Internal security cuts are life-threatening
The government’s plan to cut internal security budget is a direct threat to security, and the politicians’ “business as usual” attitude sweeps the whole concept of Estonia’s broad national defence under the carpet. If the cutback plan comes to life, the Kremlin will feel much more comfortable and can in return, afford to cut back on its influence activities in Estonia – local politicians have already done a lot of the work for them.
The absurdity of the situation is illustrated by the fact that we cannot talk about increasing and developing capabilities in the field of internal security, but merely about maintaining the already rather narrow “Estonia in safe hands” capabilities. This at a time when the most brutal war since the last World War is being waged against Europe. It seems, that the problem is one of attitude and, given the security situation, the planned budget cuts in this area are a symptom of a disconnection from reality.
We have heard different justifications from the Minister of Finance for the €11 million cut in Estonia’s ability to provide internal security. For example, frontline staff in the internal security services who have been at the forefront of crises in recent years, have been told that due to crises, there has actually been a sudden budget boost in their field without their knowledge. In the eyes of the Finance Minister, the crisis spending has turned the Ministry of the Interior’s administration into a public sector behemoth. The fact that more money was given because police officers, rescuers and emergency services actually had more work during the crises, tends to be forgotten.
Any talk of enrichment and almost oligarchy in the field of internal security is a bald-faced sham, if not a lie. A roundabout talk of percentages is offered as a statement of fact, which allows the wage increase to be presented as cosmic, when in reality the minimum wage for a rescuer starts at EUR 1620 (gross). The average Estonian salary is like a carrot in front of a donkey for the rescuers and policemen who put their lives on the line every day,9 and this is lost on high paid politicians.
It is also forgotten or deliberately left out of the discussion that since 1992, when civil protection was merged with the fire service, there has been and still is no political will in Estonia to build up the latter, a civil defence system that actually protects the population.1,2 Although this was the starting point for the growth of the Rescue Board into a modern rescue and prevention organisation,2 in the course of this ‘optimisation’, the protection of the population simply disappeared into thin air.
Non-military protection of Estonia’s population has never been a priority for our state, rather we have a half-baked solution that is good for putting out forests and a few major fires, but in the event of a serious crisis and military attack, the available resources will be exhausted in a matter of days. To put it bluntly, they will be down in the dumps, as Hardi Tiitus, the head of the Mõniste fire depot, described at the last warning protest for rescue workers in front of the government building.8
The seriousness of the situation is acknowledged not only by line managers but also by development documents in the field. The Internal Security Development Plan 2030 states that “failure to obtain additional funding may lead to problems in fully achieving the objectives“.5 However, more money is needed for the following: a sectoral pay rise to prevent rescuers and police officers from evacuating to the private sector here or across the Gulf to Finland; for the state to continue to open up courses on rescue and police curricula; to combat cybercrime, etc.
The analysis of the situation in the field of civil protection is based on a number of factors.6Aviation and naval capabilities also need additional funding, as the annexes to the development plan sound a refrain of “we have the machines, but no money is available or will be provided to maintain them“. Just as has happened with the air alert system – our bar of expectations is so low today that we can buy modern technology, but it is problematic to find budget to keep it running. We could guess it is a force majeure – who would have thought that helicopters would have to take off and pilots would be needed? Who, after all, is behind these insane deliberations?
The cornerstones of new depots laid in recent years and the gorgeous narrative that has sprouted from it, combined with modern technology, have created the ideal Potjomkin village, which will last just as long as the wolf blows around this “least is best” project-based shed. The much-talked-about endless loyalty of internal security personnel to the state won’t help to counter this – you actually need a system that works.
Values and promises
A little over a year ago, the current Minister of the Interior, Lauri Läänemets, gave a speech at the opinion festival about his vision for Estonia’s future – a speech that described how Estonia stands at a crossroads of significant change, and how in the years to come, Estonia’s great story will be rewritten. The political promise was “a strong Estonia without no one left behind, secure, caring and prosperous.”3 We heard how we must dare to take real steps to reduce injustice. The Minister of the Interior is now expected to do no more and no less in his field than to stand by his words, to assert himself. Otherwise, these words will prove to be nothing but warm air.
But what did Mart Võrklaev, the current Minister of Finance, who at the same time was running for the Riigikogu, promise Estonia? His election pledge is that “the most important issue is security, and it must be ensured by making wise and well-considered decisions on a broad basis“.4 The latter being the most important issue for the politician on which he asked people to vote for him. The finance minister is now also expected to walk his talk.
Immediately after the spring elections to the Riigikogu, the Reform Party’s explicit and unequivocal promise has been forgotten: “We will raise the salaries of police officers, rescue workers and health care workers, because they are on the front line of crises.“. We will also raise teachers’ salaries, because the future of Estonia is in their hands.” Listening to the latest speeches by Minister Võrklaev and the Reform Party, we can only say that is it not amazing how quickly and radically politicians’ promises and principles can change? Where are those broadly based, wise and thoughtful decisions now?
Politicians’ promises, but also society’s expectations, are based on values. In the same way, the national budget and cuts are all about values – who do we take from when money is scarce?
Budget negotiations are a trade on values, and more honest in their outcome than words. So it is worth wondering what value is being communicated by the urge to cut 11 million euros7 from vital services as a pittance in the face of a deficit of more than a billion?
What is the cost of protecting our people’s lives and health in this (Excel) formula, how much is it worth?
It’s painful to put on paper, but for some politicians, you may need actual victims to really understand the role of internal security. The crises of the last few years do not seem to have been enough, and the principle of ‘learning from others‘, based on the Ukrainian experience, is reactionary, useless and falls on deaf ears. We can all see how important the role of policemen, rescuers, deminers, emergency services and many others is in a military crisis – can we really learn from it?
All that remains is to say that, on the current course, we will have to experience all of it for ourselves before change will occur. Cutting back internal security and civil protection is just as illogical as taking money away from defence. The planned cuts must be cancelled, they will have a direct impact on both national security and people’s everyday security – there is still time to fix the moral compass and think about values, promises made and common sense. Let’s also try to get on with our budget in a way that does not please Moscow.
× The joint op-ed (by Hannes Nagel, Head of the Crisis Research Center & Kalle Koop, Chief Trustee of the Estonian Rescue Workers Union) was first published on September 13, 2023 at Delfi news portal. Photo: rescue worker (David Peinado/Pexels, 2022).