11.2006, Merle Maigre
Democratic control of national defence is a much more difficult challenge than generally recognised. Membership of NATO or the European Union does not automatically guarantee success.
Estonia, a small country, has been often recognised among other recent members of NATO and the European Union for its progressive reforms, efficient democracy and effective economy. However, all that glitters is not gold. There are some shortcomings in the democratic control of Estonian national defence despite the fact that Estonia is a member of NATO and the EU.
When evaluating civil control in present-day Estonia, it is useful to consider different factors which, according to Western theorists, affect civil-military relations in post-communist countries and to analyse the specific configuration of those factors in Estonia. But let us start with the key terms.
‘Civil-military relations’ is a general term encompassing all aspects of relations between a society and its armed members, i.e. the military, from the weekly meetings of the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Defence to the participation of the defence forces in putting out forest fires. This term is henceforth used to designate the political relationship between the state and the officer corps.
The terms ‘democratic control of the military’ and ‘civil control of the military’ are two separate and not necessarily mutually reinforcing phenomena. Democratic control always implies civil control, but civil control does not inevitably mean democratic control. ‘Civil control of the military’ assumes the maximisation of civilian power over the military. ‘Civil’ indicates the significance of civilian institutions in the decision-making process regarding defence and security issues. But this does not always entail democratic control of the military.
‘Democratic control of national defence’ refers to the model of national defence which is controlled by democratically elected civilians. Or, more precisely, we can talk about democratic control of national defence if there is at least one fixed, democratically elected representative of executive power who has the right to annul or suspend any resolutions or operations of any members of the defence forces, whatever their rank. In Estonia the parliament has appointed the Minister of Defence to exercise such control.
Factors of influence
Given its Soviet background as well as its preference for NATO and the EU, Estonia provides a good testing ground for checking whether Western theories of civil control of the military are actually applicable. Cottey, Edmunds and Forster, a new generation British experts specialising in social and military change in post-Soviet countries, claim that the main factors of influence on civil-military relations in Central and East European countries are historical legacies, international context and state institutions1.
Social phenomena and developments, including civil-military relations, always depend on the historical context. History is especially important in the construction of national identity. After the Soviet occupation the new independent states started to construct their national identity and typically turned to glorious memories of ‘a golden age’ of previous statehood2. Estonia characteristically idealised the values upheld in the Republic of Estonia which existed before World War II. But when considering the historical factors influencing civil-military relations, the Soviet era obviously had a significant impact.
International factors also play an important role in civil-military relations because security and defence policy is closely intertwined with international relations, thus forming a part of a state’s foreign policy. The Western countries as well as Western security and defence organisations set the tone for the democratic reforms in Central and East European countries, having a transforming and normative effect on them.
According to Cottey, Edmunds and Forster, the institutional factors involve the constitutional and legal framework for national defence as well as the roles and powers of the head of state, the government, the parliament, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Defence. The constitution and the legislation determine the democratic principles for security and defence policy, set down patterns of political and military conduct and establish the punishments for illegal activities.
War of Independence and Laidoner
In the case of Estonia, the relevant historical factors are the War of Independence, the Estonian-Russian Mutual Assistance Pact of 1939 and the Soviet legacy. The collective memory of the members of the Estonian defence forces focuses on a young Tsarist officer – Johan Laidoner, Commander-in-Chief during the War of Independence (1918-1920). General Laidoner saved the young Republic of Estonia, having said the legendary words: “I will go [to war] with schoolboys, if that’s what it takes.” Laidoner has become a mythical hero and a symbol of a self-sacrificing officer in the service of national interests. He is regarded as the creator of the Republic of Estonia. The fact that one officer single-handedly laid the foundation for the republic and was more constructive in organising national defence than the political elite has definitely impacted Estonian civil-military relations. According to a popular interpretation of Estonian history, the officer corps has defended national interests at times of political horse-trading and inefficiency. Officers maintain that military initiative is of great value for Estonia. In principle, there is nothing wrong with such a belief. But in the 21st century we should keep an open mind and not resort to simplistic convictions that the defence forces are the sole embodiment of national interests and protectors thereof.
Estonian-Russian Mutual Assistance Pact of 1939
In addition to inactivity during the War of Independence, the political elite is blamed for losing Estonia’s independence. In this regard, the study of the Estonian historian Magnus Ilmjärv on the ties between Konstantin Päts and Soviet Russia in 1924-1934, which implied that President Päts was guilty of treason, has had a significant impact on the Estonian collective memory3. The members of the defence forces support the popular notion that Estonia was sold out by politicians in 1939. The mythical surrender to the Russians with the signing of the Mutual Assistance Pact in September 1939, when not a single gun was fired, is deeply rooted in the subconscious of the Estonian officers. The prevailing view is that the politicians of the Päts’s era were responsible for the termination of Estonia’s independence and the subsequent atrocities committed by the Soviets, whereas the Estonian military might have prevented the Soviet occupation, if it had been more active.
This attitude undermines the image of politicians in the eyes of the military because, after the restoration of independence in the 1990s, Estonian national values have been constructed mainly on the ideals of the 1920s and 1930s. If the myth of relinquishing independence without a single gunshot were reinforced, the defence forces might consider it justifiable to protect their nation and state in crisis, notwithstanding any political decisions. Politicians would have a hard time implementing civil-military reforms if the conservatism intrinsic to the national defence system were sustained by the officers’ die-hard sentiments based on history.
Radical personnel policy
Civilians had no professional contacts with the defence domain in Soviet times because all military matters belonged to the area of competence of men in uniform. Civilian and military life were divided by a barbed-wire fence and ordinary people were not allowed a glimpse of what was behind it. As a counter-reaction to this, when the national defence system was being created in the 1990s, all processes were diametrically opposed to those of the Soviet regime. Contrary to the militarised Soviet defence system, the Estonian Ministry of Defence was established on a completely civilian foundation. Not a single member of the defence forces was employed in the Ministry of Defence in the first years.
One of the benefits of such a radical personnel policy was the eradication of the Soviet mentality, but this policy also has its disadvantages, for example the loss of military expertise. Civilian officials were young and inexperienced. Their limited professional knowledge of defence and military planning often caused conflicts with the military. Due to insufficient experience, civilians did not have a clear vision of the division of the responsibilities between the two institutions – the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff. In the beginning of the 1990s it was a widely acknowledged view that the military were to deal with strategy as well as tactics, whereas the civilians merely supported them in logistic matters, i.e. provided food, accommodation and weapons. During this period the Ministry of Defence was transformed into a bare supply agency, a far cry from a legitimate civil controller, because the efficacy, knowledge and experience necessary for effective civil control were lacking. One cannot manage and control something one does not understand. The inadequate military proficiency of the civilian officials damaged their image in the eyes of the military and led to suspicions.
NATO – the carrot-and-stick approach
Two external factors have had the greatest impact on the development of Estonian national defence – NATO and the EU. The most important external factor defining the civil-military conduct patterns was Estonia’s ambition to become a member of the EU and, in particular, to join NATO. The main precondition for NATO membership was the execution of civil control over the defence forces. This motivated Estonia, together with other candidate countries, to change the regulation of the civil-military domain. The democratic control system of national defence took shape under international pressure and the military started to seek contact with the West.
In addition to that, the activities of international advisors sent to Estonia by the Allies had a positive effect. Owing to the defence-related accountability requirement, NATO managed to have Estonia adopt normal Western defence planning practices at a very early stage. The PfP and PARP4 forced Estonia to treat defence planning according to the classic model of civil control: politicians set the goals and officers fulfil them.
The desire to become a NATO member compelled Estonia to solve problems in civil-military relations and the civil and military circles to join forces in the name of a common goal. Since 2004, this goal has been achieved and Estonia belongs to NATO. Thus the driving force behind the efforts and reforms is gone. There is no more international pressure to promote civil control. The absence of unanimous aims in defence policy might again bring institutional frictions to the fore, while cooperative spirit might be replaced with counter-productive attitudes. Estonia must constantly analyse its civil control processes and refine its legislation because we cannot boast about centuries of practice, as Sweden can – Sweden has had plenty of time to mould its civil control system into a smoothly operating mechanism. In short, the topic of civil control might be de-prioritised on the Estonian political agenda without NATO’s carrot-and-stick approach.
After the collapse of the Soviet regime, Central and East European countries had to redefine their constitutional basis for war, peace, emergency situations and responsibilities of the defence forces. This also applied to Estonia. The new republic was declared a successor state of the previous one which had existed in 1918-1940 and several outdated practices were reinstated, especially in such areas where the Constitutional Assembly was not competent, i.e. the military and civil control. Thus all defence-related paragraphs of the 1991 constitution were more or less copied from the 1938 constitution.
But 50 years had passed and times had changed. The very concept of civil-military relations only came into usage after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s, which means that the Estonian constitution of 1991 does not include this concept. Furthermore, there is another problem – the 1938 constitution itself. In 1938 the President had authoritarian power that did not grant the executive power any part in controlling the defence forces. Consequently, the 1991 constitution puts the Minister of Defence in a complicated situation – he is nominally accountable to the parliament for national defence, but in reality he is excluded from the chain of command.
The constitutional ambiguities of civil-military relations were somewhat clarified with the adoption of the Peace-Time National Defence Act in 2002. This act aimed to regulate the legal position of the defence forces and to declare it an authority of executive power operating in subordination to the Minister of Defence. Moreover, it provides that the Minister of Defence exercises supervisory control over the Chief of Defence, including the legality and expediency of the CHOD’s activity. The drafting process of the act was instructive in itself, as all the participants gained more knowledge about civil control.
But the actual efficiency of the Peace-Time National Defence Act is to a great extent determined by the willingness of various parties to comply with it. A legal document is one thing, but the implementation of its provisions is completely different. Whether and how the Minister of Defence in fact exercises civil control in a certain situation as well as how he uses his power depends on several factors – on the character of the Minister of Defence (and the Chief of Defence), on the political consensus and on the minister’s assertiveness. The implementation of a legal act together with the development of the respective practices takes time – it requires teaching, training and persistency.
The parliament usually functions as a control mechanism with regard to the domain of national defence. Its effectiveness derives from the extent to which the parliament as a whole and the national defence committee in particular can monitor, criticise and alter the government’s defence policy. The defence committee needs adequate resources, information and expertise to have any influence at all.
Unfortunately, Estonian parliamentarians do not consider the defence committee prestigious and its membership does not usually include any major players. The importance of different parliamentary committees is determined by votes that can be gained from the electorate in the respective areas, but the more popular areas are education and social policy. Thus the members of the defence committee are either intellectually very interested in the topic or less burdened by their parliamentary tasks, which means that they fulfil other, more important roles for their parties elsewhere.
After applying for NATO membership, Estonian politicians have reached a consensus on national defence matters. Defence political orientation causes no conflicts. Parties and politicians have no differences of opinion over national defence. National defence policy is supported unanimously, which means that there are no debates and this in itself cannot be good.
Underneath a seemingly impeccable façade, Estonia still faces problems in securing a truly democratic control of the defence forces. The main sources of civil-military tension are the historic interpretation of the interwar period, radical personnel policy, the removal of the NATO ‘carrot,’ the constitution and the weakness of the parliament in national defence matters. The challenges include overcoming the distrust of politicians by the military and increasing the military expertise among the civilian defence officials. Despite the fact that Estonia has become a NATO member, civil-military reforms should continue, the legislation regulating civil-military relations should be actually implemented and meaningful parliamentary control over the military should be established.
What are the implications of these conclusions? The fact that Estonian civil-military relations are complicated even after 15 years of independence implies that these problems are not in any way particular to Estonia, but also affect other Central and East European countries. Disagreements between civilian officials and the military arise not only in Estonia, but in all post-Soviet countries. Democratic control of national defence is a much more difficult challenge than generally recognised. Membership of NATO or the EU does not automatically guarantee success. Being aware of the shortcomings of civil control in Estonia makes it easier to understand those of other post-Soviet countries. If the condition of Estonia is diagnosed, we might find a cure for all Central and Eastern European countries who struggle to overcome national defence problems.
The development process of civil-military relations is dynamic. The problems highlighted above may transform and evolve over time. Some of them will probably become more significant, while others will fade away. A certain amount of tension between the defence forces and civilian officials is perfectly normal and healthy for a democratic society. Some conflicts are inevitable, but if possible, we must solve them properly.
1 Cottey, Edmunds and Forster (eds.), Democratic Control of the Military in Postcommunist Europe: Guarding the Guards, London: Palgrave Publishers, 2002, pp. 9-15.
2 Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 257; cf. Bo Stråth (ed.), Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community, Bruxelles: PIE Land, 2000.
3 Magnus Ilmjärv, Silent Submission. Formation of the Foreign Policy of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1920-1940, Stockholm: University of Stockholm, Studia Baltica, Vol. 24, 2004. For an analysis of Ilmjärv’s work, see Meghan MacKrell, Konstantin Pats – History and Myth, http://www.iub.edu/~bafsa/articles.html#Meghan (accessed on 31.07.2005).
4 The PfP is NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Under the aegis of the PfP, the PARP (Partnership and Review Process) was launched in 1995. Estonia took part in this process.