Before Central Europe Review took its summer hiatus in July, Estonia was mired in a political controversy over its military's leadership. Weeks later, the situation remains murky, with splashes of controversy and intrigue keeping political and military analysts on their toes.
Though Lieutenant General Johannes Kert is no longer the commander of Estonia's Defence Forces, there is still confusion over the upper echelons of the military's leadership. The lack of transparency and information throughout this PR debacle has fuelled rumour-mongering and tabloid exaggerations, though many of the events that really have occurred in the past few weeks would look, at first, like such excesses. The only thing that this game of musical chairs has produced is a feeling of confusion in Estonia's national defence sphere. And that cannot be good for a country hoping to receive an invitation to join NATO in 2002.
Ever since General Kert was dismissed by President Lennart Meri on 30 June, press speculation has focussed on two things: why, and who next? In the ensuing weeks, Meri failed to give much of a reason for why Kert was discharged. Rumours floated about the cause of the sacking, with one suggesting it originated from a phone conversation Kert had with one of Meri's advisors.
During this alleged conversation, General Kert voiced objections—as the commander of the Defence Forces—to the proposed promotion of then-acting Commander Märt Tiru from colonel to brigadier general. This was allegedly seen by Meri as insubordination and a challenge to civilian control of the military. However, that is just one of the many alleged scenarios to float around concerning this case. What happened at this stage is perhaps trivial, considering the damage caused by the lack of information from the supposedly responsible civilian "controllers" of the military.
When President Meri named Lieutenant Colonel Aare Ermus as the acting commander after the dismissal of Kert, most assumed that this was to get now-Brigadier General Märt Tiru out of the firing line until he is confirmed by the Riigikogu (the Estonian Parliament). However, rumours continued to circulate about other possible candidates, such as Colonel Oskar Mark and Colonel Teo Krüüner.
During the period of confusion, before the Parliament could deal with this issue, the proposal came out to offer the post of Commander of Ground Forces to General Kert. But when it turned out that Kert had voiced reluctance to work under Tiru and that the choice of Tiru seemed somewhat unpopular among the Riigikogu members, the compromise choice became Rear Admiral Tarmo Kõuts, the head of the Border Guards—whom President Meri nominated to the post.
Although, unlike some of the other military men, Admiral Kõuts does not have extensive military training, he is seen as an efficient organiser, a strong leader and a man of integrity who can restore some stability to the mess of the military hierarchy created by the politicians. Others have suggested that Kõuts was seen as a good choice, as it would in fact keep Kert in the military and possibly place him in the post of Commander of Ground Forces.
However, the local press reminded politicians that Admiral Kõuts is no pushover, especially if the sole purpose of the Kert sacking is for Meri to assert his civilian "control" over the military. During a period of budget cuts, Admiral Kõuts publicly challenged politicians to come up with more funds for the real front-line defenders of Estonia—the Border Guards—and even threatened to resign if his concerns are not taken seriously. Hopefully, Admiral Kõuts will be confirmed quickly so he can start the repair job.
Summer is over
Although the Riigikogu sat for several extraordinary sessions during the summer, the session on 28 August was the one everyone had anticipated: the debate and vote on the Kert sacking. President Meri came and spoke to the Parliament, and so did General Kert. Meri did not elaborate much on the reason for sacking Kert, except for the standard statement on his behavior being "inconsistent" with civilian military control. Meri said he had "discreetly" offered another post to Kert, who he hinted was not a good organiser of the entire Defence Forces structure, but Kert refused—that being the reason for dismissal. Once again, if anything, the President made the situation more murky.
Kert, speaking to the Riigikogu, responded, "I don't know what the President is reproaching me for." General Kert, as well as many in the public, is still waiting for someone to properly explain why he was sacked. No one said it outright at the Riigikogu session, not even Defence Minister Jüri Luik. Instead, Luik criticised Kert's speech, calling it "a politician's speech."
And in a way it was a politician's speech. The politicians have politicised this situation, at the same time accusing Kert of playing politics with the military. Kert did, however, get some help in drafting his speech. Former MP and Notre Dame Professor Igor Gräzin, who is now an advisor to Riigikogu Speaker Toomas Savi, offered his assistance to Kert while he drafted his speech. Gräzin confirmed this was discussed with the Speaker beforehand. Though this showed a dent in the solidarity of the ruling coalition, in a way this assistance from the Reform Party did indeed politicise Kert more than he needed to be.
Someone forgot that summer is over
However, all of this might have resulted in utter confusion if it were not for one lone parliament member who seemed a little slow in readjusting to being back at work. The Riigikogu vote on dismissing General Kert was a squeaker at 47 votes for and 46 votes against, with a few notable crossovers and abstentions. However, one apparent crossover was later discovered to be a mistake.
MP Tõnu Kauba, a member of the opposition Centre Party, was apparently fidgeting with the electronic voting keypad during the voting period. At this moment, the electronic voting system registered his vote as "for" the dismissal of Kert—which was contrary to the Centre Party's position. He later told the press, "I'm extremely upset that I let my colleagues down,"
In any case, the damage has been done. The organisation of the military leadership was thrown into chaos as a result of politicians' games. The political elite showed that they were not capable of handling such a delicate situation, and even the Constitution looked somewhat flawed when officials were fighting over who has the right to do what in this messy situation. Kert is out of the top job, which, coming immediately after a year-long study trip to the United States, cannot be very pleasing to the Pentagon. What's done is done, but what is important now is damage control.
The best thing would be to quickly confirm Rear Admiral Tarmo Kõuts as Commander of the Defence Forces and let him rebuild the stability and reputation of the military. The Government must move fast to establish a proper legal and constitutional structure for the nation's defence structure and protect it from the whim of a habitually extra-constitutional President Meri. General Kert, by staying within the military leadership, would demonstrate his loyalty and honor above all the politicians, and would contribute his experience and skills in helping Admiral Kõuts in this difficult situation. Perhaps then this out-of-place game of musical chairs can be declared over.
Mel Huang, 4 September 2000
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