Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Estonian seal The Ups and Downs of Musical Chairs
Mel Huang

A curious and distorted variant of the children's game "musical chairs" continues to be played out in Estonia's national defence sphere.

Instead of happily screaming children when the music is cut, the scrambled military leadership sigh at the inevitability of the game's outcome - especially when the music's manager or, in this case, President Lennart Meri is malevolently manipulating the on-and-off switch to his favour. The confusion caused by this deranged game has long-lasting effects on Estonia's military development despite any short-term advantages, some of which its proponents have conjured up in defence of the game.

No one was surprised when President Meri relieved Lieutenant General Johannes Kert of his position as commander of the Estonian Defence Forces on 30 June. The issue had been press speculation for over a year, even before Kert took his one-year study leave to the US War College. During an earlier scandal in 1999 that still has unexplained and circumstantial ties to the military - mostly driven by press speculation and having snowballed from there - Kert's honourable resignation was rejected by President Meri. Through that move, Kert's position as commander of the Defence Forces already became tenuous at best.

Instead, during the period of just over a year since Kert's study leave began, Estonia has had three acting military chiefs - in less than 13 months.

First it was Colonel Urmas Roosimagi, appointed as acting commander upon Kert's leave in the middle of 1999. However, Roosimagi lasted half a year only, to be replaced in the new year by the President. According to press reports, Colonel Roosimagi was seen as a poor liaison with political and diplomatic officials from home and abroad - thus a risk for Estonia's NATO integration efforts. However, Roosimagi was respected within the military and had made efforts in continuing the reforms General Kert had promoted before his leave. In many ways, that switch was a sign that talk, for some the political heads of the country, is more important than substance.

Appointed as the new acting commander was Colonel Mart Tiru. However, many questioned the move since the appointment was to last only six months, for General Kert was to return on 1 June. Speculation ran rife again that Kert's career was to be cut upon his return, since it was counterintuitive for long-term reform programmes for a commander to take over for a six-month stretch. Other political watchers just wondered whether the political leaders of the country were just not seeing the picture right, not understanding how the military hierarchy and mindset worked. In many ways, both schools of thought were dead-on.

As the 1 June return date of General Kert approached, the press again ran rife with speculation on the fate of Kert, Tiru and the military itself. Defence Minister Juri Luik went on record in the press many times as stating unequivocally that Kert is the commander of the Defence Forces. However, it is a political trend in most countries that the more active and vocal such a defence is, the less likely it is to be believed. However, President Meri placed General Kert on holiday leave, which was extended to last until the very beginning of July. So, the timing of Meri's announcement at the end of the working day of the last day of June was not a surprise at all.

For the third time in just over a year, Estonia has a new acting commander of the Defence Forces - Lieutenant Colonel Aarne Ermus. Rumours float around in the press that Kert was first offered a demotion - to that of land forces commander.

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But anyone with a military background would know that a demotion without very good reason is one of the no-no's of the institution - especially a sharp a fall as being removed from the top military position only to be subordinated to your former subordinate several ranks below. Even though Estonia is a small country, such a suggestion of demotion demonstrates a lack of understanding of military hierarchy and structure, something the political leaders of this country have done little to help.

The crazy games of musical chairs - overseen by President Lennart Meri - have done more damage to the structure of the Estonian military than anything else over the past few years. The Defence Forces arguably lost their most talented tactician, Major General Ants Laaneots, when he was bypassed for personal reasons to take the acting helm upon Kert's study leave. True, Laaneots has a long Soviet military background, but he is also one of the top military minds in the country. However, Laaneots is currently teaching at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, so the contribution remains.

High-ranking officers have been sent to Brussels to be attaches and called back as often as the musical chairs in Tallinn, not doing much to show the stability of the Estonian military.

With all the political leaders talking about two per cent of GDP for defence spending, NATO interoperability, peacekeeping detachments, hosting high-ranking NATO delegations and others, the personnel issue is rarely taken as a primary problem in need of reform. That is the area of military reform that must be done by the military, as issues such as leadership, loyalty, hierarchy and structure cannot be imposed arbitrarily by those with little understanding of the institution of the military.

The point of having civilian control of the military is to have a professional and non-political military capable of doing the job of national defence at the command of the popularly elected government. It is certainly not to be belittled as an institution that knows nothing about reforming itself, when its very core is being toyed around by civilian "controllers."

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Worse, if rising officers in the Defence Forces see such behaviour by their political leaders - especially when done in such an arbitrary fashion in a sphere controlled and dependent on discipline and order - Estonia's personnel problem will deteriorate even further.

It seems that being a good military man is not enough for Estonian politicians, though that could rebound in a dangerous trend of politicising national defence. Why risk a career in the military if somehow a cross politician that you rarely know decides he doesn't like you personally and will give you an ultimatum of demotion or discharge? The whole institution of the military, developed over the centuries, would collapse if the hierarchy system was breached.

President Lennart Meri, as the chief arbitrary executor of this damaging game of musical chairs, should temper such short-sighted moves by looking at things from the military aspect.

All the negotiations and shmoozing with NATO officials are useless without a military that can stand proudly on its own two feet. The emasculation of the Defence Forces by arbitrarily tinkering with the hierarchy and officer corps says more to NATO about what is wrong with Estonia's military reforms - the problems in the military are much fewer than the problems of civilian control. And with his final term ending in about a year, Meri should not pursue the hated US political norm of "lame duck" presidents who try to "leave their mark" during their last year.

Perhaps it would serve President Meri and the Estonian nation better, if the President went and spoke to more people in the military of all ranks and levels, instead of relying on a handful of observers and analysts who view things through yet another ivory tower - whether it be in Tallinn or Washington.

Mel Huang, 4 July 2000

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