A two-hour meeting in the South Estonian town of Võru, attended by the defense minister and intended as a town hall for local residents concerned with the planned expansion of the nearby Nursipalu military training area, became heated at times, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Friday.
Some attendees said that progress at the meeting (see gallery above) was hampered as a result.
Maarika Niidumaa, head of a an NGO representing Nursipalu residents, told AK that: "The meeting was completely ad hoc and we were able to obtain very few answers to our questions."
"Essentially, many questions were left unanswered," Niidumaa went on.
Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform), also in attendance, told AK it was predictable that emotions would would be running high.
"There's no need to be fearful of that," he told AK.
"After talking to the people, those who didn't speak with this big flurry of emotions, and who came to ask very practical questions, even with supportive opinions, also emerged," he said.'
The minister also said that no doubt more supportive or constructive opinions would have been voiced, had their putative opinion-holders been emboldened to speak up.
"However, they talked about what those measures aimed directly at residents could be; be it internet connections or a playground, for example, black-topping roads etc. So this was a practical, meaningful discussion. And it would certainly have been good for everyone to have heard it. But it is clear that when emotions are flying, perhaps these people didn't want to speak up," the minister went on.
However, one participant, Tiiu Ritari, stated that the process seemed to have put the cart before the horse. "It is simply not viable that there can be no effects on the environment and nature; that we prepare first, and then we start the studies," she said.
While the focus has been on those with properties within or in the immediate vicinity of the planned expanded zone, she added, less consideration has been given to those living slightly further away but who will still be affected both by the expansion itself, and by noise pollution and other disruption it will bring – based on the effects use of the the already existing training area have shown.
"What concerns me greatly is that the situation of those people who remain outside the four kilometer radius has not been on the table whatsoever. This was not even touched on, you weren't able to ask that here at the meeting. I personally live more than four kilometers away, yet the walls of my house are shaking, the windows are shaking - and I have an old manor-era house, with over meter-thick stone walls," Ritari went on.
ERR's own Leevi Lillemäe was present at the meeting, and said that the atmosphere had been tense, mainly over the perception that questions had not been adequately answered.
At the same time, applause and other audience noise made it difficult for speakers to complete their trains of thought, he noted.
"So it was difficult for everyone, both the gathered people and those who came to explain the topics," Lillemäe said.
Attendees had primarily anticipated the proposals presented to the Ministry of Defense by local residents and municipalities being discussed in depth. "Those who later evaluated the meeting's progress claimed that these questions were not addressed, and everything was expressed in too generic terms," Lillemäe added.
Another ERR, journalist Jane Saluorg, was also at the meeting in Võru, and put the number of attendees at its start at around 150.
The meeting agenda was in three phases, she said; Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) representatives outlined why the expansion is needed in phase one, plus what activity the post-expansion ground will accommodate.
Phase two, Saluorg said, was to provide an overview of the legal situation, the environmental picture, and compensation measures – these have been offered both to private landowners with property within the earmarked zone, and to the three local municipalities affected by the expansion.
Saluorg said the third stage also addressed the environmental aspects of the expansion, preliminary assessments regarding the EU's Natura 2000 network of protected zones,
Saluorg also said that members of the public already had a number of questions about the practice field expansion bill.
"People are certainly interested, for instance, why the risk assessment has not been made public. Furthermore, the question of how the initiation of new plans in the area around the training ground affects the rights of local municipalities [is of interest]. Plus local communities still feel that they are not involved enough; this theme was discussed. Several questions have been put to the state about community involvement," Saluorg said.
The Ministry of Defense sent the bill, providing the legal basis for the expansion of the Nursipalu training area, to its coordination round in the second half of August, with feedback on the bill initially expected through to September 12.
However, the Center for Defense Investments (RKIK) has extended the duration of public display of the bill to September 25.
Minister Pevkur said that the local populace would continue to be involved in the process, adding that large caliber artillery will be used only occasionally, while tracked self-propelled guns will not be seen on the streets of Võru.
The specific proposals received from Friday's meeting will be included in the final draft of the bill, which is to be presented to the government on October 19, the minister said.
Additional environmental impact assessments are also to come, he said.
"We certainly won't go against the legislation anywhere, and we will try to do our absolute best to ensure that the environmental impact is as minimal as possible in respect of this training zone."
The current Nursipalu training zone will be more than tripled in size under the plans, to around 10,000ha in area, to accommodate newer EDF equipment and also that of allies.
Editor: Merili Nael, Jane Saluorg, Leevi Lillemäe, Andrew Whyte