Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) faced a rumbustious crowd at a town hall meeting in the South Estonian city of Võru Wednesday, as an initially calm audience morphed into protests, primarily over the planned expansion of a nearby military training area.
Inflation, and the lack of women candidates running in Võru County at the March 5 election, were also put to the prime minister, whose appearance came one day after the defense minister had faced a similarly defiant Võru audience.
Both members of the public and representatives of local government were present.
Some attendees expressed concerns of being turned into a sitting duck target in the event of any attack on the enlarged training zone, given its size and significance, while others claimed that current planning law would allow for the expansion to take place on an expedited basis.
ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported that Kallas said: "Should there be the desire to make use of this exception, my argument is that that would be challenged in court, making the process even more protracted – so we are actually using a special state plan (Riigi eriplaneering)."
Prime minister: Nursipalu planning process will not be expedited
Local residents who congregated at the town hall put across their main message of the town hall meeting - which covered several other topics as well – that the Nursipalu training area expansion will negatively affect the whole of Võru County.
While the discussions got fairly heated, tempers were calmed somewhat after the prime minister clarified that the expansion would not be expedited, AK reported.
While the Planning Act allows for an exception in the case of national defense, and which can expedite the planning process, this only applies to buildings.
Since Nursipalu does not constitute a building, but a plot of land, this exception cannot be applied, it is reported.
Residents concerned about being in the firing line
Nonetheless, local residents expressed their concerns about the planned expansion once it happens, including its raised profile as a target for any potential invader.
One, Lennart Piller, told AK that: "The noise is my main concern as a resident, plus of course, if there are military units here generally – say, a thousand men, well, could you present a more precise target for the enemy?"
Helgi, another local resident, said: "My biggest fear is that if an enemy arrives, they will certainly strike those locatoins where the military units are. We have no air defense, and we are undefended. We have no shelters, and nowhere to go."
Local development center chief: More transparency needed
Tiit Toots, head of the Võrumaa Development Center (Võrumaa arenduskeskus), which supports local businesses, culture, education and tourism, told AK that more details and more transparency were needed on the planned enlargement.
He said: "We cannot discuss any measures if we do not have the information to hand. Maybe it has been stated that the analysis of how the location for the expanded training area selection method has been prepared, but this analysis has not been made public."
"A second request is that the exact activities due to be held in the training zone in future be outlined. It has also been pointed out that the further process must involve people; documents must not be classified, and information must be freely available for municipalities and citizens alike," Toots added.
A meeting on Tuesday in Võru city had also seen Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) met with demonstrators uttering a rallying cry in the Võro language, AK reported.
Meeting got fairly heated
Daily Postimees reported (link in Estonian) that the prime minister told Wednesday's gathering that other locations had been examined for the planned facility, such as Karula – though the latter, also in Võru County, was rejected on the grounds of its constituting a national park, and added that a final decision on Nursipalu has not yet been made at governmental level, since the results of all the relevant studies are not yet in.
The town hall turned into a grilling of the premier, just over a month before Estonia goes to the polls, on a number of other issues, Postimees reported, with one woman asking Kallas why there was only one woman candidate running on the Reform Party's list in the Võru County electoral district (namely former education minister Liina Kersna).
Kallas said that this was because it is more difficult to convince women to take an active part in politics, adding that it is "harder for women" and encouraging the questioner to enter politics herself.
Another member of the public claimed that Kallas was either lying or ignorant about Nursipalu though, Postimees reported, the prime minister retained her composure throughout, and received some apparent support on some issues, from sections of the audience who gave their applause.
"We don't decide behind closed doors that the decision is like this, and you just have to live with it, but by involving and listening to people," the prime minister, who also faced questions on inflation and soaring energy prices, added.
News that the existing Nursipalu training area would triple in size to around 9,000 ha in area was met by pushback from local residents when it became public late last year. A little over 20 householders who own property and land inside the earmarked zone are set to receive compensation, possibly in the form of a land swap, while residents living outside, but near, the area, say the project will significantly harm their quality of life.
The rationale for the expansion is the changed security situation following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and to bring training facilities at Nursipalu in line with those at the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) central training area in Harju County.
Nursipalu would be used by the EDF's 2nd Infantry Brigade, covering the southern half of the country, and potentially by NATO allies as well.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel
Source: Aktuaalne kaamera, Postimees