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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 February 2008, 12:02 GMT
Estonia's view of Kremlin 'meddling'
By Tim Whewell
BBC News

I was irritated by his three-piece suit. I was irritated by his floppy bow tie.

But if I am honest, what really irritated me about Toomas Ilves was the fact that he and I had started off in almost the same job and I had become "our own correspondent" while he had become a head of state.

Thomas Ilves
Speaking Russian would mean accepting 50 years of Soviet brutalisation
Estonian President Toomas Ilves

Do not get me wrong, I love what I do.

But arriving at the pad he occupies as president of Estonia - a charming little salmon-and-cream-cheese-coloured mansion in a park built for Peter the Great - I could not help feeling a twinge of envy.

It was not the kind of home either of us could have imagined in the late 1980s when I was a talks writer in the Russian section of the BBC World Service, and he was something similar in the Estonian section of Radio Free Europe.

And it was not the kind of house I ever got.

So when I had nodded at - and been ignored by - the white-gloved ceremonial guards on my way in, I am afraid I was a little less courteous to him than he was to me.

Why, I asked, did he not speak Russian?

It seemed a reasonable question because Russian is the language of more than a quarter of Estonia's population.

But for President Ilves it was not reasonable at all.

The Estonian president's palace
At the palace: Ceremonial guards, tea, and a frosty view of Russia
Speaking Russian, he said firmly, would mean accepting 50 years of Soviet brutalisation because most Russian-speakers settled in Estonia only after it was occupied by the USSR towards the end of World War II.

And when I pressed him, saying surely it would only mean being able to communicate with a large number of his fellow countrymen in their own language, he replied - as heads of state have every right to do: "This is a real dead end, I don't want to discuss it."

I moved on. And we had another cup of tea.

Bitter row

But Estonia's relations with Russia have reached something of a dead end since a bitter row last year over the moving of a monument.

The war monument in Tallinn
The statue of a Soviet soldier was moved to a new location

For Russians, the bronze statue of a Soviet soldier was a symbol of sacrifice, commemorating Estonia's liberation from Nazi Germany.

For Estonians it was a symbol of slavery, reminding them of the Soviet domination that followed.

Last April, when the Estonian government ordered it to be moved from a central square in the capital Tallinn to a military cemetery, protests by local Russians degenerated into riots.

Russia accused Estonia of blasphemy and threatened "serious measures" in response.

What followed was a partial Russian trade blockade of Estonia and - far more chilling - an extraordinary cyber-attack.

Millions of malicious messages were sent to Estonian websites and almost succeeded in disabling the country's entire computer network.

The messages were in Russian and mostly accused Estonians of being fascists. There is no proof the Kremlin was behind them or behind the riots.

But President Ilves believes Moscow loses no opportunity to meddle in the affairs of his tiny country.

Indeed as a former radio journalist, he was keen to quote me a weighty think-tank report that suggests the Kremlin is trying to divide and rule the whole of Europe.

As a former talks writer from a more Russophile background, I was more inclined to give the Kremlin the benefit of the doubt.

Russian perspective

But my views changed a bit when I got to the Kremlin itself.

The Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
The Kremlin seems reluctant to let go of its historical influence
I found myself soon afterwards in a grand office behind its intimidating red-brick walls, looking out over the psychedelic onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral and taking tea with President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko.

He was so disgusted by the moving of the bronze soldier statue that he could not bring himself to say anything else at all about Estonia.

But he would talk about relations with another neighbour, Georgia.

'Punishment'

Georgia has also accused Russia of meddling. And it has also found itself the victim of swingeing trade sanctions.

Why, I asked, were they necessary?

Map showing Estonia, Russia and Georgia

"Georgia," Mr Prikhodko growled back, "can't always be like a little boy that takes a fork or a hammer and tries to whack its neighbour. Even a small child knows that if you spill tea or mess up your bed, you might be punished."

Small child? Punishment?

I was quite taken aback, in such a lofty setting, to hear those sentiments expressed so crudely.

And I was bound to assume that Estonia is also regarded as a small child that needs punishing.

If that is Russia's attitude, President Ilves' desire to turn his back on it seems altogether easier to understand.

Of course, I know he has always looked west when I have been looking east.

From Radio Free Europe he went to Washington - as Estonian ambassador - while I had gone from the World Service to the BBC News bureau in Moscow.

Whether or not that is the secret of his success, I do not know. But turning westwards certainly has not done Toomas Ilves, or his country, any harm.

And I think now I can get over him having such a nice little palace.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Dancing with the Russian bear
19 Feb 08 |  Europe
Estonia fines man for 'cyber war'
25 Jan 08 |  Technology
Country profile: Estonia
23 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Russia
11 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Georgia
29 Jan 08 |  Country profiles

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