Kalle Koop: Looks like the government finds Estonia too safe

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Kalle Koop. Source: Private collection

Life in Estonia is too safe. That is how the Estonian Rescue Workers Union interprets the position of the government following its decision to cut the budgets of security institutions during fiscal strategy deliberations, Kalle Koop writes.

The Rescue Board must cut €2.36 million from its budget that will mean closing several rescue commandos and laying off around 100 rescue workers. The cuts materializing would see around the same number of policemen let go. Therefore, it is a fact that the quality of internal security will not be the same after the cuts, it will inevitably fall.

It is one of the main tasks of the state to ensure its citizens' safety

The state must stand firm in whichever situation, including in the most difficult crises, as the public feeling of safety forms one of the founding pillars of the state. Both coalition parties have emphasized the importance of safety in their election platforms.

For example, the Reform Party promised to start valuing the contribution of active people in security, also by hiking the salaries of rescue workers and policemen to a level that recognizes their input. Another promise was to improve preparedness for crises by proceeding increasingly from the principles of broad-based and comprehensive national defense.

It remains unclear in this context why despite the fundamental importance of security, clear promises by politicians and what is already strong economic growth, it is necessary to slash the internal security and Defense Forces budgets.

How will these budget cuts contribute to the security of the people? And can we really describe a 3-percent salary hike as fair recognition of contribution in a situation where rescue workers were promised the national average salary by 2023, while the reality of the situation sees the average salary run away from us in great strides?

Cuts may be good for state finances, but responsible administration as touted by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas goes far beyond fiscal matters. Finance is just one gear in the greater state mechanism, and while it is undoubtedly very important, it cannot be a goal in itself as it would ruin the harmony of the system as a whole.

World Bank economist Peeter Lõhmus recently wrote on the pages of Postimees that fiscal balance should not be turned into a dogma. This from an internationally recognized financial expert and not a local politician. Unfortunately, the Estonian government is doing the opposite.

Cuts due to necessity or ideology?

In order for a state to function well and be sustainable, one needs to understand how it operates as a mechanism both on the level of details and in general. Something that is definitely lacking in the current government. The problem seems rooted in the Reform Party's neoliberal worldview clinging to which has shaped fiscal balance into such a powerful obsession that it has become a hindrance in terms of adequately interpreting reality.

Cutting in hindsight a crisis-ridden public sector without a single effects analysis – simply to demonstrate so-called solidarity with its private counterpart – is a very questionable decision at best. It is sure to contribute to feelings of insecurity in society that might return as a new wave of cuts and layoffs in the private sector that will in turn manifest in slower growth, falling tax revenue, growing unemployment and additional strain on the social system.

We have only just left the crisis behind and are already in a hurry to create new problems for ourselves. We should definitely measure nine times and cut once, as the saying goes. It is insensible to tear down a functional system in the name of saving marginal sums in the state budget context.

Talk of cuts has already sowed plenty of confusion, dissatisfaction and strife. Is it, coupled with insecurity injected back into the people, really worth the millions to be saved? No, definitely not! But why do it and who stands to benefit?

We are left with a single explanation: that it is part of the Reform Party's election campaign. "We stopped agencies' overspending and fixed up public finances," has a nice ring to it. Advertising par excellance that could come off credible at first glance. However, doubts arise once one starts looking deeper into the matter.

Were responsible administration behind the cost-cutting plan, as the public is being told, it would not be universal. Effects analyses would have come first.

Security in jeopardy

Estonia finds itself in a situation where the government's ill-considered actions are directly harming the country's security and defensive capacity. How else to describe a situation where the Defense Forces have already announced laying off 270 people, a number of rescue and police workers stand to lose their jobs, development plans and equipment investments are postponed and trainings canceled etc.

The Rescue Board has been ordered to cut €2.36 million from its budget, with administrative expenses sees as the source. This fact alone is enough to suggest the powers that be have not done their homework. The board's administrative expenses total €9.64 million of which just €7.28 would be left after the cut.

While this might seem like a lot of money if one is not familiar with the system, it needs to pay for everything the board uses: protective clothing, fuel, servicing and repair of machinery, trainings and prevention efforts, down to laundry detergent and pens.

The effect of inflation must not be underestimated either as every new tender has proved more expensive than the last. Will firefighters have to go back to fighting flames with broken gloves? It is clear that the cut cannot be facilitated at the expense of administrative costs. And because State Real Estate Ltd. rental costs are fixed, staff expenses are the only thing left.

Information published inside the Rescue Board suggests that staff cuts will hit all areas, from prevention and supervision to accident response. No fewer than 80 percent of the board's personnel is made up of on-call workers – the very people who come to help you when the worst happens.

The union finds that complying with the cuts plan would require four or five commandos to be closed, around 100 people laid off and public security to suffer considerably as a result. Help will have to come from farther away and arrive later, while we may not have enough people to react in critical moments all of which means that accidents will have more severe consequences. The workload of rescuers will grow, as will the number of job-related accidents and health problems. It is not being talked about. Why?

Rescuers in need of rescuing

Rescue workers are on the front lines of every crisis and have done well despite their meager salary. Why else have the Estonian people given the work of the Rescue Board the highest marks for several years in a row, recognizing the board as the most trustworthy state agency again in the second quarter of 2021.

Listening to politicians talk about the necessity of cuts, rescue workers feel indignation and disappointment. And with good reason as they were promised at least the national average pay by 2023, while they cannot be sure they will have a job at all tomorrow. What is a politician's word worth then?

The 3-percent so-called salary hike does not even cover inflation. Rescuers have done their part, while politicians' promises remain empty words. Their motivation gone as good work has only bought misery once again.

Has Estonia really become too safe a place to live that we can afford to lower that level without any sort of analysis? Government and politicians – are you prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions?

Rescuers are in close contact with communities in their daily work and hear about what makes people happy, what worries them and what they expect. There is a troubling amount of hopelessness as people are disappointed with governance and politics. That the next bunch will be even worse…

Politics is becoming more vulgar by the day, while the know-it-all arrogance of representatives of the people keeps growing. Neither the opinion of experts nor the expectations of the people are heeded or if they are, it is done selectively. The powers that be continue living in their own world and the process of alienation from the people deepens. That according to the Estonian Constitution the people of Estonia bear the supreme power is forgotten.

The Rescue Board has become an institution protecting the population and rescuers feel an even greater responsibility because of it. Responsibility for the safety of the state and its people as protecting you is what we do. It is our duty to direct attention to whichever threats – including political – to prevent them before they materialize.

Society needs uniting instead of splitting, businesslike debate and knowledge-based approach based on expert assessment instead of cock-and-bull stories and intimidation tactics by arrogant politicians. Society most definitely does not need yet another parade of high-sounding election promises, including budget cuts for the sake of cutting the budget. As suggested by more than a few economists, we need to plot a course for economic growth as no one has cut their way to prosperity yet.

Instead of antagonism and mud-slinging, Estonia needs involvement and discussion, a tax debate and a public forum on whether we have too little, just enough or too much of the state. We need to turn to the people and experts to determine what kind of an Estonia we want and how to get there.

I'm sure there are things that can be cut in the state budget, while responsible administration would see these determined through analysis as opposed to a universal cost-cutting campaign.

Estonia's situation is not nearly as bad that we don't have time to wait for expert assessments. Promises need to be kept and responsibility taken, also by politicians. Rescuers are true to their word.

The Estonian Rescue Workers Union urges the Riigikogu and government to behave responsibly and abandon the cuts plan because its effects on society have not been analyzed by experts. The planned cuts concern us all and must be justified and transparent.

Secondly, we urge the Riigikogu and government to behave honesty and with dignity by keeping the salary advance promise to rescuers.

And thirdly, we need to launch a debate by asking the people and experts what level of security we want in this country and how to reach it.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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