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'Siin me oleme': Life next door to the Estonian Defense Forces

"Here We Are" episode about what it's like to live next door to EDF facilities. October 2023. Source: Heiki Sepp/ERR

In several parts of the country, Estonian residents have to live next door Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) facilities – or in some cases even give up their homes to them. On the latest episode of ETV's "Siin me oleme" ("Here We Are"), host Mirjam Mõttus took a closer look at it's like living next door to the EDF – and whether some folks feel let down by their state under the circumstances.

There are a total of seven EDF training areas in Estonia, most of which are located in Northern Estonia. As a direct consequence of Russia having launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, another is now being built as well – an expansion of Nursipalu Training Area, located in Southeastern Estonia's Võru County.

The currently nearly 3,000 hectare training area is set to be expanded to approximately 10,000 hectares – or nearly 40 square miles – in size. A total of 215 privately-owned properties fall within the expanding area of interest, of which 22 are developed, i.e. have been built on. This marks the most significant development Estonia has seen since it regained its independence in 1991 – never before have so many people been forced to give up their homes for the good of the country.

A year ago, no one could have foreseen the sort of opposition and interest group interventions this would entail. Homeowners have faced a barrage of scrutiny, asked by one side whether people in Võru County really don't grasp the security situation, and the target of the other's envy over being lavished by the state for giving up their homes.

Even Jaan Post, the owner of a summer cottage in the village of Lükka who has spent his whole life working as an ambulance driver and paramedic – has been dubbed in municipal sauna banter a millionaire. His property has yet to undergo valuation, so he doesn't yet know if he really will be offered €1 million for it. Nonetheless, he's already bought himself a new summer home just outside the city of Võru.

Mirjam Mõttus and Jaan Post, as featured on a "Here We Are" episode about what it's like to live next door to EDF facilities. 2023. Source: Heiki Sepp/ERR

"I'm a working person; I have to be able to put my hands in the soil," Post told Mõttus. "And I need fresh air around me too; forest where I can go berry-picking – I can rustle up my own rake handle or broomstick from the forest. I need this place."

In order to buy the new cottage, he had to sell off forest – which he did, but with a heavy heart.

Not told for years

The concerns that come with the construction and expansion of EDF training areas are more familiar to Northern Estonians. Located in Harju County's Kuusalu Municipality, the expansion of the Central Training Area has also resulted in people being bought out of their homes.

Living at his ancestral family farm located on the border of the training area is Ivari Porn.

"In 2015, a danger area was established by government order on the basis of the Forest Act," Porn recalled. "I was informed about it three years later. They definitely wanted to buy my property. There's certainly no involvement here to speak of."

For the past five years, he's been in negotiations with the state. "My expectations for a [new] home aren't anything extravagant; I just want to keep up my current lifestyle on a farm in the forest, where I can grow my own vegetables," he said.

The two parties have yet to reach a deal; the money that's been offered by the state thus far wouldn't be enough for Porn to build the new home he wants, but they haven't managed to find him another home yet either.

"At first I was shocked," he admitted. "I couldn't sleep. That first year, I didn't know what to do. Would this be my last summer here, or is it my second-to-last? What's gonna happen? But then I understood that I can't think like that; it's not good for me. Right now I've still got potatoes and root vegetables in the ground."

Porn isn't against the EDF's developments. "Of course these training areas have to be built," he acknowledged.

"The question is how to [build] them – how the process works," he continued. "Involvement has failed everywhere. At first they go ahead and do these training areas, legalize [everything], and only then do they start dealing with the locals. No alternatives are discussed. The ministry meets with us, we can talk, but that doesn't make any difference. No consideration is given to people."

How does he think the state should act?

"Once the lines are defined and areas designated, then you have to approach people with concrete and various offers to choose from," Porn urged. "This is what they should begin with right away – not that you wait for years and have no idea what's going to happen. There needs to be clarity as soon as they come to talk with someone."

'You've got G4S, we've got fighter jets!'

For Koplimadise Farm owner Raido Notton, flyovers by NATO fighter jets and noise from the nearby Klooga Training Area are a fact of daily life.

"We're very well protected," Notton quipped. "Others have G4S home security, but here we've got air guard! They fly over and sometimes you can even wave to the pilot. They used to fly over Vasalemma too, but the locals there kicked up a fuss and now they don't fly over there anymore."

The owner of the tourist farm, located in Keila Municipality, nonetheless admitted that the situation now is still better than it was some 10-15 years ago. Back then, jets rumbled overhead more frequently, the firing range was unregulated and blasts could be heard in Vasalemma Quarry.

"Here We Are" episode about what it's like to live next door to EDF facilities. 2023. Source: Heiki Sepp/ERR

Now things have gotten back to normal, in cooperation with local governments.

"There are set times where they make noise," Notton explained. "This doesn't apply to planes, of course. But unless there's an exercise going on, they're not firing and not blowing things up in the middle of the night anymore."

When NATO jets first arrived in Estonia, however, everything was still unregulated, he said, recalling sonic booms and very frequent flights.

"But people started calling and it was covered in the media and the situation today is now significantly more peaceful," the farm owner acknowledged. "Another example is the Klooga firing range. When people themselves demonstrate an interest and are willing to negotiate, they'll accommodate you."

He sees no point in fighting it. "After all, we want to be secure," he pointed out. "In which case this has to take place in Estonia to some extent."

Notton nonetheless acknowledged that he wasn't in the same shoes as the people of Nursipalu, because he still has his land and his home – and it's precisely the matter of land and homes that hurts the most.

EDF and allied presence no doubt have a positive impact on local business as well, however.

Tapa Municipality, which has hosted a permanent allied presence for some time already, highlighted that they've seen their population decline slow, and real estate prices go up.

Following NATO's June 2022 Madrid summit, allied troops have also been stationed at Taara Army Base in Võru since the beginning of the year. They constitute part of the reinforcement of the alliance's eastern flank, and participate in exercises together both with units of the 2nd Infantry Brigade as well as in nearby Latvia.

A temporary reception area is already going up adjacent to Tsiatsungõlmaa firing range outside of Võru, and a new highway is being built as well – all as part of the expansion of Nursipalu Training Area.

Nonetheless, some locals continue to remain staunchly against the expansion of the training area.

Jaan Post is still hoping this has all just been a bad dream.

"A month ago, I knew that my land would be taken away from me," he recalled. "And I already bought myself a new summer cottage. But a month ago, when the first valuation and purchase were completed, that made me change my faith. I believe that the municipal council is working hard and the municipal government is working hard – everyone believes they're going to save us!"

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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