A €6.2 million sum apportioned to a Ministry of the Interior entry in the 2023 state budget, put towards school and kindergarten building and maintenance, will be returned to the ministry, following a decision that the investment would be outside of the ministry's remit.
The Riigikogu's Finance Committee made the decision Tuesday at an extraordinary (in the sense of off-schedule) session, adding that the interior ministry can use the returned funds to support NGOs and foundations which do lie within its area of responsibility.
Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets (SDE) informed ERR that regardless of what he calls contradictions in the way in which the coalition government of which his party is a part distributes investments, SDE plan to vote in favor of the state budget bill – which faces its third and final reading Wednesday.
"In this sense, yes, since the state budget contains proposals that were made at SDE's behest," he said.
The finance committee also had to correct some other mistakes in the budget, Läänemets added, since not only was the €6.2 million apportioned to schools and kindergartens sent back to his ministry, but investments in the internal security area, such as funds for first responder teams and for the IT field were likewise struck off.
Läänemets added that the fact that the €6.2 million will now not go to schools and kindergartens is now a matter for the legislature's conscience – government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu – even as the principle of his ministry not being able to support such investments was "understandable."
He also hinted at a rift in the coalition, not for the first time, saying that coalition partners had "pushed the issue hard."
SDE is in a coalition with Isamaa, whose MP Aivar Kokk heads up the finance committee, and with the Reform Party.
Kokk said Monday that the committee had based its decision to return the funds to the interior ministry on both legislation and a recommendation by Auditor General Janar Holm.
The entries in question included one million for a from-scratch kindergarten build in Narva, €700,000 apiece for two different kindergartens at Kastre and Tabivere, both in Tartu County, and the same sum for a high school in Värska, Võru County, plus half-a-million for construction work at a Tartu school.
The 2023 State Budget Bill passed its second reading in mid-November, and as noted is due for its third Riigikogu reading Wednesday, ahead of the Riigikogu breaking up for Christmas on December 15.
State revenues are set in the budget at €15.58 billion; expenses at €16.81 billion.
Mayor: Setomaa residents Estonia's best security guarantee
Commenting on the Finance Committee's decision Monday night already, Setomaa Municipal Mayor Raul Kudre (SDE) wrote on social media that he could not remain silent about the decision to remove regional investments from the state budget bill, including funding earmarked for investment in an overhaul of Värska High School.
Värska is only school in Estonia's southeasternmost municipality to provide education through the 12th grade level.
"More than 90 percent of [Estonia's] land border with Russia is located in Setomaa — perhaps giving you the best idea of where the municipality is located," Kudre wrote.
"We keep hearing the word 'security!'" he continued. "The best security guarantee is residents along the border and operational services."
Some eight years ago, he recalled, locals fought all the way to the Riigikogu committee level to save the local rescue brigade, which has since been recognized as being the right move in such a region.
"Our region has been hit in several crises — by storms, refugees from Ukraine, deluges of trucks at border checkpoints — but we've managed to pull through," Kudre acknowledged.
"It's fun to come visit the Seto Kingdom, Treski Küün and Ostrova Festival in summer and enjoy the charms of Seto culture, but that comes at a price," he continued. "If we cannot manage to offer the people living here — who are also keepers of a unique culture — services that meet modern standards of living, then of course Tallinn awaits!"
Education is one such service, he highlighted, and expressed concern that the Ministry of Education's recommendation to reform Estonia's school network could, in the worst case scenario, mean the closure of Mikitamäe Basic School, the downgrading of Meremäe Basic School to an elementary school and the closure of the the high school level of Värska High School instead.
In the current situation, where echoes of heavy weapon fire and machine guns and the buzzing of helicopters on the other side of the border, just beyond Pechory [Petseri, the original capital of the pre-occupation Petseri County and historical Setomaa region], are becoming more frequent, those living right along Estonia's southeastern border are true Estonian and Setomaa patriots, Kudre stressed.
"There isn't a minister or president who hasn't gone to examine the situation at the border," he highlighted.
"The Värska [HS] investment is an example of a true regional investment that is being used to stab us in the back," the municipal mayor said. "In a coalition government, promises are kept; you don't pull the rug out from under people."
Editor's note: This piece was updated to include comments from Setomaa Municipal Mayor Raul Kudre, on the Värska High School.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming, Aili Vahtla