TARTU - Estonia is the last of the three Baltic states whose national defense is still based on mandatory military service. Lithuania and Latvia abandoned this concept in 2008 and 2006, respectively. Service among Estonians enjoys high support and the number of conscripts is growing with every year. In 2010, 3,017 conscripts were drafted and in 2011 the number is going to be 3,149.
Annually in Estonia there are three recruitments of conscripts. In January and July are for the men who have to serve for 11 months. They are trained to be non-commissioned officers, functional specialists and reserve troop leaders. The ones who have to serve 8 months arrive at the end of December and are basically regular soldiers, who also specialize, for example as a machine-gunner. The grand finale of their training is a three week battle drill called “Kevadtorm,” where soldiers have to show the skills they have acquired with their 8 or 11 months of training.
Chairman of the National Defense Committee Mati Raidma, of the Estonian Reform Party, states that it is impossible to say for how long military service is going to remain compulsory in Estonia. “It depends on the developments of our security area and risk assesments. The Reform Party supports the shortening of the time of service, from 8 months to 6 months, and prefers volunteers.”
Urmas Roosimagi, who is a retired army reserve Brigadier General, doesn’t think it is reasonable to shorten the time of service in Estonia. “They are all the time bringing Finland up as a good example because they have a six month service. Nevertheless, only infantrymen serve for that period. Those that remain [the non-commissioned officers, functional specialists and reserve troop leaders] serve for twice longer. Finland with its resources and economy can make a six month intense training period, because they have a great number of instructors. For example, in Finland, 100 recruits have about 30-40 instructors, but in Estonia the ratio is about 4-6. At the moment it is hard to shorten the time of service. If we want to achieve our northern neighbor’s level, then it means a lot more financing.”
Raidma didn’t want to comment on Latvia’s and Lithuania’s decisions to abandon their time of service requirements. “I don’t want to assess the defense policy of our neighbors. Every country has their sovereign right for such decisions,” he believes. Roosimagi, to the contrary, strongly criticizes it. “At the moment Lithuania and Latvia don’t have an army. They wanted to have a professional army, but then came the economic downturn. At the moment, their self-defense capability is close to zero percent. They dismantled the old system but weren’t capable of building a new one.”
Henrik Trasberg, a 20-year-old law student who is at the moment serving in the 4th Single Infantry Battalion in Johvi as a driver, thinks that mandatory military service is necessary for Estonia. “Our geographic location and historical backround forces Estonia to have a good defense capacity. Further, when a country is small and not so prosperous, then it is important to achieve our defense capacity as cheaply as possible. I am afraid that a professional army would be too expensive and, at the same time, not so efficient.”
Trasberg says that it’s difficult to say how practical the time in the army is used. “It is hard to say how much practical value [this has]. Because of the Defense Force, I have to hold my personal ambitions in the background and, of course, I think from time to time that without service I could be engaged in something more valuable for me. However, afterwards, those 8 or 11 months aren’t nowadays worse than a year in school or work. It is rather a change and an interesting experience.” He says he appreciates that the staff is competent and most of them have mission experience.
To the contrary, Kaarel Siim, who is trained as a team doctor in the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion, says “The disadvantage of time in service is that besides irrrational use of time, there are too many unqualified people and, in addition, quite a lot of them suffer from psychological problems.”
Trasberg and Siim, however, do not regret their time in the army. “I would have gone if it wouldn’t be mandatory. I have been forced to experience a lot of new things that would have been impossible at home. Because of my time in service I have been forced to leave my comfort zone, and I think that it helps me in achieving, in the end, a better quality of life. I feel that, above all, it has made me mentally strong, has taught me how to keep up my health, and my physical shape has improved,” asserts Siim.
The Estonian Department of Defense orders twice a year surveys in which several different questions are asked about the citizens’ attitude towards national defense. Support towards mandatory military service has grown continuously. In 2005-2007, about 85-88 percent of the respondents believed that it is necessary. Since January 2008, support has been about 90 percent. In January 2010 even 94 percent were in favor of compulsory military service.
Because of the popularity of serving, it is quite certain that it will remain an important part of the Estonian defense policy in the near future. Roosimagi believes that the main reason for this is also the evolution in Russia. “Every country needs its own defense concept, which is based on the surrounding dangers. For us, the main question are the developments in Russia. Currently, it is very hard to give a direct answer. I personally do not see Russia becoming a democratic state with Western standards.” That’s why it wouldn’t be wise to give up our service in the military.