Estonia has removed a Soviet tank memorial from a town close to the Russian border as its prime minister pledged to clear all such monuments from public spaces in the Baltic country.
Prime minister Kaja Kallas said on Tuesday that since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February tensions over Soviet-era monuments had increased and that moving them was necessary to stop Russia “tearing open old wounds”.
She added: “No one wants to see our militant and hostile neighbour foment tensions in our home . . . Considering the speed of the increasing tensions and confusion around memorials in Narva, we must act quickly to ensure public order and internal security.”
Livestreamed video from the town showed Estonian defence forces removing a second world war T-34 Soviet tank from its plinth using cables and a crane. It was then loaded on to a truck to be taken to the Estonian War Museum close to the capital, Tallinn.
Estonia is keen to avoid the unrest which accompanied the removal in 2007 of a monument to a Soviet Red Army soldier in Tallinn which sparked clashes between Estonian and Russian nationalists and was followed by a cyber attack which Estonian officials said originated in Russia.
Officials in Narva, Estonia’s third largest city where most of the population is Russian-speaking, had struggled to reach an agreement on whether to remove the tank and other Soviet memorials, leading the state to step in on Tuesday.
The government pointed to increasing challenges to public order by keeping Russian memorials in public spaces, and said they would be moved to sites more fitting for commemorating the victims of the second world war, such as Soviet war graveyards inside Estonia.
“As Russia is waging a genocidal war against Ukraine and trying to break the foundations of Europe’s security architecture, we cannot afford internal divisions within our society. These monuments were erected here to glorify the reoccupation of Estonia and they have no place in our public space,” said foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu.
Narva is seen by some experts as one of the most likely places where Russia could try to test Nato in Europe, because of the high number of Russian speakers. But Estonian officials said the city’s residents overwhelmingly support Estonia and can see the lower living conditions and pension payments in neighbouring Russia.
Former president Kersti Kaljulaid moved her office temporarily to Narva in 2018 as part of increased attention given to the border town by officials from Tallinn.
Katri Raik, Narva’s mayor, told Postimees newspaper that she urged the central government to give something to people, not just take it away.
Neighbouring Latvia has also accelerated plans to remove all its Soviet memorials from public spaces in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine.
Estonia’s government is also reviewing the role of the Russian language in Estonian schools and has stopped Russians entering the country with Estonian visas as part of its response to Moscow’s aggression.