The Estonian military of today is quite small and, in this age of high-tech weaponry and interoperability across national and regional borders, its equipment is modest. Despite such obvious disadvantages, Estonia has pushed ahead and is doing a commendable job of fulfilling NATO criteria outlined under the Membership Action Plan. In less than a decade, a developing and capable small defence force has grown literally out of nothing. However, over the years, the Defence Ministry has demonstrated less aptitude at self-development than the Defence Forces, as evidenced by a chain of inexplicable, baffling lapses.
Over the years, the Defence Ministry has been one of the slowest to reform of all of Estonia's ministries; its public relations have also been most distant and murky, with its website being one telling example. Though many attribute the problems to the inactivity of the previous regime's long-serving defence minister, the current regime has not made many noticeable improvements.
The continual rhetoric of spending two per cent of GDP on defence pushed by the Defence Ministry as a "statement of commitment" to NATO integration is nothing more than window dressing, with serious problems such as those having to do with personnel, officers and organisation given lower priority. For NATO SACEUR General Wesley Clark to speak well of Estonia's commitment to defence spending is easy, but when officials from NATO and member countries examine the defence sphere at the working level, the real problems are evident, two per cent or no two per cent.
Thanks, but no tanks
The competence of the Defence Ministry was again at the centre of national debate with the recent rejection of T-55AM tanks donated by Poland. For months, the Defence Ministry failed to answer Poland on the offer, and the press picked at the Ministry for its basic indecisiveness. Estonia's Defence Forces do not have any tanks for defence or for training, thus, the media questioned, why would Estonia need to take this long to answer Poland? True, the tanks from Poland (though refurbished) are not the most modern and are expensive (though ammunition was included in the deal) to maintain, but the handling of the affair by the Defence Ministry was the real reason for displeasure. If the decision had been made swiftly for financial or even technical reasons, there would have been much less fuss.
However, by delaying the decision for months and letting the press play the issue for all it was worth, the Defence Ministry set itself up for the controversy. Even detractors of the tanks purchase voiced displeasure at the handling of the mess, as it basically embarrassed NATO-member Poland after keeping it hanging on for months on end. This does not resemble a goodwill gesture by an eager NATO candidate. Though rumours surfaced soon after the rejection that Estonia may be in line to receive modern Leopold-1 tanks, perhaps from Norway, they have been denied by officials, and it seems that the whole incident has been a clear violation of the classic axiom, "beggars can't be choosers."
The Defence Ministry had already gotten itself into a similar PR quagmire due an earlier similar incident with the United States. For months and months, the Defence Ministry did not reply to an offer of brand new Robinson R44 choppers for Estonia. This prompted then outgoing US military attaché to Estonia Peter Hendrikson to comment to Postimees that if Estonia does not use its military aid from the United States, it is liable to disappear. Though the Ministry accepted the choppers, the arguments were similar as with the Polish tanks - mainly, they were expensive to keep. Nevertheless, even the Defence Ministry knew better than to push the helping hand of Washington away.
As the co-ordinator of such acquisitions and use of foreign assistance in general, the Defence Ministry demonstrated a failure to handle the situation adequately and diplomatically. Minister Luik has admitted the task - juggling all the offers and packages from different countriesis - is difficult but that it is clearly the responsibility of the Defence Ministry. Equipment aside, the diplomatic fallout from such problems will have much longer term repercussions than any one individual offer.
Who is responsible?
The Defence Ministry, as the civilian government body dealing with national defence, has also acted questionably on the issue of civilian control of the military and the responsibility that it entails. Legislative gaps remain within the defence sphere, which the Defence Ministry has the legal responsibility to deal with by drafting appropriate laws. However, the activity of the Ministry remains limited, despite having a vocal chairman of the Riigikogu National Defence Committee, Tiit Tammsaar.
A massive crisis that erupted over the elite unit Special Operations Group (SOG) last year saw the press turn yellow and speculate on the motives of a comatose soldier instead of asking why the Defence Ministry and other civilian overseeing institutions failed to do their job. The acting leader of the SOG, Indrek Holm, was accused of taking part in a mysterious robbery attempt that left him comatose, with a bullet wound to the head. In a matter of days, the press branded the SOG as outlaws and various civilian institutions queued up denying knowledge of the Group's structure or even mere existence - despite it having been profiled in a television special just a short time before. The pressure was directed at the Defence Forces only, with little interest being diverted to the overseers, especially the Defence Ministry.
Commander of the Defence Forces, General Johannes Kert, submitted his resignation to President Meri. However, Meri refused it for a second time (the first being after a training accident in Kurkse), in effect, compromising Kert's role as the leader of the military. The Defence Ministry failed to take public responsibility for the scandal, attributing blame to the military. Yet since the scandal, the press has hounded Defence Minister Luik on account of only one thing - whether he would push Kert out or not.
Recently, the Defence Ministry finally began working on legislation regarding military organisation during peacetime, but the press interpreted it as a way to get rid of General Kert, as the draft contains a stipulation that the passage of the bill would force the removal of the sitting commander. Under pressure of mounting complaints, the Defence Ministry also backed off from a territorial reorganisation that would have consolidated forces into four districts and admitted it had not taken into account the implications for current localities with a military infrastructure.The trough is full
However, these are not the only negative examples of the work of the Defence Ministry; there are more. Acquisition of equipment has been problematic, with a recent report showing that conscripts were buying their own boots, as standard issue was less than standard and virtually unusable. A contract to build Estonia's airspace surveillance radar system had to be annulled and a new tender established due to violations of tender rules, after complaints by multinational defence firms. A trip by the Defence Minister to the US to sign an agreement on sharing classified information was rendered moot (though the trip went ahead), as the wording of the agreement to be signed turned out to be in contravention of Estonian legislation.
During the long, four-year tenure of former Defence Minister Andrus Öövel, these types of events were common. Accusing his first Defence Forces commander, General Aleksander Einseln, of having "blood on his hands" from Vietnam (Einseln was a distinguished US army officer and veteran of the Vietnam War)
Estonian politicians use the analogy of how much easier it is to turn a small boat around compared to a big boat to explain how Estonia's economy successfully transformed itself in such a short time. The Defence Ministry must also adhere to this analogy, if Estonia's hopes for NATO integration are to be realised.
Difficult issues regarding the personnel and civilian control of the military need to be examined even more than those of equipment acquisition. The Defence Ministry itself must be reformed to perform that essential role, as it does in every Western democracy; otherwise, NATO remains just a distant dream. Even if defence spending is upped to the promised level of two per cent of GDP, the lingering problems in the Defence Ministry will incapacitate Estonia's NATO integration, not to mention the nation's self defence.
A lecture delivered by Defence Minister Luik this past week on the need for civilian control over the military and for the improvement of its organisation is a good start. As recent talks indicate, amending laws and constitutional provisions to clear up that relationship, especially in the civilian control dispute between the Government and President, should be the next logical step. Cleaning up and repairing the Defence Ministry is also a much-needed task. Jüri Luik is an intelligent and knowledgeable individual, and hopefully, he can put this small but strayed ship back on course.
Mel Huang, 27 April 2000
Links to other external sites:
- The Government of Estonia
- The Defence Ministry of Estonia
- The Estonian Defence Forces [in Estonian]
- The Parliament (Riigikogu) of Estonia