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Experts say Estonia needs civil defense service

Women conscripts.
Women conscripts. Source: EDF

Experts suggest that Estonia establish a civilian defense service alongside its military service to train people for emergencies, including women.

In wartime or in an emergency, the state needs more rescuers, police officers, ambulance staff, hospital staff, bridge and road construction workers etc.

Brig. Gen. Vahur Karus, defense academy rector, and security specialist Erkki Koort propose establishing a civilian defense service comparable to the military.

Karus researched the need for a civil defense service in Estonia while studying in the U.S., where he wrote his master's thesis on the subject.

"This [master's thesis] was written in 2015, at which point only 32-35 percent of men in Estonia were doing their military service. Now the situation has improved. We are also starting to get to the point, in terms of demographics, where that 3,800 to 4,000 conscripts already make up 50 percent or more of the annual male population. That leaves, in effect, three quarters of the entire year – men and women – completely unused," he said.

It would be sensible to equip all young people with skills on how to help society in a crisis, he said. In a similar vein, Erkki Koort and other authors studied the topic in a research paper published by the Estonian Academy of Defense earlier this year.

"In truth, the civilian defense service is used by many countries that you might not think. Israel is a well-known example, as is Switzerland, but it is also used by Austria, for example. Even Sweden reestablished it last year."

Sweden's action indicates an increased necessity for a trained crisis reserve. Whether this is due to the increasing threat of war or the possibility of Estonia being hit by many major crises at the same time.

"Our rapid response' modus operandi is straightforward: competence. Every event has a fixed location and duration. This means that you have the possibility to mobilize resources at the expense of other regions. If we're talking about war, you have many events happening at once, which feeds into that system," Karus explained.

Russia strikes Ukraine's civilian infrastructure as well to exert maximum pressure. Russia and Belarus both use hybrid methods of attacks. It is essential that Estonia does not overuse the Defense Forces or Defense League for internal security or population protection, as in wartime, the Defense Forces must defend Estonia from outside attack.

Women conscripts. Source: EDF

But inevitably, the creation of a civil service would be an additional cost. There is no point in drafting people into the service – the emphasis must be on training them. This would mean creating a new training structure. It would probably be even more costly to create a capable reserve by any other other means. In addition, it would help public administrations to find new people, Karus explained.

"If we look at recent developments, such as the age of rescue officers and the police recruiting problem, the civil service would really offer them access to the recruitment sector."

Karus said young people would also benefit from the service.

"Most high school students have no idea what they want to do with their lives. What is the one or two things they aspire to in life? Their parents know, their friends know, and their relatives know, but providing the youth with the opportunity to be away from those influences and figure out for themselves what they want in life will almost certainly result in more happy young adults who know what they want in life."

"In other countries, the practice has proved that the social ties and work skills established through alternative service have in any event benefited people and aided them to a considerable extent with their career choice," Koort said.

Training young people would help to ensure that more people know what to do in an emergency, even if they are not called up for national service right away.

Also, while the Estonian public in general is opposed to expanding compulsory military service to women, Koort said that it could be a step toward a more equal society. To start with, all young people could be invited to join the civil defense service.

"We seem intent on turning involving women into an emotional issue. But for me, it is strictly a matter of resources," Karus said.

The idea of a civil defense service is not really new in Estonia. It existed in part after the restoration of independence and its creation was discussed in more detail in 2017 and in fact when the coalition agreement was written, Koort explained.

"But for some reason, this did not make it into the coalition agreement. Everybody thinks it could be done, but somehow it hasn't been done."

So far, the political will has been lacking, Koort said. However, the country has not completely forgotten the issue. The Ministry of the Interior responded to ERR's inquiry by saying that the legal implementation of the civil service, including constitutional compliance and costs, still needs to be examined. This is what the parties concerned are currently studying in order to examine the possibility of increasing the civil defense reserve, the ministry said in a written response.

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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Kristina Kersa

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