Estonian President apologizes for misfired interview remark

Other News Materials 28 February 2008 20:21 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa ) - Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Thursday he was sorry for misinterpreted remarks in a recent BBC interview that caused a storm of criticism from Estonia's Russian- speaking minority.

"I'm really sorry that my words were interpreted as offensive toward someone's language or national feelings," Ilves told the Swedish news agency TT, according to Postimees (The Courier) newspaper.

Estonia is a safe home for anyone whose native language is not Estonian, he said.

The president faced sharp criticism for his remarks to the BBC, saying that learning Russian would mean downplaying the years of Soviet occupation. A spokesperson for the president said his remarks were misinterpreted.

"Comparing the text of the publication with the transcript one can conclude that the journalist considerably freely utilized the original material," the Estonian Television website said on Thursday.

The website of the Russian-language newspaper "Narvskaya Gazeta" published the transcript of the interview obtained from the BBC journalist Tim Whewall.

"Speaking Russian, Ilves 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," the BBC Web site quoted Ilves in its report.

Estonia won back its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Estonia, like its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, had broken free from Russia in 1918 but was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 and again taken over by Moscow in 1944.

The Soviets deported many Estonians to Siberia. Others fled to the West during the Soviet era.

Ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking residents flooded the small Baltic nation, part of the Soviet policy to tip the ethnic balance. One-third of Estonia's 1.3 million people are Russian speakers.

Born in Sweden in 1953 to Estonian refugee parents, Ilves grew up in the US, worked in Germany, and moved to Estonia after independence, launching a political career that saw him elected as president in 2006.

He doesn't speak Russian, although since taking office he has often stressed that his mother was born in Russia and that his grandmother was an ethnic Russian.

He speaks fluent English and German and recently started studying French.