Minister of Public Administration Mihhail Korb (Center) noted at a meeting with veterans in Haapsalu on Tuesday that he was not in favor of Estonia's membership in NATO, a comment for which he apologized in a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon.
Regional paper Lääne Elu (link in Estonian) reported that Korb, who was hit with a number of questions at Tuesday's meeting, told veterans that he did not support Estonia's NATO membership and that he liked Finland's national defense policy more.
A comment came from among the veteran that the money spent on weaponry should be given to pensioner instead. "This is NATO's demand — Estonia is a member of NATO," Korb responded. "I am not the Ministry of Defence. When the Ministry of Defence visits you, ask him."
According to the paper's information, however, those at the meeting demanded more. "There's no need to get worked up — let's take it easy," the minister said in an effort to placate the crowd.
"I... might say a phrase that is disagreeable from the Estonian perspective — I am not in favor of NATO membership," said Korb. "I like Finland's policy on this matter. But to build your own army, that will get even more expensive. Do you understand? The Finns are building their own army; they are separate from NATO and are handling the protection of their country themselves. But nobody will come to their rescue."
Tsahkna: Korb should leave the government
According to Minister of Defence Margus Tsahkna (IRL), Korb should not be part of the Estonian government if he does not support Estonia's NATO membership. Other opposition leaders agree.
"On my way from Iraq to the NATO summit in Brussels, I have to read in amazement about such a position from a minister of the Government of the Republic of Estonia," Tsahkna wrote on social media. "NATO membership is the guarantor of Estonian independence and security. If a government minister believes that Estonia shuold not belong to NATO, then his place is not in the government. Estonia's security is guaranteed by NATO membership and the understanding that we will never be aloneagain. There is no room for debate over this."
Reform Party politician Kristen Michal believed Korb's comment to be related to the cooperation protocol between the Center Party and United Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin's political party.
"I believe that such a political party shouldn't lead the government," said Michal. "A message from a member of the government that Estonia should not be in NATO looks like a resurrection of the protocol between the Center Party and United Russia. Estonia will hold the presidency of the EU in a couple of months and things are getting increasingly more embarrassing."
Michal said he was reminded of Center Party board member and MEP Yana Toom's comments that NATO troops are only needed in Estonia to increase the birth rate. "The chairman of the Center Party is the prime minister and the leader of Estonia's national defense," he said. "Ministers making such statements and the party supporting him should quit governing the country."
Andres Herkel, a member of the Free Party parliamentary group, said that Korb's statement confirmed that this was not only an incompetent minister but a member of the government whose comments cast into doubt the very foundations of the whole of Estonia's national defense and security policy.
"The minister just doesn't care about Estonia's national defense needs and his attitude toward transatlantic cooperation is negative," Herkel commented. "Minister Korb must step down."
Prime Minister: Korb's comment unfortunate
"Mihhail Korb's NATO-themed statement was unfortunate and regrettable," said Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, chairman of the Center Party. "The Government of the Republic's position on security policy is unanimous and has not changed."
Statement by Korb: I support Estonia's NATO membership
Korb issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon in which he announced that he supported the fundamental principles of Estonia's security policy. "According to Korb, Estonia must be an active member of NATO and contribute to the alliance's work, as a unified and strong alliance is an important foundation for Estonia's defense capacity," read a press release from the Ministry of Finance.
Korb apologized for what he had said in Haapsalu. "I herein confirm that I fully support Estonia's membership in NATO and our allies' work and presence in the strengthening of Estonia's defense capacity," said the minister. "The support of the U.S., the U.K., France, Spain, Denmark and other allies is visible and important."
Korb added that with his statement on Tuesday, what he had in mind was first and foremost the importance of developing a strong and independent defense capacity. "Estonia's membership in NATO has strengthened our security," he acknowledged. "We have received both practical and political support for the fulfillment of our security policy goals and I consider this very important to us."
Editor: Aili Vahtla