TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia on Saturday stepped up preparations to exhume the remains of Red Army soldiers at a memorial site after removing a World War Two monument, sparking two days of riots in which one man died.
As calm returned to the capital after violence which shocked the small Baltic state, Russia expressed anger over Estonia’s actions and accused Tallinn police of using excessive force and causing the death of the man, a Russian citizen.
Estonia rejected the accusations and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip used a televised national address to appeal for calm and tolerance in the ethnically mixed country.
The streets of Tallinn were calm on Saturday, with no sign of fresh rioting, which led to the arrest of 800 people and left 153 injured, many from glass cuts from broken shop windows.
Tensions over the removal of the Red Army monument, a 2-metre (6-1/2 ft) high bronze soldier and a large wall, were discussed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in phone calls to Ansip and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Estonia’s Defence Ministry said a team was surveying the small park in central Tallinn where until Friday the statue stood to find the remains of soldiers believed buried there.
“They may start digging today, but it is very much a technical point,” a spokesman said. Prayers were said before work began, according to Orthodox and Lutheran rite, he said.
Ansip said in his address, made also in Russian, that he was forced to remove the statue after the first riots on Thursday.
He said the monument was under police guard and was safe. It and any remains would be moved to a military cemetery.
“We must not let the sowers of hatred become the ones to split the nation or to plant prejudice,” he said. All nationalities were respected, he said, but violence was not.
The memory of dead soldiers was not served when “a picture of a drunk shoplifter is being shown all over the world”.
The second night of riots on Friday saw police charge protesters and fire rubber bullets and tear gas. Gangs of marauding youths smashed shop windows and looted shops. Two towns in the dominantly Russian northeast were also affected.
Estonia has said the statue was a public order menace as a focus for Estonian and Russian nationalists, and protests have mainly been by young Russian-speakers. It says it also shows more respect to the dead to be buried in a proper cemetery.
Russia called moving the monument an insult to those who fought fascism. Many Russian-speakers, about 300,000 out of 1.3 million people, view the statue with fondness, while ethnic Estonians see it as a reminder of 50 years of Soviet rule.
Moscow demanded full information about the death of a Russian citizen and criticized excessive use of force by the Estonian authorities. Estonia said the police did not cause the man’s death and that he was stabbed in a fight with another man. It said Russia was trying to fuel tensions in Estonia.
Putin expressed his concern in his talk with Merkel, who holds the European Union’s rotating chairmanship.
“In response, Merkel spoke in favour of finding a prompt solution to the situation and of both sides exercising restraint,” a Kremlin press release said of the talk with Putin.
A spokesman for Merkel said the chancellor “called for prudence and urged that any escalation be avoided”.
Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm and Olesya Dmitracova in Moscow