Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999
T H E A M B E R C O A S T:
The Other Brussels Target
Throwing money not brains at the Estonian military
Despite the intense effort Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are making to increase their chances of European Union membership, there is another, perhaps more important, goal which lies in Brussels: NATO. NATO membership for the three countries is seen as a panacea in the long search for security for the oft-abused countries. Most of the political establishment feel that NATO membership - with its coveted nuclear umbrella and its oft-heard mantra of "an attack on one is an attack on all" - would provide that ultimate goal of security. However, working towards that goal has proven to be difficult, compounded as it is by the ever-present question of defence spending.
The visit of NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark to Lithuania and Latvia in late July brought another glimmer of hope to the Baltic states. Having already visited Estonia earlier in the year, General Clark sought to reassure the Balts that the door to NATO remains open and that the Kosova conflict will not hamper the integration process in the peaceful northern end of the continent. General Clark plainly told reporters at a joint news conference with Latvian Defence Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis that "there are no pre-conditions of a military nature for the countries wishing to join NATO," adding that there were no such conditions in the last round of enlargement (which included the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland). Despite publicly catching the Latvian defence minister off guard and though usually not voiced in such a blunt manner, the acknowledgement that NATO membership is simply a political decision is hardly an earth-shattering revelation.
The spending trap
Clark's comment highlights something that both NATO and the military brass of the three countries have stressed: the importance of personnel training over expensive military hardware. Recently, the debate in the three countries has fallen foolishly into the trap of defence spending, in an attempt to have the country reach the magical target of 2 percent of GDP. Although such intentions do send a message of seriousness to Brussels and Washington, spending alone fails to produce any actual results in military development, and in many ways, spending has become the problem for Estonia and its Baltic neighbours.
Nevertheless, it is true that defence spending is much more important in the Baltics than in other countries of Central Europe for several reasons.
First of all, after the restoration of independence in 1991, there was no military in the region, and the local military structure had to be re-built from the ground up. This was something that countries such as Poland or Romania did not have to worry about to such an extent. After all, those countries already had their own militaries, not to mention weapons, tanks and even jet fighters when they began revamping their political and military structures in 1989. The Baltics had none of the above when they caught up to the changes two years later.
Secondly, the damage left by the retreating Soviet/Russian army was catastrophic. Barracks and offices were stripped to the bone, even of copper wiring and aluminium siding. The water supplies were deliberately poisoned with excess chemicals and pollutants. Ships that could not be removed to Russia were scuttled beyond repair and stripped of all valuables, leaving the water horribly polluted. Cesspools of hazardous waste remain, an infamous example lies in the Estonian city of Sillamae.
Finally, the Red Army left behind the horrendous legacy of dedovshchina, the bullying of conscripts by officers, with sometimes fatal results.
The wrong message
Then came the need to purchase real equipment; something which was done with little prudence at times. During his first term as Prime Minister, the 32-year old Mart Laar commissioned a large weapons purchase from Israel. This controversial purchase placed a heavy debt burden on the country, while bringing in weapons which did not meet NATO standards. Worse, most did not function correctly in their new climactic environment and were rendered useless by Estonia's cold temperatures.
In any case, the recent rapid rise in defence spending at a time of budgetary crises sends the wrong message to NATO. How can a country be serious about defence without providing security and stability to its people first? With spending in almost all areas placed on hold, the Estonian government shocked the political world when it introduced a gigantic rise in defence spending in its year 2000 budget - up to 1.6 percent of GDP, a jump of nearly 25 percent from 1999.
Hiking defence spending is necessary and prudent, but not when done in such a way that it jeopardises the reasons for having a national defence in the first place. Also, the preoccupation with defence spending per se has left gaps in other vital security and national defence areas, such as funding for border control. The commander of Estonia's border guards, Admiral Tarmo Kouts, recently made a public appeal for more funds, rightly pointing out that border control is as important as national defence.
Structure is key
Most politicians, having fallen into the spending trap, fail to grasp the importance of restructuring the military and reforming it away from the old Soviet mould. The preoccupation with spending diverts important oversight responsibilities of the various defence ministries and parliaments, as was recently noticeably demonstrated in a case concerning the Estonian Special Operations Group (SOG).
The issue of personnel rarely makes it in to the realm of serious debate to the same extent and intensity as spending, despite it beingthe greatest current problem the Estonian military faces. During a speech on Estonia's day of independence, the country's Defence Forces Commander, Lieutenant General Johannes Kert, stressed this shortcoming, saying a leadership crisis would be inevitable if Estonia's most educated citizens continued to exclude themselves from the area of national defence. A gun is useless if the shooter cannot shoot straight.
The problem of conscription dodging - both legal and illegal - also continues to plague the military. The number of well-educated Estonians who deliberately fail to complete a rudimentary course at university in order to avoid conscription was shockingly high, until Tartu University finally cracked down. Many well-known young bankers and other high-profile personalities in Tallinn, who are self-professed patriots, openly talk about how much money they need to bribe a doctor to get out of military duty. A recent scandal saw border guards blacklist most of Estonia's national football team due to conscription evasion. A gun is also useless without a shooter.
Until personnel problems within the military are given as high a priority as military spending, the 2 percent spending scheme will only be a thinly veiled disguise covering the real problems of Estonia's military.
Mel Huang, 5 August1999
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