Center Party could raise its profile explaining NATO to local Russians (9)

Erik Gamzejev is the editor-in-chief of Põhjarannik, a paper based in Kohtla-Järve in Ida-Virumaa (Põhjarannik)
By Erik Gamzejev
7/12/2016 9:29 AM
Category: Opinion

While 88% of Estonians support increasing NATO’s military presence, most local Russians are against it. That’s 25% of the country’s population. The Center Party could explain to them what caused the increased allied presence, reduce opposition to Estonia’s defense policy, and gain a lot in the process, Erik Gamzejev writes.

Estonian’s leading politicians have made quite an effort over the last few months to get our NATO allies to increase their presence here. At the same time, a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Defence not long ago shows that while 88% of Estonians support this course, more than half of the local Russians are against it. That’s roughly 25% of the population of this country.

Is this inevitable? Do we have to take it as it is, taking into account the strong connection of local Russians to Russia and the information they receive from there? Or would it make more sense to try and bring these different attitudes to essential matters of national security closer together? If we should strive for better understanding in the interest of the internal strength of the state, how can we get it done?

Regardless of the different attitudes towards the presence of allied forces, it is clearly in the common interest of both Estonians and Estonian Russians to avoid armed conflict. For the Estonian authorities it would make more sense to make an effort and explain to the Russians living here - through local Russian media as well as face to face - that bringing allied units here serves just this objective. The more soldiers out of different NATO members state are in Estonia, the smaller anyone’s interest to plan attacks on our area.

Every nation has to take care of its defense, and all nations that can be taken seriously do this within the limits of their own resources. The defense forces of countries with differently sized populations and budgets can’t all be equal.

One can’t compare this to a football match, where independently from a country’s size there are always 11 players on the field and where from time to time there may be a game where Wales can beat Russia, or Iceland can beat England.

To defend their territory in reality most small countries need allies. Especially when there’s a neighbor with a powerful military that behaves unpredictably, isn’t the friendliest of countries, and has crossed its borders into other countries under different pretexts over the recent years.

Looking for allies, you choose those who are trustworthy, and of whom you can expect real help. Estonia made this strategic choice and has been a member of NATO for the last 12 years. This has been a time of peace for our country, and people are working together to keep it that way.

NATO’s role and the principles of Estonian defence policy are something the members of both government and parliament should go and talk about decidedly more often in places like Sillamäe and Lasnamäe, Narva and Kohtla-Järve. The myths and fears related to NATO that ozr neighbor is trying to stir up can only be countered this way.

To answer the question whether or not Russia’s efforts to influence public opinion are successful, let’s think back to late summer 2008. Back then, after Russian forces had invaded Georgia, the Riigikogu passed a resolution in support of the country. This infuriated the trade unions of power engineers in Narva, and pressure only let off after then Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet (Reform) drove there and explained to the engineers in Russian and in understandable terms why Estonia supported Georgia. Paet’s trip might not have changed the way his audience sees the world, but they understood, and that’s what’s important.

The politicians of the Center Party play a very important role in the effort to win greater support for Estonia’s defence policy among Russians. The Center Party is a much greater authority in this part of the population than any other political party in the country.

If Mailis Reps, Jüri Ratas, Kadri Simson, and others close to them have made it their goal to lead their party out of its long lasting political isolation, the explanation of Estonia’s defence policy to their voters could be a great asset in the process.

It’s natural for an opposition party to attack the parties in power on any issue they can find. But defence policy should be common ground, a matter of supporting and not opposing each other.

The party’s potential presidential candidate, Mailis Reps, has been saying lately that she wants to reduce “war hysteria” in Estonia. Whatever she means by it, there seems to be a wish to appeal primarily to Russian-speaking voters. This stands out, also considering her recent meetings in Sillamäe.

Reps could tell people just as well that bringing a single NATO battalion to Estonia doesn’t constitute a threat to Russia following any military logic, but that this move is intended to increase the feeling of security of the people living here. Especially considering the sheer mass of military units assembling on the other side of our eastern border, and how much bigger their military exercise are than NATO’s.

These facts, also including Russia repeatedly violating Estonian airspace, are the reasons that are forcing Estonia and its allies to do more for national defense.

If the people who are talking about change in the Center Party managed to really reduce opposition to Estonia’s defense policy, other doors would open for them to participate more in important decisions. And this could make all of society better and stronger.

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Erik Gamzejev is the editor-in-chief of Põhjarannik.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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