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Hanno Pevkur: Estonia has become more secure in the last seven years

18. February 2016 - 17:01
Photo: Riigikogu

Speech by Hanno Pevkur, Minister of the Interior, in the Riigikogu

Dear Chairman of the Riigikogu, members of the Riigikogu and Excellencies.

The main guidelines of the national security policy up to 2015 established in 2008 have reached the phase in which we are to draw conclusions and move forward in accordance with the new development plan covering the period to 2020.

The main guidelines of the security policy were devised with a view to seeing Estonia in 2015 as a more secure society, which would be manifested by a safer living environment, an increase in everyone’s sense of security, and a decrease in the number deaths and people having suffered health damage. Looking back, today we can claim that the objectives set many years ago have been achieved.

Dear Riigikogu, please let me spend the next twenty minutes providing you with an overview of how major security figures have changed in the past seven – eight years and which steps have been taken to affect the above change.

Let us first discuss people and money.

And do this primarily because security cannot be ensured without people. Today, the Ministry of the Interior and its agencies employ slightly over 8,000 people, which means that the number of our personnel has dropped by approximately 1,600 within the last seven years. The Police and Border Guard Board saw the largest decrease in the number of employees, which shrank by 25% compared to 2008. At the same time, I am very glad that the salaries for police officers at the lower echelons of the Police and Border Guard Board increased last year, and the Board received the message that there will be no more restructuring (i.e. “employment peace”) meaning that last year the number of police and border guard officers did not diminish for the first time since the establishment of the Board. If we manage to maintain this level in the future, it could already be called quite good. We all need to understand that if we want to ensure the same or better sense of security for the people, we cannot shave the interior security sector any thinner because a lot has been “shaved” and reformed as it.

In 2008, we saw the establishment of the IT and Development Centre of the Ministry of the Interior, which was one of the first government information technology institutions. However, one of the major reforms in the management of the government and the whole country was the formation of the joint institution of the Police and Border Guard Board in 2010. In 2011, the Central Criminal Police unit was restored within the Police and Border Guard Board.  In 2012, the Emergency Response Centre became a separate agency. In 2013, the rescue stations reform took place, and there have been 72 rescue stations established in Estonia since. At the same time, we have managed to maintain and even improve the response time of professional rescuers – in 2011 a rescue team with life-saving capability reached the site of the accident in an average of 11 minutes, today this timeframe is 9 minutes, which brings us to the same level with Finland, for instance.

Moving on to financial resources, it is certainly positive that the amount of money at the disposal of the interior security sector in 2008–2015 increased from 282 million to 338 million euros, the growth constituting 20%. Still, real budget growth shows that the picture is not that rosy. Real growth in funds for the above years was 4.3%; in other words, the “purchasing power” of the interior security sector grew slower than that of the state as a whole. Real growth of the state budget within the comparable period constituted almost 30%, and Estonian GDP growth was 8.5%. This, in its turn, means that machinery and equipment is becoming out-dated: by now a quarter of our land transport, nearly half of the waterborne craft and 14% of aircraft have exceeded the period of useful life and are to be replaced.

We were lucky to have been able to use rather remarkable external resources to prevent the situation from becoming worse. For example, in 2007–2013 external resources and their co-financing accounted for 62% of the sector’s investments. We have primarily used the European taxpayer funds for the procurement of transport facilities. Co-financed by the national budget, two new helicopters, a new multifunctional marine vessel “Kindral Kurvits”, a hovercraft to be used on Lake Peipus, new ladder trucks and much more were purchased to ensure the security of the Estonian people. As far as real estate is concerned, the Ministry of the Interior and its agencies currently use a total of 330,000 square metres of facilities situated in over 400 locations in Estonia. Although we would always like to invest more in real estate, the fact is that the construction of 15 new buildings with a total area of 46,594 m² for the agencies under the Ministry of the Interior was completed in 2008–2015, which is approximately 14% of the total area at the disposal of the sector.

So let me put it another way: there is very little room for downsizing in the interior security sector. On the contrary, we are facing challenges that will require additional resources. The governing coalition has indeed reached an agreement on the cultivation of rapid response forces, and we cannot ignore European developments. My message is simple: in the process of building up extensive national defence, equal development of national defence, interior security and homeland security must be ensured. If we only invest in one sphere, this could result in failure as a state in other areas. We cannot afford to be weak in maintaining the democratic mechanism of government; in addition to strong military defence capabilities, our inevitable goal is to ensure people’s everyday sense of security through the existence of strong police, rescue and border guard services.

This is where I would go on to discuss border issues.

By the end of last year, we finally finished clearing almost the entire 136 kilometre length of border strip in cooperation with State Forest Management, and in November a new border marker in Parnu village near the triple Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian border crossing point was erected to symbolize the beginning of the construction of the eastern border. By the end of this year, 705 new border markers are to be erected on the border. Last year was also when the construction of the Piusa cordon started, the Narva border crossing point was completed, and the border guard rapid response unit started operation.

Our objective is clear, by the 100th anniversary of the republic, to give Estonia and its people a completed border infrastructure that would be the most advanced in Europe and why not in the world. To do that, we need the Riigikogu’s support because in addition to over 20 million euros invested this and last year, the completion of the construction of the eastern border will require approximately another 55 million from the state budget in the coming years. And I am convinced that the Estonian state deserves the most advanced border in the world in order to match any challenges.  

***
Dear Riigikogu,

I would now like to tackle the topic that has probably been discussed the most during the past year; namely, immigration. Every year, 5,000–7,000 foreigners come to live in Estonia for a variety of reasons for a longer or shorter period, and under the conditions of our relatively conservative migration policy at that. A conservative migration policy does not mean though that people who would like to study, work, do business here or contribute to Estonia’s success in any other way should be rejected. One of the keys to Estonia’s success has been openness and maximum integration with the international community.

This is why in recent years we have, for instance, simplified the immigration of highly qualified specialists to Estonia, and settling in Estonia has become much more flexible for foreign students. We have also simplified the process of applying for citizenship for people already living in Estonia; for example, starting this year, all the children of non-citizens under 15 will receive Estonian citizenship automatically. I am convinced that Estonia can only continue to be successful if we are open and flexible while standing for our rights and principles at the international level. What should be noted here is, for instance, the e-residency that was very much welcomed by the world the year before last and once again showed that Estonia is capable of innovation while retaining the government control of digital identity. 

We have perhaps consciously chosen a path of maximum integration in international relations, of participating and being involved in offering innovative solutions, discussing security issues or handling international challenges. One such challenge is undoubtedly the migrant crisis that has hit Europe. In looking for solutions to the migrant crisis, Estonia has taken a clear line, supporting stricter control on the external border of the European Union, the establishment of a joint border service, efficient refoulement and other initiatives that would help bring the migrant flow under control. Although we have made some very sensible decisions to manage the migrant crisis, it is true that over a million people applied for international protection in EU states, and as Italy and Greece bear the greatest pressure as the first host countries, in solidarity with other European partners Estonia, too, was ready to relocate those people from Greece and Italy who seek refuge from war or other atrocities. I agree that opinions in handling the migration issue are plenty, but it is humane to understand that people who are forced to seek refuge need a safe place to live. We have an opportunity to help those who really need help and, within the European Union, make sure that people who do not have the right to international protection are sent back in accordance with established regulations.

***
Leaving the international arena for home soil, let me next refer to Estonia’s readiness to cope with various crises. I would like to start with the counter-terrorism simulation called ATHOS, which proved that international cooperation to ensure safety and security is functioning and that our partner states are ready to provide assistance if necessary. I am especially glad that a similar simulation to be held this year is going to be twice as large, and a full unit of colleagues from the United States is also going to join us in addition to the European Union partners.

On the whole, it can be said that today we are far more ready for the unexpected than seven years ago. The Emergency Act passed in 2009 created a system in which crises are to be handled at the inter-agency level (i.e. broader level): for example, while earlier separate plans for handling marine pollution were made by the Rescue Board, environmental organizations, the border guard service and local governments, now these plans are made jointly. In cooperation with its partners, last year the Ministry of the Interior also determined the 14 most important vital services whose uninterrupted functioning is essential for the state. These services include, for example, electricity and heating supply, telephone services and data transmission, emergency medical care and cash circulation. Last year we also held the nation-wide emergency training CONEX during which we practiced emergency response in various situations, and at the end of the year a population protection task force started operating within the Government Office with a view to creating an inter-agency concept of population protection mainly in case of a military threat or armed conflict.

***

While on the subject of rescue services, important key words are undoubtedly the decreased number of accident-related deaths and shorter response time to incidents.  The number of fire deaths and drowning deaths has been displaying a downward trend since the beginning of the period of the main guidelines of security policy. According to Statistics Estonia, 936 people died in Estonia as the result of various injuries in 2015, 48 of which were fire deaths and 68 were deaths related to water accidents, which is almost less by half compared to seven years ago. The fact is that extensive prevention activities have played a great role in decreasing the number of deaths. For example, last year professional and volunteer rescuers visited over 23,000 households to advise people on fire safety. What also contributed to the decrease in the number of fire deaths greatly was the fact that smoke detectors became mandatory in 2008 and the requirement for cigarettes to be self-extinguishing entered into force in 2011.

Swimming or entering a water body under the influence of alcohol has also been one of the biggest problems for years: according to statistics, about half of all drowning deaths involve people under influence. To address this, we have initiated projects urging people not to go into the water when drunk and improving children’s swimming skills. In seven years, prevention specialists, rescuers and volunteers of the Rescue Board trained over 48,000 people in water safety. It will be fitting to note here that we can all do a lot for prevention, and I would be glad to see, in addition to everyone’s personal contribution, swimming lessons with the use of modern methodology and in the currently required amount to reach schools that do not provide them at the moment.

However, beside prevention, in saving people’s lives it is extremely important for help to reach the site of the incident quickly. I am glad to mention that anyone in need of help has been able to use the single 112 emergency number to call for police, rescuers or ambulance for over a year. It is a seemingly simple modification, preparations for which started in 2010, and the restructuring resulted in the decrease of the waiting period for people calling the 112 line by half, allowing over 90% of emergency calls to be answered in under 10 seconds.

***

I would like to conclude my presentation with a slightly broader take on people’s sense of security. Community safety was not much of a topic for discussion in 2008. The conceptual direction was there indeed: the creation of a safe living environment is not only the job of police and rescue professionals, but people can also contribute to their own safety. A survey conducted last year shows that 37% of respondents believe people can take active personal part in ensuring safety and rescue capability in their communities. This figure has grown significantly over the years.

It is therefore only logical that there are many more volunteers in Estonia today contributing to security than seven years ago. While in 2008 there were 9,270 Estonian households linked to volunteering in the security sector, last year the figure exceeded eleven and a half thousand.  The contribution of volunteers has also increased. For instance, in 2009 volunteer rescuers took part in 585 emergency responses, but last year the number amounted to 3,063 responses, having increased more than five-fold.

I am more than convinced that everyone’s larger contribution to ensuring security has also played a significant role in the fact that people’s concern about crime has decreased remarkably. While crime was one of the gravest of the population’s concerns for years after Estonia regained independence, it is fortunately not so today. It was just in 2007 that 21% of households believed crime in their neighbourhood to be an issue to worry about, but in 2015 only approximately 12% held this opinion. The share of people who consider crime to be the main problem the country is facing has also fallen. While this opinion was supported by a striking 44% of Estonian residents in 2007, by now the figure has fallen to 5%.  

Dear members of the Riigikogu,

In this way, working to ensure security day after day, we have reached a point where 91% of residents believe that Estonia is a safe place to live. It is also interior security agencies that Estonian people trust the most of all government institutions: a survey conducted last year shows that 95% of respondents trust the Rescue Board, 90% trust the Emergency Response Centre, and 87% trust the Police and Border Guard Board.

Still, our common and individual security rests on little things, and trust is easy to lose, which is why I call on everyone to trust in the institutions responsible for the protection of public order and the work they do. I do not want some kind of “lynch law” or gangs to flourish in Estonia that would rather damage the sense of security than increase it by acting on the thin line between the legal and the illegal. Estonia has a strong police force and capable volunteers. Anyone wishing to contribute to the security of the people living here is welcome to join one of the organizations created especially for this purpose, for instance, the Defence League, assistant police officers or volunteer rescuers. Estonia is and will remain a country ruled by law.

To conclude, I would like to recommend that you have a look at the publication summarizing the main guidelines of the security policy you have on your table as the shortage of time has by no means allowed me to address all the topics reviewed in the booklet here today. I also recommend reading the interior security development plan up to 2020 approved at the end of last year, and I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to making life in Estonia safer.

Thank you for your attention!