Estonia before the elections: security and energy will be key

The final construction phase works of LNG mooring are seen in quay near Paldiski, Estonia, 19 September 2022.
© EPA-EFE/TOMS KALNINS   |   The final construction phase works of LNG mooring are seen in quay near Paldiski, Estonia, 19 September 2022.

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Estonia is gearing up for general elections, which are scheduled in March. This year, they will come against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the problems brought by the war throughout the region. Thus, security and energy are bound to be the main topics of the electoral campaign. Also because of the war, it is highly unlikely that any significant party will raise the questions of improving relations with Moscow as a way of courting Estonia’s Russian minority.

With bilateral relations at their lowest, some in Estonia feel that Russia should be ignored and regarded as “an ocean beyond the border”, while others still fear it

While the real war continues in Ukraine, in the Baltic countries it takes diplomatic and economic forms. Estonia's relations with Russia are at their lowest since the restoration of independence in 1991.

In January, Estonia ordered the reduction of the Russian diplomatic mission in Tallinn in order to achieve parity with the number of employees of the Estonian embassy in Moscow. Soon after that, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the Estonian leadership has been purposefully destroying the entire range of relations with Russia in recent years. In this regard, Russia decided to lower the level of diplomatic relations with Estonia to chargé d'affaires.

After Moscow demanded that the Estonian ambassador Margus Laidre leave the country, Latvia also announced the downgrading of the status of diplomatic relations with Russia. Lithuania, another Baltic country, had recalled its ambassador from Moscow in April last year.

In terms of domestic politics & policies, one effect of the war is that the so-called "Russian card" is unlikely to be played in these elections, as it was in previous ones. Almost none of the parties, except for some politicians from the Center Party and a very controversial Left Party, dare flirt with the Russian population anymore, promising them, for example, the preservation of Russian-language education or the development of cultural and economic ties with Russia.

After Bucha, Borodyanka, and Irpin, Estonian politicians quite logically do not see any prospects for developing relations with their eastern neighbor. "For at least the next 20 years, Estonia must behave as if there is a large ocean beyond its eastern border," says businessman Joakim Helenius, member of the "Estonia 200" party.

But there is no ocean between the neighboring countries — neither real nor metaphorical, and that leaves the Estonian authorities wondering what will happen if hostilities in Ukraine stop temporarily or permanently but do not lead to a regime change in Russia. "There is no need to fantasize about what could serve as a motive for a new demonstration of military power and Russia's revenge. The efforts of the three Baltic states to support Ukraine are widely known. Like the efforts of Poland, Great Britain, and the USA... but these are big countries..." noted the commander of the Defense Forces, Martin Herem, on his page on social media.

"First, of course, we must focus on the victory of Ukraine, because this is the first and inevitable goal on the way to ensuring a better future. But only the first. Secondly, we must be prepared for the next aggression against us, our allies, and our values. Just like we are afraid of fire, even if we don't think it's likely today or tomorrow, we still need to be prepared for it. Despite significant losses in manpower and equipment, Russia retains the capability to launch a military strike against some of its neighbors," Herem added.

This makes Estonia think about increasing the defense budget. The local Social Democrats even proposed introducing a special tax on defense; the corresponding item is in their election program. The party is proposing a five-year defense tax of 1% of income, excluding pensions.

However, this proposal is not supported by parties competing in the elections. Most of them agree that Estonia's defense spending should be 3% of GDP, but they have different ideas about the sources of funding. Some parties propose to increase the financing of national defense through loans, while others prefer to increase revenues through other taxes if necessary. Still others point to the fact that the level of defense spending in relation to GDP is already one of the highest in NATO.

Some politicians insist that along with the purchase of modern weapons, it is necessary to increase funding for internal security. "Since in the near future hybrid attacks against Estonia are more likely than conventional attacks, the costs in the field of internal security must also be increased to at least 2% of GDP. This would also include the costs of civil protection," says Ilmar Raag, who is going to the polls from the "Parempoolsed" party.

Meanwhile, weapons are purchased to the extent of financial capability; in January, new HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems with a range of over 400 km arrived at the Tapa military base. The same weapons are being purchased in Latvia and Lithuania. The former Russian ambassador to Estonia, Vladimir Lipaev, interpreted this on Russian television saying that Western countries are going to supply Estonia with weapons that can keep St. Petersburg at gunpoint.

Energy security requires regional cooperation and alternatives to Russian gas

Another issue is the country's energy security. While policy makers have been aware for years about the dangers of depending on Russian energy resources, the country was unprepared for the energy crisis brought by the war.

Last fall Estonia found itself in desperate need of alternative sources of supply as a result of the gas crisis. In the face of a common threat, the countries of the region would have to cooperate more, but in practice it does not always work out that way. A classic example of how neighbors pull the blanket over themselves is the story of the construction of an LNG terminal in Paldiski.

Estonian companies built a berth for a floating LNG terminal, which, according to an agreement between Estonia and Finland, was supposed to deliver fuel to the Finnish and Estonian gas markets. Finns were building their own berth; the LNG terminal was supposed to be set up on the platform that would be constructed first.

When the Estonian berth was ready, it turned out that the terminal would be located after all in Finland because it consumes several times more gas and needs to ensure its energy security. Estonian gas sellers were promised preferential terms for its use, but in return, the Finns demanded to buy out a stake in the company that manages their terminal. This clearly demonstrated that in a crisis, one would have to rely not only on neighbors but, first of all, on one's own preparedness.

The question of how Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania could coordinate their efforts in the event of interruptions in gas supply was also discussed at the level of the prime ministers of the Baltic States. "Estonia, together with Latvia and Lithuania, would like to conclude a regional agreement on supplying consumers with gas in the event of a disruption in the reliability of supplies. Saving energy is also of great importance. We all need to make joint efforts to reduce consumption" said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.

Thanks to a warm winter, gas prices have been falling lately, but Estonia still faces the challenge of where to get cheap and green electricity. Unlike Finland, Estonia does not have any nuclear power plants and the prospects for building are vague. Estonia does have a source domestic energy source: it has long mined oil shale in the northeast for local power plants. However, this type of energy is not environmentally friendly and runs counter to Estonia's ambitious plans to become climate neutral by 2035.

Of course, Estonia is installing solar panels on a massive scale and is trying to develop wind parks, but even here there are security challenges. Wind turbine height is limited in northeast Estonia because, according to the Ministry of Defense, too high wind turbines interfere with the work of surveillance radars and electronic intelligence. 

For years, this prevented the construction of new wind farms and threatened those already built. The problem seemed to have been solved: with the construction of new radars, restrictions were promised to be lifted, but not in the border region. Given that large solar power plants, according to the Ministry of Defense, also reduce the effectiveness of the national defense radio system, the prospects for environmental change in the region seem doubtful. The leaders of Narva and other local governments have approached the Prime Minister with this problem, but it has not yet been resolved.

This makes some politicians wary of the so-called "green transition" and look for the key to energy independence in the use of oil shale. "Many energy experts say that oil shale is the best possible option to ensure Estonia's energy security," says Maria Yufereva, a Center Party MP.

In her opinion, it's unwise to put all the eggs in one basket when it comes to energy security, and it's necessary to develop both renewable and shale energy. "The price of shale does not depend on world prices. Oil shale is not only electricity but also industry, which provides employment for the population of Estonia," says Yufereva. And since energy production is located precisely in the border region, where a predominantly Russian population lives, the issue of energy is also a matter of the social well-being of the region and, ultimately, the loyalty of its population to the Estonian state.

The elections will show how much the people of the region believe in the ability of politicians to solve this equation with several unknowns.

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