Sunday, April 29, 2007

Statues and Colonialism here and there

Recent events in Estonia show how colonial monuments are typically treated during a transition to democracy, with some strong parallels to our situation here in Taiwan:
Estonia took away the controversial statue of a Red Army Soviet soldier from the center of the capital early yesterday after violent riots against its removal in which one man was killed.

The 2m high bronze statue of a World War II Red Army soldier was spirited away overnight after the worst violence seen in years in Estonia, including vandalism and looting by mainly Russian-speaking protesters.

"The aim of the government decision was to avoid further possible actions against the public order," the Estonian government said, and the president called for calm.>

Like the statues in Taiwan, the statue in Estonia is a symbol of the former authoritarian government controlled by outsiders:

Estonia has said the monument is a public order problem as it attracts Estonian and Russian nationalists. It also said it is more respectful to the dead for it to be moved to a cemetery.

Removing it angered some Russian-speakers, a large minority of around 300,000 in the country of 1.3 million. Estonians tend to view it as a reminder of 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Like Taiwan too, the huge neighboring power which has connections to a minority of locals who identify with it, and nurses dreams of annexing it, got angry:

Russia's upper house of parliament yesterday approved a resolution calling for a break in diplomatic relations with Estonia in retaliation for the removal of a Soviet war monument from central Tallinn.

The non-binding resolution was approved unanimously by the senate and comes amid furious reactions from Moscow after the removal of the monument, which sparked violent clashes in Estonia.

The senate "calls on the leadership of the Russian Federation to adopt the toughest possible measures, including a break in diplomatic relations," it said.

Russia's reaction should "show that modern Russia categorically does not accept the barbaric attitude of Estonian authorities to the memory of those who were victorious against fascism," it said.
There many other parallels -- after Chiang Kai-shek's Stalin's death the local Kuomintang Communist Party expanded its membership to include Estonians, while simultaneously moving to suppress local culture. Chinese Russian was taught in the primary schools. A key difference, though, was that the West recognized the illegal nature of Soviet rule over Estonia and the independence of Estonia, while the Chiang regime had strong Western support and Taiwan independence was simply a card that the US, among others, might consider playing if necessary.

The case of the post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe shows how normal it is, in the transition to democracy, for the emerging democratic institutions to sweep away the monuments the colonial regime erected to itself and rename its institutions and organizations. What's happening in Taiwan is normal.

Jim Mann makes an interesting point in his new book on China, The China Fantasy, which describes how people in Washington rationalize away the repression in China. One way, he notes, is that dissidents in the Soviet world were cool, whereas dissidents in the Chinese sphere...are not so cool. One need only contrast the patronizing commentaries on Taiwan's name changes with the widespread cheering for exactly the same events in post-Soviet eastern Europe to see his point.


channing said...

Interestingly, post-colonial Hong Kong didn't have any name changes except dropping the "Royal" and other monarchy titles from government institutions. What's your take on that?

Anonymous said...

can you imagine so called "liberators" deporting and killing the estonians and sending them to siberia to die and then occupying them for the next 50 years.
the statue was not destroyed but just moved to another location which should have been moscow.
the russians cannot accept the fact that the baltics have been accepted into the eu and they have not.

Michael Turton said...

In post-colonial Hong Kong....when was the transition to democracy? It's curious that so little was renamed, though. Probably China demonstrating that "nothing has changed" and life still goes on as always in Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

The reason the West never accepted Soviet control over Estonia was that it was an internationally recognized country between the two world wars. It was taken over by the USSR in 1940, along with Lithuania and Latvia, as a result of Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 (which also carved up Poland). The parallels with Taiwan are thin. A better case could be made with Tibet.

Michael Turton said...

True enough. But I think the main parallel is that in both the Estonia and Taiwan case, the occupation was illegal. The grounds for calling it illegal were different, but neither occupation was legit. But the West recognized that in only one case.


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Fyodor Y said...

Don't compare Estonia to Taiwan, cuz these are just two different things. Estonian Government is using it as political tool and state-supported racism against russian-speaking population inside estonia is just horrible.

Liberators - there was war against nazis, and there was fucked up russian government of that time. Government != people. Indeed soviet govermnent killed many estonians, but do you know how much of russian population sent to gulags at that time? 1/5!