Security first topic of 'Valimisstuudio' series of election debates

First Valimisstuudio debate
First Valimisstuudio debate Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The first 'Valimisstuudio' televised election debate concentrated on national defense and security. Hanno Pevkur, Urmas Reinsalu scored the highest marks from judges.

Participating in the debate were Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), Hanno Pevkur (Reform Party), Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE), Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200), Jaak Madison (EKRE), Neeme Väli (Center Party) and Ilmar Raag (Parempoolsed).

Estonia-Russia relations

[Minister of Finance] Urmas Reinsalu said that seeking parity in diplomatic representation with Russia serves Estonia's security and diplomatic interests and reflects a low point in relations. "Hundreds of Russian diplomats are using that cover to move around Europe. The step was practical and serves our interests in the long run," he said.

Ilmar Raag said that Estonia has declared Russia a terrorist regime with which no cooperation can be pursued. That said, he admitted that while Estonia has long been regarded an expert on Russia, diplomats leaving will inevitably cost Estonia a part of its Russia know-how or visibility. He added that Estonia could still retain a level of pragmatic communication; for example, what Ukraine has when talking about prisoner swaps etc.

Neeme Väli agreed with Raag in that contacts need to be retained but added: "We cannot regard it a partnership before the aggressor leaves Ukraine and before Ukraine is free again."

Hanno Pevkur said that the war works to define Russia-relations in all of Europe, and for as long as it continues, relations are fundamentally frozen. He added that Estonia can put pressure on other allied embassies to seek parity, suggesting that the U.K. is seriously considering it.

Margus Tsahkna remarked that seeking parity now smells of elections and that Russian diplomats should have been expelled sooner. "When it would have had more of an effect; for example, after the events of Bucha came to light."

Raimond Kaljulaid agreed that the matter of diplomatic representation should have been addressed sooner, after Bucha or this fall, when the Riigikogu declared Russia a terrorist regime. "We all understand that Estonia will have little cause for dialogue with Russia in the near future, which is why arguing over the number of diplomats is an empty gesture," he said.

Jaak Madison agreed that the number of diplomats had to be cut but also criticized the timing of the move. "It will be a year from the start of the war in three weeks, while we only now discover that half of Russian diplomats are really agents working against Estonia and that we should seek parity. Coming a few weeks before elections, it smells of elections propaganda, going after cheap popularity."

The EKRE representative added that while Estonia should be conservative and pragmatic in Russia relations and the foreign minister cannot really be blamed for taking the step, this should have been done sooner as a hostile country's diplomats can do a lot of harm in a year.

Neeme Väli added that such things should be coordinated with Western allies as it would make such moves that much more effective in Russia's eyes.

War in Ukraine

The politicians discussed desired outcomes of Russia's war in Ukraine, in addition to the latter's victory.

"The goal is to arrive at a European security architecture that would give all European states certainty in that Russia will no longer be able to dictate them their choices through wars of aggression. That countries and nations can decide their own way of life. The Ukraine matter is a core European issue, a historical issue where the whole of Ukraine needs to be liberated, the aggressor take full responsibility and pay reparations. It is an existential matter for us in terms of ruling out such precedents in the future," Urmas Reinsalu said.

Madison said that while he agrees with Reinsalu's sentiment, naivety is not something he recommends when it comes to Russia. "Our goal must be for Ukraine to win this war and reclaim its territory, and to keep Russian borders where they are for at least the next 20-30 years. Looking at Russian history, hoping that this war will end all wars in Russia is utopian. This will never happen, unless Russia breaks down into ten different states that will be run by sensible people. The reality today is that 80 percent of the Russian population is behind Putin's regime, and we have no reason to believe [Ukraine] winning a single war can change the entire nation's mentality. We need to keep this in mind when developing our national defense," Madison remarked.

Ilmar Raag said the result of the war can be seen in phases. "Let us first liberate Ukraine and refrain from arguing over who gets the bear pelt if the bear is still roaming the woods. On the other hand, we need to lay down a vision of what's important. In the long run, we are interested in more than Ukraine being freed and integrated into Europe and NATO, what the U.S. secretary of state said this spring in terms of Russia's military capacity being reduced to a point where it could no longer put military pressure on its neighbors."

Nursipalu expansion

While none of the participants referred to the planned expansion of the Nursipalu Training Area in Võru County as unnecessary, several had criticism for the process so far.

Neeme Väli said that the political side of the planned expansion has been overemphasized, while the government's communication has fallen short, which sentiment was echoed by Jaak Madison who said that people simply being informed of the decision, as well as that 21 farms must disappear, is not the right way to do it.

Ilmar Raag also said that while having to evict and relocate people never has a happy ending, people should have been offered custom solutions, and even if Estonia paid them more than the market price for their homes, this would still be a pittance when weighed against national security interests.

Hanno Pevkur said that five alternatives were initially on the table for the expansion of existing training areas and the process has been entirely transparent. "We notified local governments of intent in spring-summer. Next came meetings with local governments and people. We have held five public meetings today and recently met with all Võru County local governments where we agreed on business measures for tender participation, making sure the area has enough jobs, how to compensate for noise pollution etc." The defense minister added that the people's reaction would have been the same had the government introduced the plan last spring.

Raimond Kaljulaid said that general problems in Southeastern Estonia, such as low incomes, job shortage and subpar infrastructure, also play a role in the broader conflict, in addition to looming elections.

Defense spending

All parties agree that defense spending should be at least 3 percent of GDP.

Neeme Väli said defense is one area where Center feels parties will be able to agree.

Jaak Madison remarked that 3 percent of GDP on defense is the bare minimum that needs to be done. "We are talking about a situation where we need to restore and increase our defense capabilities, racing against time to fill gaps that have been overlooked for 20 years," he said. The EKRE politician added that Estonia could borrow to ramp up national defense.

The Social Democrats propose a national defense tax as one way to pay for growing defense spending. "I believe we are talking about more than a billion euros the next Riigikogu will have to come up with, with the taxpayer picking up the tab at the end of the day. If we take out a loan, our children will have to pay it back. If we don't touch taxes or our revenue base in any other way, it will have to come at the expense of healthcare, teachers and everyone else. We hope this will also motivate others to think about the fact that the money has to come from somewhere," Raimoind Kaljulaid said.

Eesti 200 would start with cutting the state budget. "Eesti 200 have been clear in that Estonia has allowed expenses to run away from it. We must dial back before the Social Democrats set about laying down new taxes. This year's state budget sports a deficit of 4.6 percent, Estonia has already borrowed, while nothing has been done," he said.

Hanno Pevkur said that advice from the EDF commander would see defense spending hiked past 3 percent, while politicians have to find what's feasible, adding that Reform supports borrowing for investments but not recurring expenses.

Isamaa feels that Estonia needs to invest "as much as necessary" in national defense for which purpose the party is prepared to borrow. "Isamaa feels that in a situation such as this, national defense funding decisions need to be made based on the advice of the armed forces commander, not the finance ministry."

Broad-based national defense, internal security and civil defense

Party representatives agreed that people who have completed compulsory military service should be given clearer wartime roles as not all reservists are called up for trainings today.

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur said that certain services will switch to a 12-month conscription period (up from the current 11 months maximum – ed.), while he does not deem it necessary to introduce even longer service periods.

The Social Democrats want to complement compulsory military service. "We have plenty of people who could partake in national defense but not necessarily the military side of it," Raimond Kaljulaid said.

Jaak Madison described it as terrible that it has taken the Ukraine war for Estonia to understand the necessity of civil defense and the need for shelters.

He said that a debate in the Riigikogu National Defense Committee from a few years ago on whether to obligate developers to build parking areas that could be used as shelters when constructing new apartment buildings following Finland's example sparked complaints that this would hike the price by 10 percent. "In the end, the Finns are willing to pay an extra 10 percent for safety, while we aren't and instead rely on someone else to protect us," he said.

Neeme Väli and Raimoind Kaljulaid agreed, the latter suggesting that civil defense was virtually ignored in Estonia until Russia invaded Ukraine. He commended the previous government for investing considerable sums in the field and the current one for hiking rescue workers' salaries. Kaljulaid suggested that putting in place a network of shelters and installing warning sirens should be the next step. The SDE politician also said that the party would pledge an additional 0.5 percent of GDP for civil defense.

Margus Tsahkna suggested that people need to be taught first aid and where to go in case of danger. "Every person should know their voluntary role, on top of their designated duties in wartime. This would not require a lot of money but rather organization and rules. /.../ We need to prepare, as it is the weakest part of Estonian society today."

Ilmar Raag agreed with Madison and Tsahkna. "The ambition, talking about the home front, auxiliary services or broad-based national defense in general, could be to have 10,000 people in reserve for such purposes – all of them civilians but working in the service of the front," he said.

The participants also supported more thorough national defense classes in schools.

ERR judges: Hanno Pevkur and Urmas Reinsalu emerge victorious after security debate

The national security debate was judged by a panel of experts made up of Meelis Oidsalu (Praxis Center for Policy Studies), Catlyn Kirna (Tallinn University professor of international law) and Triin Toimetaja (Estonian Debate Society).

The judges' points gave the victory to Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), with the former scoring the maximum five points from Triin Toimetaja and the latter from Catlyn Kirna. Meelis Oidsalu gave both panelists a score of four.


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Editor: Merili Nael, Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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