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President Karis on Nursipalu expansion: We must preserve local communities

President Alar Karis in Võru County.
President Alar Karis in Võru County. Source: Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia.

The story so far of the expansion of the Nursipalu military training ground in South Estonia, has seen a clash between the state's obligation to ensure the country's defense and the desire on the part of local residents and local government to maintain the current living environment. Instead of distrust between these two sides, cooperation is needed, President Alar Karis says.

The head of state made his remarks following meetings with representatives from all three camps – the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), municipalities and the local community, in the affected area in Võru County, and added that a recent headline in one local newspaper which claimed that the people have no say in matters of national defense had been painful for him.

"I don't agree with this," the president said.

"Security must not become a theme which can be used to justify everything, with no discussions to be held. On the contrary in fact - the more serious a topic is for our society, the more things need to be explained and discussed," he went on.

Since the president is in effect supreme commander of national defense, at the same time he noted that the Nursipalu training area enlargement – the existing ground is set to expand three-fold – is a prime necessity for both the EDF and the volunteer Defense League (Kaitseliit), and boosts security for all in Estonia, however.

"Strong preparedness of our own forces, along with the presence of our allies, is important for all of us, since the alternatives would only spell bad things for the Estonian people," he went on.

"Russia will remain our neighbor, while Russia has proven that it is the greatest security threat in Europe. I am sure that most Estonian people understand the need to make efforts, to bolster our defenses and our ability to host allies, including improving the EDF's training capabilities."

Societal support for national defense should be based on trust, the president added, while naturally the people have the right to be heard here, and municipalities and communities equally must be involved in decision-making.

The head of state recalled a popular initiative which amassed 11,590 signatures in opposition to the expansion of the Nursipalu training ground. The Riigikogu's board sent it to the National Defense Committee for discussion; the latter has however opted to put these talks back till after the March 5 general election and the formation of the XV Riigikogu.

Karis said that in any case this committee was the right place for discussions to be held and solutions sought.

"It is this Riigikogu national defense committee which could be right place for a democratic country to find solutions and reconciliation, in matters of national defense," he said.

He also noted the sensitive nature of the issue, just weeks before the country goes to the polls.

"Situations where some people and communities have to bear a greater burden [than the rest] in order to improve all our security thus requires special efforts, to build and maintain trust. There is no simple panacea for this; only the daily, patient work towards inclusion and finding solutions will suffice. This means also the courage of politicians to face up to unpleasant and 'charged' topics, even ahead of the elections," he added.

The head of state also mediated confirmation from defense ministry representatives to find individual, suitable solutions for homeowners and landowners affected by the expansion in Võru County, adding that the state must ensure all affected families who have to leave due to the expansion, are compensated for on a like-for-like basis in a place of residence in line with their wishes.

All options are on the table in this respect, in the current legal situation, he added. To mitigate the effects, the state will support municipal investments aimed at improving the living environment, and also plans to increase the disturbance fee paid to municipalities.

"I hope that all these promises will remain valid; they must be negotiated with the municipalities and the local community. If the state pledges something, the state must fulfill that pledge," Karis went on.

"The effects on local residents relating to the training ground expansion must be mitigated insofar as is possible, and individual solutions must be found. The state must be ready to carry this out, and contribute to the promotion of the local residential environment."

This will entail discussing various solutions, including, for instance, renovating a rail link between Valga, on the border with Latvia, and Võru. This line is currently dormant but could be reopened, he said.

The president also noted that the other two Baltic States, Latvia and Lithuania, are also significantly expanding their existing military training areas, or building new ones.

"The entire Baltic region faces an inevitable need to plough more resources into increasing its defense capabilities," the head of state said.

"I am convinced that we all need to move forward with the development of our national defense, and at an accelerated pace," President Karis concluded.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming

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