russians were the ones who were most exposed by raising the issue of disloyalty to Estonian society as a whole. For any minority in any country, such cross-pressure may prove highly detrimental to their future prospects of finding a place in society in social, economic and political terms, and still Moscow decided it was worth to run this risk.”

This is rather shameful case of blaming the victim. What you describe is clearly totalitarian system with secret police monitoring protests and members on entire ethnicity marked as being disloyal, and you actually blame Russia for protesting such treatment?

“In stark contrast to this official policy, a proven transit trade hypothesis would - to the opposite - paint a picture of Russians abandoned by Russia and their cause sacrificed for the sake of petty business interests.”

Are you alleging only problem Russian minority has is loss of revenue from cross border trade, no issues existed before few weeks sanctions? Do you actually have some data to substantiate such claims, like change in demographic of main participants in the trade, level of bankruptcies of traders and so on? All you appear to have is that Guvnor conspiracy theory you yourself do not appear to find plausible.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Drazen,

First of all, it is quite clear that you take sides - pro-Russia - in the Russian-Estonian conflict.

As for myself, I feel that it is much more of a challenge to address some of the factors without taking sides. What a proponent of either side may contribute with, is therefore factors that may add to analysis or playing with thoughts. To simply say it is either this or that is not very interesting. In fact, I often tend to tell both Estonian and Russian friends that their views and outlooks are more an effect of who they are than what the situation actually is or may be. So, I am not very interested in simplified pro & con arguments, while at the same time one must have the liberty of playing with thoughts and ideas.

Having little time to reply to your comment in substance in combination with the five months passed since I wrote it, I will hovewer try to state a few things.

As for your first query, it seems clear that you mistake this year's protests with the 2007 events, given that you argue that my piece contradicts this. What I write about is what happened last year, and then go on to compare it with what did not happen this year.

That there was an element of coordination in 2007 is quite obvious, and has been addressed by several analyses and in the media. In fact, with the coordinative instruments of contemporary society, it would be outright stupid of any protester not to use these possibilities. That is simply how one does things in modern protest actions.

Also, you probably know that a person convicted of coordinating protests was a Russian-speaking Estonian with links to Russian state security services. Furhter, the involvement of the Russian embassy in Tallinn - individual or collective - probably added to protests, while one must at the same time underline that actions by Russian diplomats in Riga, were constructive for hindering similar protests in Latvia.

Concerning the "totalitarian" angle, police in any state would use these methods - as in 2008 - to preserve public order. My own country, Sweden, would do it and I assume you do not think that Sweden is a totalitarian state.

As for putting the term "minorty" within quotation marks, it is for marking the complexity of the issue. You do not have to be Russian just because the language is your mother-tongue. You may as well be Ukrainian, Tatar, or whatever. That is also the case with Russian-speakers in Estonia. Also, if at all addressing the issue of a Russian minority, the Russian-speaking population living in Estonia for over 100 years clearly constitutes a minority, while those who have settled in Estonia after this cannot - as a matter of international conventions - be considered a minority. Thus, I do not acknowledge the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States in 1940. Is this provocative to you? It might wll be, but then you should keep in mind that what is really important here is not history or status, but the actual situation of Russian speakers in Estonia. My position is clearly that focus should be on improving the socio-economic position of these groups, to give them a greater opportunity for success in the society in which they live. Take e.g. last year's protests. To what extent do you yourself believe that they were purely political in the sense of status and ethnicity, in comparison to the factor of socio-economic frustration?

As for your argument on "blaming the victim", it has a normativt meaning that Russia was right and Estonia was wrong. Judging from your other statements, you feel that Estonia is a totalitarian state. But then, if Russia is right and acts to safeguard the actions of Russian speakers in Estonia, and still what Moscow decides hits Russian speakers in Estonia much harder than Estonians themselves, do you not think that such Russian actions are misdirected? Effects are clearly contrary to intentions - if they are as publicly declared.

What is interesting is that we logically both see Russian speakers in Estonia in terms of "victims" of circumstance, what concerns last year's protests. Even if you would define Estonia as a totalitarian oppressor and Russia as a liberator, the main factor is really circumstance - that Russian speakers live in Estonia. If you accept this, and try not to be totally subjective in your analysis, you may find much more of interest than if you simply see the matter in terms of black and white. Thus, I do not accept your argument, as I believe it is too simplified and unconstructive.

As for your question on the effects of a break in transit trade, I do not mean that this is the only problem of Russian speakers in Estonia. Still, it is the Russian interests that are hardest hit by this. As for the larger issue, you do not have to be a brain-surgeon to understand that the socioeconomic position of Russian speakers in Estonia has much larger ramifications than simple transit trade. If you think that I fail to see this, I must correct you. Addressing the larger socioeconomic issues should really be a priority to solve the issue in a long-term perspective. Still, you probably know that the top-students at e.g. Tartu university to a great extent are Russian speakers, so this is really a factor that one should be glad for.

Well, that is about the time I can use for anwering your questions at this point. I hope you feel satisfied with them.

Yours,

Vilhelm

Drazen said...

“My position is clearly that focus should be on improving the socio-economic position of these groups, to give them a greater opportunity for success in the society in which they live. Take e.g. last year's protests. To what extent do you yourself believe that they were purely political in the sense of status and ethnicity, in comparison to the factor of socio-economic frustration?”

My impression your agenda is primary justification of totalitarian state measures and ethnic discrimination. I live in Croatia and I can tell you that if Serbs living in Croatia suffered same level of abuse EU would denounce it vocally, not be acting as apologists. Why is EU not wiling to give Russian citizens on its territory same rights it demands for Serbs, Italian and other ethnic minorities on Croatian territory?

Your alleged socio economic concerns is clearly red herring sense if that was really your concern you would denounce pretty much all governments of EU as they all support reduction of welfare state and of workers’ rights. Given that you instead blame Russia for economic and political problems suffered by Russian minorities on EU territory it seems to me you simply trying to project the blame from actually responsible (EU) to victims (Russians). It is really disingenuous to blame Russia for economic problems of people living on EU territory.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Drazen,

First of all, I expect you to make your profile public, if you want me to publish any more of your comments on my blog. If you are to make the allegations you do in your comments, that is the bottom line for taking them seriously. If one is to stand up to one's views, one should do so publicly and in person. As this is not the case with you so far, I cannot see why I should discuss anything with an anonymous person, who might be just about anyone.

Firstly, as for your argument that my views are a "justification of totalitarian state measures and ethnic discrimination", I find this ludicruous. It makes me wonder whether you have ever been to Estonia (something of which I, of course, cannot even speculate because of your anonymity).

Visiting both Estonia and Croatia on a regular basis, it is quite clear that Serbs in Croatia generally have been hit much harder by the Croatian state than just about any Russian speaker in Estonia. This is not taking sides for or against Croatia or Serbia. It is a statement of fact, and if you are not completely blinded by nationalism, you should know that this is a serious problem for Croatia. However, that is clearly a subject completely off topic in this discussion.

Secondly, as for your allegations concerning some sort of double standards within the EU, which I would - in your eyes - be a supporter of, do I really have to point out to you that there is one single mention of the EU in my piece, which does not address the views you make up that I have. So, how you come to such a conclusion is beyond logic and comprehension.

In the Estonian context, I honestly don't give a shit about the EU and its policies, at least not in the socioeconomic context.

What I do believe in is access to equal chances and opportunities for everyone in a state, country or nation, regardless of language, ethnicity, religion etc. This is not egalitarianism, but the simple statement that everyone must be given a chance for "the pursuit of happiness". Here, Estonia clearly has a problem, as e.g. pointed out by Marju Lauristin in a report last year (if you at all know who that is).

As for your accusation of putting responsibility on Russia for something that is EU territory, I cannot believe that you do not see the causation here. If Russia acts to protect the interests of "Russians" beyond its borders, and the effect, to the contrary, is that Russia's actions are detrimental to the very "Russians", whom Russia wants to help, then how do you come to the conclusion that the EU - of which there is hardly any mention in the piece you try to debate - is responsible and at fault? It seems to me that the logic is the opposite.

To conclude, if this is the level of debate you want to have, then I will fortwith treat you as a "troll", and not publish your comments. If you, to the contrary, wish to be serious and discuss these issues constructively and out of true interest, you are most welcome back, provided you disclose your profile and who you are. Anything else would be cowardice and dishonest, of course, provided you do not feel that Croatia is a repressive state that would punish you for such views.

Yours,

Vilhelm