Little Big State

Symbols rarely have just one meaning

Symbols rarely have just one meaning

The Estonians seem to have developed a remarkable ability to make the best out of bad situations in recent months, and this week they’ve done it again.

The acquittal of four Russian Estonians accused of organizing the April 2007 ‘Bronze Soldier’ riots in Tallinn might on the face of it look like a triumph for Russian nationalism, but in fact it’s just another example of the maturity of the Estonian state.

Following the Harju county court ruling, the Kremlin issued a predictable statement saying that the decision “confirmed the fairness of public outrage provoked by the Estonian authorities over the desecration of the graves of Soviet soldiers.”

“This is indeed a conviction for those who mock the memory of the fallen and rewrite history,” the Russian foreign ministry ranted, without even a trace of irony or acknowledgement of the extraordinary lengths the authorities went to ensure the dignity of the process.

Of course what the Kremlin couldn’t bring itself to acknowledge was that the decision represented not a victory for Russian nationalism but for the integrity and rigour of the Estonian legal system. This was a real trial that relied on real evidence, not a Soviet-style show trial or a Putinesque piece of political posturing.

The four defendants, members of the pro-Russian Night Vigil organization , may not have made a particularly good impression before, during or after the trial, but it was the quality of evidence relating to specific charges that was examined, not their character or disagreement with the state.

Estonia proved that it doesn’t lock people up for being awkward, unlike certain other states, and that it doesn’t need to rely on convenient convictions based on trumped-up charges to rid itself of troublesome individuals.

In short, Estonia showed it takes the right to a fair trial seriously and not just as window dressing. It’s big enough to take inconvenient decisions.

The acquittal of the four Night Vigil leaders can be added to the unmasking of Herman Simm, alleged Russian spy as a strength dressed as weakness. While some people reacted to Simm’s arrest by assuming Estonia must be a corrupt, tin-pot sort of place for a senior defence figure to be accused of treason, more thoughtful commentators pointed out that in going public about the case, Estonia was being much, much more open about an embarrassing episode than most Western democracies would ever countenance.

When Simm’s case comes to trial later this year, it will provide yet another public test of Estonian institutional maturity. Sure, it’ll be easy meat for crude propagandists, but Estonia should retain and perhaps even elevate its position on the moral high ground.

Add in Estonia’s cheeky donation to help bail out Latvia and it starts to look like the country positively thrives on ‘crisis’ – which should mean it will enjoy 2009 much more than its neighbours, who’d probably rather hibernate through the whole year.


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