ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To Europe now where the EU is divided over how to respond to Russia's attack on Georgia. Among the countries to have pushed for a stronger reaction is another former Soviet Republic, Estonia. After Russia attacked Georgia last month, Estonia urged the EU to react strongly to the incursion despite the reluctance of countries like France and Germany to upset Moscow. NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled to the Estonian capital Tallinn and filed this report.
GREGORY FEIFER: Bells ring in the cobble-stoned main square of Tallinn's medieval old town with its narrow streets and Germanic spires. Estonia became part of the Russian empire in the 18th century. And this tiny former Soviet republic finally broke free from Moscow only after the collapse of Communism in 1991. Estonia has since joined the European Union and NATO, and its economy has boomed.
(Soundbite of tourist speaking French)
FEIFER: The Estonian language is very close to Finnish. But in the picturesque old town today, you can hear hoards of tourists speaking French, English, and many other languages. It's a far cry from the isolation of Soviet days. In an interview conducted before Russia's attack on Georgia, Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves said he tried not to be distracted by the presence of Estonia's massive neighbor to the east.
President TOOMAS HENDRICK ILVES (Estonia): I would like my goal as president to be 100 percent associated with moving back to Europe, being integrated into Europe. Everything else is extraneous, and it doesn't interest me, but it's forced upon us.
FEIFER: Ilves was born in Sweden after his parents fled the Soviet occupation, and he spent much of his life in the United States. Ilves is one of Russia's biggest critics and a strong supporter of Georgia's bid to join NATO. President Ilves was one of four Eastern European leaders who stood alongside Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last month at a rally held in Tbilisi to support Georgia's independence after the Russian invasion. But even before the conflict began, Ilves said Moscow feared democracies like Estonia because they threatened its own authoritarian regime. He said it was time the West understood the importance of supporting the post-Soviet democracies on Russia's border.
President ILVES: If you're country of about 1.3 million, and you're being bullied by a country of 142 million, someone's got to stand up and say something.
FEIFER: Modern Estonia has had difficult relations with Russia from the start. The Russians say they liberated Estonia from the Nazis in World War II. But the Estonians say Nazi rule was replaced by 40 years of Soviet occupation. Marco Mickelson, head of parliament's European affairs committee, says Estonians can't let the Russians deny the years of Soviet tyranny.
Mr. MARCO MICKELSON (Chairman, European Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament): This is where the open democratic society like Estonia is, we cannot just erase memories which are still very vivid in people's minds today.
FEIFER: Even after independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia says Moscow is meddling in its internal affairs. When the government removed the statue of a Red Army soldier from the center of Tallinn last year, Russia reacted with fury. Estonian officials say Russian propaganda incited riots by members of the country's large ethnic Russian minority. The Estonians also claim that Russian cyber attacks briefly paralyzed Estonian government and financial Web sites.
But Estonia's ethnic Russians say they're caught in the middle of the standoff. They say that government is discriminating against them with tough citizenship laws and other regulations, and that last year's riots were prompted by a feeling of hopelessness. Clarissa Nishadimova(ph) heads the organization that led the protest against the removal of the Soviet statue.
Ms. CLARISSA NISHADIMOVA (Leader of Organization for Ethnic Russians in Estonia): (Through Translator) Accusations that we are directed by Moscow are untrue. That statue was important to many in the non-Estonian population. No one listened to our pleas to leave it in place.
FEIFER: Many Estonians say the ethnic Russians are being used by Moscow as an excuse to interfere in Estonian affairs. They say the lesson of Russia's invasion of Georgia is further proof that NATO and the EU should offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine to enable them to resist Russian interference, as Estonia has done. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Tallinn.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.