Aivar Riisalu, who is in charge of compiling the chapter on national defence in the Centre Party's party platform ahead of the 2019 Riigikogu elections, told ERR on Monday that the party's central promise in that area will be the restoration of militarised border patrol utilising conscripts fresh out of basic training. The announcement sparked widespread criticism.
Speaking to ERR, Riisalu clarified that unlike the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), the Centre Party doesn't want to restore the old Border Guard Administration, but rather combine the resources of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defence and utilise the potential offered by the country's conscripts.
"It has been decided that the number of conscripts should increase," Riisalu said. "In this situation, the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) could conduct conscripts' military training and the rest of their service could be served out in border guard companies under the administrative area of the Ministry of the Interior." He explained that direction would be left to the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), but the conscripts' training would be conducted under the cooperation and using the resources of the two ministries together.
"It would go like this," he described. "Conscripts complete basic training in the EDF. From there, they will receive border guard training in a military police unit, such as the Guard Battalion. And from there they will move on to border field training. And in border field training, conscripts could actually guard the border. This means that we would combine the resources of two ministries, but we would significantly intensify national defence."
On 26 September, EKRE chairman Mart Helme said in a live interview on ERR's Otse uudistemajast online broadcast that one issue without which EKRE would not enter the government is the restoration of Estonia's militarised border guard.
Ratas: This is one man's idea
According to Prime Minister and Centre Party chairman Jüri Ratas, the restoration of a militarised border guard is currently just an idea of Riisalu's and has not yet definitely been included in the party's official platform.
"The Centre Party's election platform will be completed by the beginning of 2019," Ratas told ERR on Wednesday. "This is currently still one person's idea and has not yet been confirmed in our platform."
The prime minister noted that the responses Riisalu's idea has received demonstrate that this is an important topic. "But the Centre Party certainly doesn't believe that we are going to start breaking up the PPA. We must, however, complete the eastern border. The border itself must be secure."
Tanel Kiik, head of the work group in charge of drawing up the Centre Party's platform, likewise confirmed that Riisalu's proposal was currently a personal one and did not represent that of the entire party.
He explained that Riisalu is one of 30 people working on compiling the platform and has been tasked with drawing up the chapter on national defence. "This proposal has not been discussed by either the platform work group or the Centre Party board," Kiik said.
Presidential adviser: This is a waste of money
"If we don't intend to extend conscription to 2-3 years, following eg Israel's example, then it is a fairly big waste of time to train conscripts over a period of months just so that they can be used as border guards for a couple of months somewhere on the border afterwards — and then begin this process all over again," Security Policy Adviser to the President Peeter Kuimet wrote on social media.
He explained that conscription is first and foremost a cost-effective model for preparing reserve units so that in the case of crisis or war, it would be possible to significantly increase the size of the country's defence forces. "All other goals — but especially utilising conscripts in peacetime for 24/7 or otherwise as 'cheap' labour — are actually ineffective and generally work against the reputation of conscription as well."
He asked why it is even necessary to discuss a militarised border guard if there is currently no imminent threat of war, and also said that if the Centre Party feels the need to include details in its platform regarding how it would bring its plan to life, he hopes to also see detailed explanations and calculations regarding the effects this plan would have on resources for existing reserves and current PPA border guards, and how much this plan would end up costing the ministries, among other things.
Luik: Possibly unconstitutional
Minister of Defence Jüri Luik (Pro Patria) said that he does not support the idea of sending conscripts to guard the Estonian border, noting that this plan would cause confusion in the chain of command and could also possibly be unconstitutional.
"This use of conscripts would require the extending of the length of conscription, but the current length is optimal," Luik said. "This solution would require additional resources and technology and significant additional expenditures; it is inaccurate to sell this as a cheap solution."
The minister added that such constant use of the EDF to fulfil internal security tasks does not fit the spirit of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia.
"The planting of units of the Ministry of the Interior's area of government in the area of government of another ministry would create confusion in the chain of command," he continued. "This sort of double-subordination likewise wouldn't allow for effective civilian control and would mean a return to the 1990s. Estonia does not have good experiences with militarised internal security units."
According to Luik, conscription and the training received by conscripts in the EDF have their own clear goal, which is tied to ensuring military defence according to the EDF's structure and operational plans. "The EDF will defend Estonia against all kinds of enemies, regardless of location — including at the border," he added.
Anvelt: Militarised border substitute for construction of modern border
According to Minister of the Interior and Social Democratic Party (SDE) board member Andres Anvelt, Riisalu's idea would simply be substitute activity for the construction of a modern border, and he did not support it.
"A militarised border, which would mean the guarding of the border by means of sending conscripts to so-called field training, sounds like a forced substitute activity to the construction of a modern border," Anvelt said. "The Centre Party wants to go back to a time when the border guard meant patrols and physical manpower, and do so in a situation in which recent years have shown that the threats are different now and that technology is playing an increasing role in both border defence as well as offence. These are called hybrid threats, and they need to be responded to adequately."
The minister also noted that throughout the EU, border guards are civil and not military organisations. "Does the Centre Party want to move away from the EU's shared principles?" he asked. "Especially in a situation in which Estonia has taken upon itself to adopt the green border standard, the necessity of which has been confirmed by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, or Frontex."
Anvelt stressed that in the next few years, once the Narva College of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences is complete, 400 PPA cadets per year will be heading to Estonia's eastern border for field training. He explained that border guards currently receive at least two years of training, adding that simple military police training isn't enough. "They will not be a good soldier or border guard," he warned.
"With this thoughtless proposal, the Centre Party weakens both our internal security as well as our national security," Anvelt concluded. "Sending members of the EDF to the border won't bring NATO money to internal security; it is a pre-election hat trick that will take money away from internal security and delay the completion of the eastern border."
Pevkur: Let the pros do their job
"The current border guard works," previous Minister of the Interior Hanno Pevkur (Reform) wrote on social media. "The guarding capability at the border has never been so great as it is today. A 'militarised border guard' is not some kind of magic wand. Guarding the border has long since not been just walking along the border. It is first and foremost top of the line technical capability, with professionally trained professional border guards together with police officers further away from the border and cooperation with security and defence structures."
Pevkur said that the belief that a camouflage uniform will do a better job at guarding the border is blinkered thinking. "If necessary, men in camouflage will also come help, but on a daily basis, let the border be guarded by those who have been trained to do so," he said. "What we actually need is for the high-tech border to be completed quickly, which is why it is incomprehensible that the €25 million initially earmarked for border construction next year has been cut down to €10 million. Was it so that protection money could be handed out at the expense of national security ahead of the elections?"
Tsahkna: This would undermine Estonia's independent defence capability
"Our independent defence capability is built upon a broad-based defence strategy, an essential part of which is compulsory conscription," former Minister of Defence Margus Tsahkna said, adding that outbursts such as Riisalu's damage, not strengthen, Estonia's defence capability.
"For one thing, the goal of conscription is to ensure our independent defence capability and reserves," he explained. "Those who have completed conscription have received concrete military training — each conscript according to their own specific task and location. Conscription ensures active reserves, which can be activated if needed and which make up our independent defence capability."
According to Tsahkna, conscripts cannot be treated as cheap labour at the disposal of the state during their conscription service. "This kind of attitude is Soviet-era treatment," he said. "The fact that we have decided to increase the number of people called up for conscription means that we need to increase our military capability. This is not cheap or so-called free labour that the state can use arbitrarily based on its own needs."
The former minister's third point was the fact that, as Luik pointed out, the use of conscripts to fulfil border guard tasks would mean the blurring of the chain of command. "Currently, the guarding of the border is the job of the PPA," he said. "The Centre Party's proposal would mean that conscripts and active reserves would fall under the PPA's chain of command, which directly blur our military defence capability. In a crisis situation, especially in the case of a hybrid threat, the biggest danger is unclear chains of command, especially considering the fact that we cooperate with allied forces."
Riisalu's proposal directly undermines our independent defence capability, changes the entire current conscription-based defence management system and does not correspond to the substance of compulsory conscription as agreed upon in society, Tsahkna concluded.
Editor: Aili Vahtla