Youthful warrior

  • 2002-05-23
  • Kairi Kurm
How can a 28-year-old be drafted in as defense minister at a time when Estonia is at a crucial point preparing for NATO membership? When Kairi Kurm talked with Sven Mikser, she discovered that age isn't everything.

A former political secretary of the now ruling Center Party, Sven Mikser clinched the ministerial post in February, when 35-year-old Juri Luik had to step down when the right-wing government of Mart Laar collapsed.

The new minister holds a master's degree in English philology from Tartu University. He joined the Center Party in 1995 while a librarian at the Estonian Academy of Agriculture. From 1996 to 1999 he worked in Tartu University's philology department, and in 1999 became an MP. He also speaks German and Russian.

What kind of defense system is Estonia capable of?

The distinction needs to be made between peace-time and war-time structures in the defense forces. The peace-time structure consists of about 5,500 people, and the war-time structure 30,000.

But whether 5,000 or 30,000 men are enough to defend the country is not the most relevant question. We can imagine all sorts of different threat scenarios. The best chance of defending Estonia is within a collective defense organization like NATO. We wouldn't aspire to NATO membership so strongly if we didn't believe it could act as a collective defense organization.

What will NATO get in return?

We can contribute one battalion-sized unit by the end of 2005 for operations outside Estonia, mine-sweeping capabilities in the Baltic Sea region, and other small specialized units. Our air surveillance network will be part of the wider NATO surveillance system.

When will Estonia join?

I think Estonia will receive an invitation at the Prague summit in November. That will be followed by negotiations and ratification of our accession by the parliaments of the member countries. It will take some time. I hope we'll be full members as early as 2004. But receiving an invitation means the decision has already been made.

What are the obstacles?

Different things might get in the way if, for example, something really drastic happens on the world security scene. Immediately after the Sept. 11 tragedy, some people thought the attack might change the whole NATO agenda and enlargement might lose its priority status. But this didn't happen.

Similarly, there have been fears that the crisis in the Middle East might wipe the enlargement issue off the agenda, but I really don't think that anything so drastic will happen. It's very unlikely.

Domestically nothing can stop it. We've promised to keep defense spending at 2 percent of gross domestic product, and all major political parties support that. And public support for NATO enlargement in Estonia is high.

Do you think Russia is still against Estonia's NATO bid?

Russia will never say it's happy about Estonia's, Latvia's or Lithuania's aspirations to join NATO. At the same time Russia's leaders are pragmatic. They've realized that they cannot prevent it. So they'd better try and live with it. I think they will try to find a dignified way out of the situation.

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Baltic countries are ironically finding themselves in a strategic alliance with Russia, which is forming a "council of 20" with NATO. Does it make any sense to strive for NATO if it includes Russia?

When you read the Washington Treaty, you find certain principles on which the NATO alliance is based. I think the perception of how these principles should work is still different in NATO and in Russia. In addition to all the military requirements for membership, NATO has always looked with a keen eye on how these principles - the rule of law, democracy, and individual liberty - function in aspirant countries. When they look at Moscow today they see some deficiencies in these areas. Most people in NATO would like to see mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia, but not to have Russia as the member of the alliance.

There's a high rate of young men finding an excuse for not joining the forces. Will the forces be voluntary and professional in the future?

There are units that will consist of increasing numbers of regulars rather than conscripts or reservists, for example an infantry battalion that will participate in Article 5 (of the North Atlantic Treaty) missions, where around 50 percent will be regulars. Also, some specialized units will be based more on regulars. But I don't foresee the abolition of conscription in the near future. It gives certain degree of military preparation to men, which is positive.

Why didn't you serve in the army?

When you look at the way Estonian legislation has emerged, you can see that people who finished secondary school in 1992, 1993 and 1994 and went on to university weren't conscribed into the army. Almost everyone from my class went to university.

The other thing that amazes foreign leaders is your age. Did it surprise you to be selected for the post?

That's definitely one thing that many find surprising. I think people should be, and usually are, judged by what they can do rather than how old they are. Some people are critical about politicians in their 70s being elected president. But several of them have actually succeeded very well.