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Sildam: Neither officials nor politicians can run the country by themselves

Toomas Sildam
Toomas Sildam Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Current EU Ambassador to Ukraine Matti Maasikas said two years ago that the conviction according to which officials could run Estonia by themselves is false, Toomas Sildam writes.

Deputy head of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), Minister of Finance Martin Helme is far more direct than PM Jüri Ratas. While Ratas has vaguely explained that Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik and the ministry's secretary general Illar Lemetti both had to leave for the ministry to overcome a management crisis, Helme admitted on his show on Tre Radio that the choice was between the coalition breaking apart or EKRE replacing the minister, with dismissal of the secretary general a part of the deal.

This confirmed existing rumors that Illar Lemetti's head was the price for the coalition staying together after the dismissal of the rural affairs minister whom the PM no longer trusted.

That is not all. Martin Helme said that heads of coalition parties agreed on an entire package of further agreements that – according to the finance minister – the public would not benefit from knowing about and that he vowed to take care of quietly to avoid another "ax and crowbar attack."

The nature of these agreements has not been made public by PM Jüri Ratas either.

EKRE chair Mart Helme characterized the decision to give up Järvik as a tactical retreat. The impression one gets from what Martin Helme has said or written is that we're dealing with a strategic offensive instead.

Who is left facing the armored battalions and infantry brigades? Right now, it seems the answer is Estonia's apolitical and professional officialdom. Including officials' independence in going public with suspicions caused by politicians meddling in supervision proceedings. That is what was done in early August by Illar Lemetti who, as secretary general of the Ministry of Rural Affairs, told the state secretary and through him the PM about the activities of the ministry's political managers, which information is now being digested by investigative organs. This is the subject matter of the Lemetti case that needs to be separated from form – how he protested his removal from office and moved for preliminary legal protection from the government when still in office.

It is difficult to say whether other civil servants will have as much courage to talk about their suspicions if they concern the actions of politicians in the future.

And so, the thing that many will take away from last week is several politicians' sneering and malicious disposition that accompanied the decision to release Lemetti from office made at an extraordinary government sitting held over the phone on November 25. Jaanus Karilaid from the Centre Party summed it up as "reinstatement of the political level."

Writer Urmas Vadi gave us an allegory of a dignified exit. It ends with Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik walking across his office in a dignified manner and closing behind him a dignified door the handles of which are made from… the shinbones of secretaries general.

And yet, politicians, such as ministers, cannot make do without a body of officials who support them in fulfilling their political promises, including the coalition agreement. Isamaa should know this very well, having been part of several governments. By now, the Centre Party could also have overcome the distrust it felt for officials when it first left the opposition to become coalition leader three years ago. Even EKRE, locked in its merciless struggle against the so-called deep state, has already experienced cooperation between officials and politicians in several ministries. Father and son Helme feel it every day, serving an as interior and finance ministers respectively.

But now, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme says on the Helmes' Sunday radio show concerning the Ministry of Rural Affairs under Mart Järvik: "Utterly corrupt officials who have failed at their job, doing it selectively and arbitrarily, are accusing the minister who wanted to put them to work."

Let us contemplate that sentence once again, leaving aside names.

Corruption is a criminal offense in Estonia. A corrupt official, if found guilty by a court of law, is a criminal. An interior minister who knows that someone is tied to corruption – including a civil servant – is obligated to notify the prosecution, internal security service or the central criminal police for official proceedings to ensue and an end to violations. It can be no other way because they are the minister for internal affairs.

By the way, that is what secretary general Lemetti did in early August. Now, one would hope that Minister of the Interior Mart Helme is as decisive and has already or is about to forward information on corruption in civil service to capable organs. It is an extremely serious allegation.

But more on officials.

Naturally we want the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) to talk about the listeria scandal more openly, in more detail and using facts, especially as concerns restricting the activities of fish processor M.V.Wool. We want all officials to adopt the clear message principle promoted by Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise.

What we do not want are professionally muted officials, rendered timid and conservative by politicians, anxious people suppressing initiative who go to work by 8.30 a.m. and leave by 5.30 p.m.

"Would officials be able to run the state by themselves?" one of Estonia's brightest diplomats Matti Maasikas asked two years ago in an essay written for Postimees. "To believe the papers, that is already what's happening. Wrong. While a professional orchestra can get through the symphony without a conductor, the music would be choppy – someone needs to dictate pace. The same applies to running a country where a wise contribution from both politicians and officials is required," Maasikas wrote.

When Minister of the Interior Mart Helme equated Brexit to Eastern Europe breaking free from the Soviet Union in July of this year, Matti Maasikas, still serving as deputy secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, said how Estonian diplomats find it increasingly difficult to claim policy has not changed under the new government. The reply was Martin Helme asking: "Who do you think you are? Putting an end to this kind of administration is why we are in the government."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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