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2ND Estonian president rejects disputed "monuments" law
dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday February 15, 2007

Tallinn- Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves rejected on Thursday a controversial law permitting the removal of Nazi and Soviet monuments only hours after parliament approved it. "I have decided not to promulgate the 'Law on the Removal of an Unlawful Structure,' passed today... I do so because a number of sections of the law are unconstitutional, first and foremost the principle of separation of powers," Ilves said in a statement.

The bill's original text was aimed at banning structures which glorified the states which occupied Estonia during World War II - Nazi Germany and the USSR. It did not single out specific monuments.

But on Tuesday, during the bill's second reading, MPs adopted an amendment which specifically outlawed Estonia's most prominent Soviet war memorial - a statue in Tallinn known as the Bronze Soldier - and gave the government 30 days in which to remove it.

Legal experts criticized the amendment, saying that it breached the constitutional principle of the separation of the legislature and executive. Despite the criticisms, however, MPs passed the law in a final reading on Thursday by 46 votes to 44.

Estonia is due to hold parliamentary elections on March 4, and the monuments law has been widely seen as a pre-election manoeuvre.

MPs voted on the issue "merely to draw attention to themselves, not by a wish to find an effective solution," and did so "in full knowledge of the fact that the President cannot, by his oath of office, promulgate the law," Ilves said.

"I consider such behaviour irresponsible... Domestic political expediency can in no way justify playing with the constitution," he added.

Estonia was occupied by the Soviets in 1940-41 and 1944-91, suffering massive social and economic losses. For many Estonians, the Soviet regime was as evil as the Nazis, and should not be commemorated.

But many in Estonia's Russian minority believe that the Red Army were heroes who saved the country from fascism. They resent the attack on the monument, and a second law passed on Thursday which names September 22 "resistance day."

During the Soviet era, the day - the date in 1944 on which the Red Army entered Tallinn - was known as "liberation day." Russians still gather at the Bronze Soldier on that date, and say that any attempt to criticize it is tantamount to praising Nazism.

"The Bronze Soldier is part of our people's memory. The government is trying to take away our memory and put Nazi ideology into our minds," said Estonian-Russian activist Yury Zhuravjov, a leading defender of the memorial.

The dispute has threatened to split Estonian society along ethnic lines, with experts warning that it could lead to a radicalization of ethnic tension reaching far beyond the elections.

The two laws are aimed at "something the Russian-speaking population can identify with... Symbolic things can cause all kinds of mobilizations," said Eiki Berg, a specialist in ethnic and international relations at Tartu University.

The laws were also savagely criticized in Russia, where leading politicians have said that any attempt to move monuments to Soviet soldiers would be "blasphemy" and prove that the Baltic state is hosting a "rebirth of Nazism."

On Wednesday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov warned of "irreversible consequences" if the Tallinn monument were moved, the Interfax news agency reported.

But while rejecting the monuments law, Ilves also rejected Russian comments, saying that the "clarification" of Estonia's history was a job "for Estonia itself."

"Military graves cannot be treated as ordinary politics... I condemn all attempts to glorify or justify the activities of the Soviet Union that occupied Estonia under the pretext of commemorating victims of the war," he said.

The law will now be returned to parliament for further debate - a process which is unlikely to be completed before the elections.

"The last sessions of the current parliament will be held next week. It would take more time than that for the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) to approve the law again," said Aivar Jarne, head of the Riigikogu's press department.

The next Riigikogu will have to consider the law, he added.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency