BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO urged Russia on Thursday to act against what it called intimidation of Estonia’s embassy in Moscow by pro-Kremlin youths protesting over relocation of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn.
Members of the European Parliament joined the fray, saying Estonian sovereignty was EU sovereignty and one senior lawmaker called for postponement of an EU-Russia summit in May.
Days of protests at the embassy over relocation of the memorial escalated on Wednesday when demonstrators stormed a news conference shortly before the ambassador arrived and were dispersed by bodyguards spraying gas.
Diplomats said the protests amounted to a blockade of the embassy of Estonia, which is a NATO and European Union member.
“NATO is deeply concerned by threats to the physical safety of Estonian diplomatic staff, including the ambassador, in Moscow, as well as intimidation at the Estonian Embassy,” the U.S.-led defence alliance said in a statement.
“These actions...must be stopped immediately; tensions over the Soviet war memorial and graves in Estonia must be resolved diplomatically.”
The statement called on Russia to meet its obligation to protect foreign embassies.
Estonia was annexed by Moscow in 1940. Most Estonians consider the Soviet era, far from being the liberation portrayed in the Soviet memorial, to have been a time of occupation and repression. Conversely, members of the Russian-speaking minority feel they have been ill-treated since independence in 1991
The NATO statement follows a sharp deterioration in ties between the 26-nation alliance and Moscow following President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last week that he was freezing Russia’s commitments under a European arms control pact.
Traders said on Wednesday Russia had halted rail deliveries of oil products and steam coal to Estonia, rekindling Western fears Moscow is using its energy might as a political weapon.
Railway officials cited planned annual maintenance as the reason and denied any political motive. But Russia’s record of using energy resources for political ends prompted speculation that the move was retaliation for the monument’s removal.
Germany, holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, said on Wednesday it was deeply concerned about the row and the EU’s executive Commission said it would send a delegation to raise the matter with Moscow.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament called for postponement of an EU-Russia summit planned for May 18 that is already under a cloud due to a row over a Russian ban on meat imports from EU member Poland.
“In the current circumstances the wisest course of action would be to postpone the EU-Russia Summit, Graham Watson said.
Gunnar Hoekmark, vice chairman of the largest grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP-ED, said Russian authorities were supporting nationalistic activists in Tallinn.
Ambassadors from the 27 EU states discussed the spat at a meeting on Wednesday at which Estonia requested backing but did not ask for a postponement of the summit, an EU official said.
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor and Moscow bureau