Estonian authorities have removed a Soviet-era tank from its pedestal in the eastern city of Narva, the most significant yet of an estimated 200 to 400 such monuments that the government has pledged to take down by the end of the year.
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”.
The announcement was met with hostility among 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 fast 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 foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, said Moscow was “trying to create internal divisions within our society”. The monuments had originally been erected “to glorify the reoccupation of Estonia. They have no place in our public space”, he said.
The removal of Soviet monuments has previously caused unrest in Estonia: 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 earlier this month. “It does no credit to any nation, including Estonia.”
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.