TALLINN - Prime Minister Juhan Parts has suggested that Foreign Affairs Minister Kristiina Ojuland resign in connection with a batch of classified documents that went missing from the ministry.
The prime minister's press office said that Parts met Ojuland on Feb. 8 and suggested she step down. Ojuland, however, a member of the Reform Party, declined to do so, after which Parts filed an official request to the president's office to relieve the foreign minister of her duties.
In a statement to the press, Parts, who leads the right-wing Res Publica party, said "foreign policy is based on trust, and Kristiina Ojuland has lost it."
The words have sent a wave of discord in the ruling coalition, with Parts' partners expressing dismay.
"It's incomprehensible to me as well as to other coalition partners," Andrus Ansip, leader of the Reform Party, told the Baltic News Service Feb. 8. "I think it is the prime minister's duty to explain it to me, to the Reform Party and to the Estonian people."
Ansip described the prime minister's decision as serious, unusual and mysterious. "Such steps are not taken without consulting one's partners," he observed. "I learned about this plan at about 1:45 p.m. [Feb. 8], shortly before the meeting between Parts and Ojuland. I replied that I don't consider this the right thing to do and I'm ready to stand up for Ojuland."
"If we find Parts' explanation satisfactory, we won't be talking about a crisis. If not, we'll be facing a serious crisis in the government," he added.
Tiit Tammsaar, deputy head of the People's Union, the third coalition partner, also expressed surprise. "I heard on the news that the prime minister's decision also took the Reform Party by surprise. I have no idea why Parts acted so hastily," he was quoted as saying.
In Tammsaar's opinion, the prime minister's decision may have been prompted by the parties' popularity ratings published on Feb. 1 and Parts' hopes of boosting Res Publica's support by sacking the foreign minister. "But that's my personal speculation. I'm quite unable to tell what's behind this affair," he said.
"There's no doubt that Parts' decision is going to cause problems," People's Union Chairman Villu Reiljan said.
Still, the prime minister believes he had the basis for demanding Olujand's resignation.
"The documents that were missing during the audit were dated 1996 to 2004, which means the previously aired arguments of the foreign affairs minister that the documents had been allegedly missing before her term cannot be taken seriously," the prime minister was quoted as saying in the press release.
"The state should show its ability to learn, and the foreign affairs minister [should show] the ability to take political responsibility."
Parts said he asked Reform Party leaders to find a suitable replacement 's someone who would maintain steady operations of the ministry. The duties of the interim minister are to be fulfilled by Defense Minister Jaak Joeruut.
The prime minister also expressed hope that Reform Party leaders would understand his recommendation to sack Ojuland, and that it would not lead to a government crisis. He said he sent his explanation to the party in writing.
Parts stressed that his decision was not linked to domestic politics.
President Arnold Ruutel has up to three days to make his decision. By law, he has the right to reject the prime minister's proposal.
The Security Police last week stated that the Foreign Affairs Ministry was unable to provide 91 top-secret documents during a recent audit. The ministry legally has one month to provide the documents and remedy other flaws in its system. If not, senior ministry officials could face criminal charges.
"The most essential flaw found during the audit was that the Foreign Affairs Ministry did not provide, or has provided only partially, 91 classified documents dated 1996 to 2004," said Henno Kuurmann, spokesman of the Security Police.
The audit, completed Feb.7, also revealed that the ministry's system of treating and protecting sensitive documents needed improvements. The current flaws in that part, however, do not pose any threat to keeping state secrets.
Security Police said the audit report contained sensitive data, and details could not be disseminated to the general public.
Should the ministry fail to present the missing papers within one month, the Security Police, in cooperation with the Prosecutor's Office, will decide whether to start a criminal or administrative violation investigation.
Ojuland said other factors were to blame. "The main cause of the problems are the rotation system derived from the Foreign Affairs Ministry work and frequent trips abroad," she was quoted by her press service as saying.
She added on Feb. 7 that the ministry was already busy fixing the flaws pointed out in the audit report.
Last year Defense Minister Margus Hanson was forced to resign after his briefcase with confidential documents 's reportedly NATO-related 's was stolen from his house in Tartu.
"Regarding the defense minister, who had resigned and on whose case we do not yet have the final legal analysis, we then discussed the matter among the Cabinet members and the Security Police received the necessary instructions to boost prevention work [in the area of state secret protection]," said Parts.
The Pro Patria Union, a right-wing party currently in opposition, called for Ojuland's resignation, stating that she is politically responsible for the problems with the classified documents in the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
This was the third time a minister from the Reform Party, which is closely aligned with Res Publica (the two were in merger talks last year, though these have been put on the back-burner) has been implicated in connection with state-secret issues.
Last summer the Security Police investigated activities of then Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Meelis Atonen, though their searches proved fruitless. Hanson was also a Reform Party minister.