Unfortunately, we have completely overlooked civil defense, while the war in Ukraine has vividly demonstrated the importance of protecting the residents of Estonia in case of war or natural disasters. The solution could be an agreement between all political forces to contribute 0.5 percent of GDP toward civil defense, Minister of Internal Affairs Lauri Läänemets writes.
Russians' tactics in Ukraine, where residents and civilian structures are targeted, shows the importance of a state's ability to minimize casualties in case of military activity aimed against the civilian population.
We are treated to tragic images of the residents of Kyiv taking refuge in subway stations. But where could we hide in a similar situation? Even if we are able to mount an effective territorial defense, how can we protect civilians whose task it will be to rebuild society?
Estonia has undoubtedly been an A-student in NATO in terms of military national defense investments. Spending 2 percent or more of our GDP on defense is our mantra for security and foreign policy in general. No one doubts the necessity of these investments to ensure our defensive capacity and demonstrate our dedication to NATO.
Unfortunately, over the past 30 years, we have completely overlooked civil defense, while the Ukraine war has demonstrated from day one just how important it is to protect Estonian residents in case of war – or a natural disaster for that matter.
I met with my Finnish, Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues in Helsinki earlier this month to familiarize ourselves with civil defense mechanisms and strategies. It has to be said that both the Baltic countries and Poland were rather on a fact-finding mission to Finland. The Finns have been consistently investing in civil defense and developing broad-based national defense since World War II. They have systematically developed capacity in which everyone, from individuals to companies, has a place.
Helsinki alone has a total of 16 public shelters that find everyday use as subway stations, gyms, parking lots or swimming pools. War or other crises would see them offer shelter to tends of thousands of residents. The shelters have all the essentials: beds, hygiene products, portable toilets, water, backup generators and standalone ventilation.
Our tour took us to central Helsinki's Merihaka shelter that is located 30 meters below ground. It normally functions as a sports center but can house 6,000 people who can last at least 72 hours there in a crisis.
But these are just public shelters. Helsinki has 600,000 residents but the ability to shelter 900,000 as all residential buildings are required by law to have a place where people can take shelter. While these are usually in basements or storage areas, they are connected to proper ventilation systems to keep the people taking refuge in them safe.
There are no such areas of shelter in new residential buildings constructed in Estonia, and neither the central nor local governments have been tasked with making sure shelter is available. There have been some efforts to develop civil defense, while missing or insufficient funding has only yielded limited effect. We can designate a few places where people can take shelter and raise awareness. For example, many residents have found the Rescue Board's new "Ole Valmis!" (Be Ready) brochure with instructions for crisis preparations and behavior in their mailboxes.
While no doubt necessary, brochures and mobile applications cannot ensure the safety of our residents in crisis situations. We need a working system that would run the gamut from properly trained individuals to alarm systems and shelters.
It is the task of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to ensure the protection and safety of residents in crises, while these investments cannot be made at the expense of our everyday security. Recent one-off allocations make it possible to address critical shortcomings but cannot ensure systematic development.
Just as we have been able to plan military capacity by relying on at least 2 percent of GDP in funding, non-military civil defense capabilities also require stable funding of around €70 million or 0.5 percent of GDP annually.
We are talking about infrastructure investments, volunteer involvement and training, equipment, critical reserves and stockpiles and general rescue network operability in crises on which our ability to receive international aid also rests.
We have seen in many crises that while there is international preparedness to send aid, the capacity of the receiving country to accept it and make sure it reaches people often becomes the bottleneck.
I believe that just like national defense spending, civil defense development and investments should be the common interest and desire of all political forces, which is why an agreement transcending parties should be reached for fixed and stable funding.
The Riigikogu is set to discuss the Rescue Board's civil defense plan as a matter of national importance at its sitting on Thursday, which is where we should lay the groundwork for the common ground this requires on the legislative level.
Military security is important but we must also protect our citizens that requires state, local government, civil society and private sector cooperation. We have an example in Finland, as well as professional and proficient people to handle development, while none of it is possible without a long-term plan and stable funding.
Editor: Marcus Turovski