Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T
Estonia's Bungled Military Reform
Mel Huang

For many years now, Estonia has made membership in NATO a major priority of its foreign and security policy. Politicians fall over themselves declaring their dedication to the cause, which sometimes results in rash and hasty decisions. However, even well thought-out plans at times miss the real focus, as public relations seem to overwhelm actual needed reforms. Over all, Estonia is making its road to NATO and its military development more difficult than it should be.

Recently, Defence Minister Jüri Luik publicly presented the "Membership Goals" document received from NATO in response to Estonia's submitted "Membership Action Plan" (MAP). The document lays out areas of development for Estonia's military up to the year 2006. Minister Luik admitted that many of the areas covered by the document, such as command structure, communications and training, had not received as much attention as upgrading defence infrastructure - the primary task of military reform at the moment. This clearly shows the one-sidedness of the policies coming from the Defence Ministry and the political leadership. The civilian overlords of Estonia's military seem to forget that new and well-equipped barracks and military hardware are of less use if the forces are undisciplined and inadequately trained.

The magic two per cent barrier

Politicians like percentages, especially ones such as the five per cent barrier needed for parties to earn seats under proportional representation. It seems politicians among NATO candidate states have also fallen prey to this easily symbolic concept. Politicians talk about the magic figure that would put them on the clear high road to NATO: defence spending at two per cent of the national GDP. True, funding is a massive part of military reform, especially in the Baltic states, where a brand new military had to be created (unlike in Poland, for example). However, the talk of defence spending has overwhelmed the debate over military reform, and other vital areas, such as command restructuring, seem to have been de-emphasised.

Estonia's defence spending plan foresees the crossing of the two per cent threshold very quickly -namely, by 2002 - with annual increases of about 0.2 per cent of GDP until then. In a balanced budget, its effects on spending in other areas, such as education, are bound to be felt. Nevertheless, wise spending is necessary in order for the scarce funds (keeping in mind Estonia's size) to be used most effectively. Past examples do not inspire much confidence. For example, millions were spent on the acquisition of weapons from Israel, which are questionable in their NATO "compatibility" and effectiveness outside of desert warfare; in fact, the weapons malfunctioned in the cold temperatures that are common in this part of the world. To make things worse, it appears that an oversight in bookkeeping resulted in Estonia paying too much interest to the Israeli company. Similarly, ten T-55 tanks donated by Poland to Estonia are sitting in Poland, still waiting - after many months - for transport to the tank-less Estonia.

Musical chairs

The development of Estonia's military is severely hindered by the apparent game of musical chairs played by politicians. Within one year, Estonia has had three commanders of its military (albeit two are acting commanders), with another change to come this summer. Last year, clearly the most qualified military leader in Estonia Lt General Johannes Kert departed for the US for a one-year training course at the War College and is due to return in June. At the time, President Lennart Meri chose Colonel Urmas Roosimägi, the former head inspector of the air defence system, as the acting commander in Lt Gen Kert's absence. But unexpectedly, at the start of the new year, Meri replaced Col Roosimägi with Colonel Märt Tiru, the head of the General Staff's foreign relations department. All this in the name of better NATO integration?

A massive shift in leadership does not bode well for the troops and reforms. It is difficult to implement reforms as a new military commander, especially at a rank of colonel (replacing a general). The new year replacement was done for the sake of working intensely toward the MAP, but it merely sacrifices one part for another. Many military experts feel that Col Roosimägi was an excellent administrator but a weak diplomat and had trouble liasing with politicians. Col Tiru, on the other hand, is known for his abilities in communicating the needs of the military to diplomats and politicians. Sacrificing one skill for the other for a mere six-month period is a risky move, especially since Lt Gen Kert will be back likely before Col Tiru has firmly established himself in his temporary job.

Much of this chaos could have been prevented if President Meri had temporarily promoted Major General Ants Laaneots in the summer of 1999, when Lt Gen. Kert first left for his studies. However, there is a deep bias against Maj Gen Laaneots, as he served with the Soviet (later Russian) military long after the restoration of Estonia's independence. However, at this stage, there are no officers of any significant rank who have not put in at least some service during the Soviet era - except for those returning from the West. The reign of former commander General Aleksander Einseln at the head of the Defence Forces showed the incompatibility of the two different systems in this era of military reform. Maj Gen Laaneots, who was the Chief of the General Staff when Kert departed for the United States, decided to leave and take a teaching post at the Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL), indirectly depriving Estonia of one of its top military experts.

Serious military and societal reform

In order for Estonia's goal of joining NATO to be a serious one, politicians must see beyond the spending issue and work on the core of the military - the individuals. The leadership question should be settled and kept stable, to allow for longer-term and more earnest reforms to be pursued. If, for some reason, Lt Gen Kert is replaced upon his return, as it is rumoured he will be, it would be yet another setback for the military. Lt Gen Kert is one of the few individuals who can command discipline and respect in Estonia's military, and that is something sorely needed right now - NATO or no NATO. Military reforms, contrary to what politicians think, cannot be carried out overnight or over a two-year span.

Another area of concern that the politicians ought to pay attention to is the lack of will among the population to defend the state. A survey taken in December last year showed that only 63 per cent of Estonians would defend the country's independence. Politicians have inspired little patriotism among the public, and the Soviet legacy left a terrible distaste for the military among the citizens.

With many of the well-educated and nouveaux riche Estonians not interested in the defence of their nation - many of them, including successful bankers and other entrepreneurs, avoid military service on purpose by bribing doctors or remaining registered at university - the social status of the military is one issue that needs to be considered more seriously. A recent Defence Ministry report found that only half of the men who had enlisted in 1999 had completed secondary school and ten per cent did not even have nine years of education. More alarming is that only one recruit among thousands had a university degree. Lt Gen Kert emphasised this during a speech in 1999, saying there could be a military leadership crisis in the future if the university-educated population fails to see the need for its participation in the military.

Frankly, it would not be surprising if a mock battle between Estonia's military circa 1929 and circa 1999 resulted in a victory for the former. At the time that it was active, patriotism and serving the nation were notions still respected and ones which permeated the entire society; the military still had adequate equipment (this is before Estonia sold its naval fleet to Peru!); and the military was blessed with a large leadership pool (too large, in fact), consisting of those with leadership experience from the War of Independence and Tsarist times.

Hopefully, Estonia's politicians today will realise that generous spending and quick fixes are not the way to reform a military.

Mel Huang, 13 January 2000

For More Information:

The Estonian Defence Ministry

The Estonian Foreign Ministry

Office of President Lennart Meri

The General Staff of the Estonian Defence Forces (in Estonian)

Riigikogu (Parliament of Estonia)

The official NATO web site mirror in Estonia



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