Senior defense figure quits Center Party over security concerns

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Neeme Väli.
Neeme Väli. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A senior reserve army officer and former NATO official has stepped down from the Center Party following the election of Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart as leader.

Neeme Väli, who is a reserve Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Major General and had been one of the main party defense and security spokespersons, announced that: "Dear friends, I do not consider it viable to continue in a political party whose chairman's activities are linked, via the Internal Security Service 2011 yearbook, to Russian influence activities."

Väli also expressed disillusionment over the direction he says that Kõlvart will lead Center, after becoming leader.

"The statements made by [Kõlvart's] close circle last week provided a sufficient idea of ​​the direction the political party is headed and what its image will be like. An apology to the citizens of the aggressor country, and working against the transition to Estonian-only education contradicts those values ​​and principles which are important to me," Väli went on.

The 2011 ISS yearbook had the following on Kõlvart, who at the time was a deputy mayor of Tallinn.

After Yana Toom was elected to the Riigikogu, the new Deputy Major of Tallinn Mikhail Kõlvart continued in his predecessor's footsteps by working against the transition both publicly and through hidden activities. Kõlvart's goal was to consolidate Russian-speaking youth and demonstrate that they are opposed to the transition.

On September 1 2011, he launched a white ribbon campaign supported by Nochnoi Dozor (Night Watch) members in Tallinn and other cities. Wearing a white ribbon was supposed to demonstrate opposition to having studies in the Estonian-language but the initiative was not met with widespread support and understanding. The white ribbon became much better known among Russians as the symbol of those fighting against election fraud in the Russian elections held at the end of 2011.

Kõlvart, who took control over the "Russian School in Estonia" organization in autumn 2011, organized a signature-gathering campaign in support of Russian-language schools. The expectation was that the campaign would be as successful as in Latvia, where over 180,000 signatures were gathered in support of the Russian language in November 2011. The results in Estonia, however, were much weaker despite the visibility that the campaign received in the Tallinn City Government sponsored newspaper Stolitsa and the Russian-speaking TV channel PBK.

With assistance from members of the extremist group Nochnoi Dozor, Kõlvart organized a number of demonstrations in Tallinn in October, November and December 2011. Tens of students were included in the demonstrations thanks to the extremists, yet the events were nevertheless dominated by individuals well-known to the Security Police. Only a minority of those who took part in the demonstrations actually belonged to their main target group – students and their parents. A "nation-wide parents' meeting" was also organized by the Tallinn City Government (more precisely by Kõlvart) at the request of 'Russian School in Estonia' (more precisely by Kõlvart). It was mainly attended by elderly people, including many well-known Kremlin-minded extremists

The Russian-language educational system and the special status of the Russian language were established as part of the Soviet Union's Russification policy. Preserving them is a priority of Russian influence operations. The Russian Embassy in Estonia supports these activities through the Russian compatriots coordination council in Estonia. Mikhail Kõlvart has had both public and secret contact with the Russian Embassy diplomat Jury Tsetkov who may be using these contacts to influence and direct Kõlvart. It is regrettable that the Russian Federation attempts to use young people as instruments in its influence operations as the future of young Russians in Estonia and Europe depends, above all, on them receiving a competitive education.

Following the publication of the above, Mihhail Kõlvart stated that he would be taking the matter to court, citing violation of human rights and a precedent he said had happened whereby a plaintiff had won a case against the ISS, known in Estonian by the acronym Kapo.

However, a second-tier circuit court ruling found that the ISS had not defamed or otherwise harmed Kõlvart and upheld what was written in the 2011 yearbook.

The ISS had been represented by lawyers Allar Jõks and Carri Ginter.

In 2015, the Supreme Court threw out an appeal also.

Mihhail Kõlvart talking to ETV. Source: ERR

As recently as April 2022, Kõlvart stated that: "The mention of my name in the ISS yearbook damaged my reputation and violated my human rights."

Maj. Gen. Väli joined Center in April 2022 and was a go-to spokesperson on defense and security policy matters, particularly during the run-up to the March general election.

He failed to win a Riigikogu seat in March, picking up 159 votes in electoral district number five (Hiiu, Lääne and Saare counties).

Nonetheless he is the latest of several high-profile figures to leave Center in the aftermath of the Kõlvart election. Most notable of these is the party's former Riigikogu chief whip Jaanus Karilaid, a sitting MP who has now joined Isamaa.

Others include Antti Leigri, who headed up Center's Hiiumaa branch, Andra Veidemann, a former, albeit short-term party leader, and former government minister Jaan Õunapuu.

Overall around 40 people had left Center this time last week.

Väli separately thanked the Center Party members he had worked with and cooperated with, including those who had worked on Tanel Kiik's leadership bid.

Former health minister Kiik, received 489 votes to Kõlvart's 543, at the party congress held in Paide on Sunday, September 10. There were no other leadership candidates.

Neeme Väli, 58, resides in Nõva, Lääne County, and is a former EDF chief of general staff, and also served as Estonia's representative to NATO and to the EU, 2008-2011.

He worked at NATO headquarters as deputy chief of its international military staff and in 2017 advised strategic commanders on strucutrual reforms and, in 2018, on reforms to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's NATO headquarters.

He has been decorated by the state with the Order of the Cross of the Eagle, Class IV, and the Defense League's (Kaitseliit) White Cross, Class II and Class III.

Väli was one of the co-founders of the restored Defense League following the restoration of Estonian independence.

This article was updated to include quotes from the 2011 ISS yearbook and from Mihhail Kõlvart.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook

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