Former Finance Minister Martin Helme (EKRE leader) says in an interview, commenting on a recent opinion piece by Meelis Oidsalu, that it is an unfortunate fact that top public servants are rewarded instead of punished for failure in Estonia. Helme says that what Oidsalu suggests about an inner circle of officials is true and refers to appointment of officials as top-level corruption.
How would you comment on Meelis Oidsalu's article that ERR published on Monday where he talks about outgoing foreign intelligence chief Mikk Marran's power games and an inner circle of top public servants?
I did not get on well with Meelis Oidsalu. He has since then admitted that he is the deep state. But one can only agree with the article. What he describes is a toned-down version of what is really going on. Perhaps he held back on how intelligence works or regarding the relationship between intelligence and politicians. I would even say he was discreet in his article.
But the system of frankpledge and circulation of top positions [Oidsalu writes about] is objective reality. Concerning Oidsalu, I don't know whether he fell out with [head of the top public servants selection committee, State Secretary Taimar] Peterkop or whether they never got along to begin with. But it seems Peterkop has concentrated even more power during the time of the Kallas administration than he had inJüri Ratas' day. Peterkop runs the selection committee and pretty much everything – ministry secretaries and agency directors – moves through him.
When the time came to elect an undersecretary or a department head, I told the secretary who I wanted and who I didn't want as minister. And the committee made sure that was what happened.
It's even worse over at [state forest manager] RMK. Its supervisory board is made up primarily of politicians. It is quite simply a political decision who is running the RMK or Enterprise Estonia. And unlike a lot of other top public offices, these are virtually invisible places. You can remain invisible unless you want to be a public figure.
But in terms of of how intelligence and especially foreign intelligence affects domestic politics, I would say Oidsalu really held back.
What lies beneath the surface then?
What he had to say about the briefings – major deja vu. The government is given more thorough security briefings twice a month, while relevant ministers get them at least once a week and more often during complicated times. However, these briefings cannot be taken seriously. They are all classified, but really, they are just retellings of newspaper articles.
When I served as minister, I needed to make a separate appointment. I went into a lead chamber where I summoned officials to give me thorough reports on various topics I asked about. Only then was it of use. But the so-called formal briefings were mostly a waste of time.
And how these agencies burn through money... Everything in the state budget and inside ministries that gets a red stamp – I would say these agencies are corrupt. Not the kind of corruption where people steal... They simply do not count money and think that they don't answer to anyone.
It is not good, the picture we're seeing. And I would point out that the National Audit Office has virtually never been given the chance to audit them. Nor do they allow ministry audits to be properly carried out.
A few others former ministers have commented on the piece and suggested they are not aware of an inner circle of top officials. People are found through competitions, even though the minister does have some say in the matter. One is tempted to ask how are you so well informed? Have you experienced it as minister?
Naturally. I sat down with the secretary general and said that staff policy is among my priorities. And that I do not want top officials appointed without my knowledge and approval.
It is true that we have a host of ministers who do not care. Who only care about having a shiny car and being able to appear on talk shows. Who get their memos delivered by officials, tick all the boxes and think that is what a minister is supposed to do. I believe that constitutes failing the public and one's voters.
But appointments... Not just in my case, but for other EKRE ministers... How just two or three candidates were proposed to fill the posts of secretaries general, undersecretaries and agency chiefs in whose case it was clear which one was meant to get the job, with the other two there only to make it look like a competition and pull the wool over people's eyes. Those things were done so craftily, and when you finally did not agree... Basically, the minister was just presented with a fait accompli.
I recall how I chose the person to run the Money Laundering Data Bureau. The bureau was moved from the administrative area of the interior ministry to that of the Ministry of Finance, and I remember wanting someone who would put in the work. They fed me people who had already tried and failed. And competitions kept failing because the bureaucracy was intent on saddling me with someone I told them I would not have. Similar things happened for other ministers. They weren't coy about it either. And sitting atop that pyramid is Peterkop.
How do you see the role of the top executives selection committee?
It's what is really running the country. I believe it was Lenin who said that staffing decides everything. And staffing does decide everything. It has been a clear pattern in Estonia for at least a decade that no failure is punished but is rather rewarded with a promotion.
Oidsalu's piece points to the same thing. If you fail, you are given a different and possibly better out-of-the-way posting where you get paid the same or more. And it lasts for five years, which will be followed by another five years. It is one of the reasons why things are not working in Estonia. Because failure is rewarded instead of punished.
When we [EKRE] were part of the government, we repeatedly put pressure on Jüri Ratas to reform the committee. It is made up of top officials who then pick those in charge of picking top officials.
Perhaps you can explain in greater detail how the committee's work should be changed.
I don't know how it used to be for other coalitions, but when we were in power, top public servants, whether the attorney general or someone else, even the directors of EAS and KredEx – heads of ruling parties sat down and discussed who they wanted to see in those posts. This input was then sent to the supervisory board or the selection committee. The problem was that it didn't always manifest. If the bureaucracy disliked your candidate, all manner of formal tricks were pulled in terms of why it couldn't work. We need to have a system of quality control for top officials. Make sure their experience and skills match the office they are being considered for. But the political side of things must also be in there. Officials are meant to execute the government's policy, not that of other officials.
How would this quality control work? Who would be in charge?
The makeup of the officials selection committee needs to be changed. And its role should be advisory rather than decisive. There must be political input. There are two ways officials like to go about it. One is keeping quiet when a secretary general or undersecretary is nearing the end of their term and presenting the minister with a suitable candidate at the last minute. Fait accompli. You cannot afford to keep the position unfilled, while the person has already been briefed and made a promise. This is just one way of leaving ministers little choice.
The other is what is happening with security chiefs now. Even though their terms aren't up for another year or before parliamentary elections, meaning that we do not know what kind of a government will even be appointing them, we are seeing attempt to cement these positions for the incoming government to simply approve. The process is planned long in advance and persons most loyal to the system picked.
Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense Kusti Salm was rather cross and said that it is good practice in the West not to discuss how intelligence agencies are run in public view. Do you agree?
I categorically disagree. We have come to an extremely unfortunate situation where our intelligence agencies do whatever they please without answering to anyone, while not being up to the task. As soon as you suggest there are problems, people look at you funny and point out that intelligence is not criticized in civilized company. Excuse me, but why not? They need to guarantee our lives and security on the most basic level. And if they cannot do it or engage in palace intrigue instead of ensuring national security, it needs to be discussed.
Another problem is that parliamentary supervision over these security services isn't even formal anymore. It is pure illusion to make it look like we have parliamentary control of any sort. No parliament committee is ever given valid information, no matter what they ask.
This cast of mind where we do not ask questions and do not talk about it has left us with a major problem. First of all, the deep state is on a rampage. Spies are doing whatever they want, also to politicians. My attitude as minister was that the government gives spies their orders, while the real situation today is just the opposite.
The other problem is their incompetence. It is painfully obvious. Attending those briefings, looking at all the things they didn't catch in time or failed to accurately analyze, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny in any way.
Editor: Marcus Turovski