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Driven by fear of Russia, Estonians flock to national guard

Isabelle de Pommereau, Tallinn
November 26, 2014

Each day an average of three people have joined Estonia's national guard this year. Estonians worry Russia could one day turn its aggression on them, and they want to be ready. Isabelle de Pommereau reports from Tallinn.

Estonian Defense League volonteers during an exercise
Image: Kaitseliit

Last time Alo Looke and his university buddies got together over coffee, they spoke of little else but the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russia's moves into eastern Ukraine. "Then we thought, what do we do if something ever happens in Estonia?" said Looke, who manages advertising for the Estonian National Opera. "We can't just sit around and do nothing." The answer from Looke's friends came fast: Join the country's volunteer army.

So far this year, 30-year-old Looke and close to 1,000 other Estonians have flocked to the Estonian Defense League, the country's voluntary national guard. This doubles the number of new recruits compared to last year's figures. Created in 1918 after Estonian won independence from Russia, it was disbanded when the Soviet army took over the country in 1940.

The recent jump in paramilitary enlistment is the biggest since the League, or Kaitseliit, was reinstated in 1991.

With 1.3 million people, Estonia has only 3,800 professional soldiers, but some 14,545 Defense League volunteers, who train to fight, swelling the ranks of the country's protectors - be it for riots or war. Like the 140 members of the Estonian volunteer cyber army, they report to the Defense Department.

Alo Looke in his fatigues as a member of the Estonian Defense League
Looke joined the Defense League this yearImage: Alo Looke

Neighboring countries are also witnessing huge jumps in their paramilitary enlistments - the Riflemen's Union in Lithuania as well as Latvia's and Poland's reserve home guards.

"Ukraine has boosted the will to join," says Kaitseliit commander Brig. Gen. Meelis Kiili. "We Estonians are very peaceful, even pacifists, but we are going through a trying time and people are starting to ask, 'what can I do for my country?'"

Russian violations

In addition to action in Ukraine, Moscow has committed repeated violation of military air space and maritime intrusion in the Nordic and Baltic sea regions. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told US, German and Estonian troops assembled at Estonia's Ämari Airbase last week that Baltic air police have conducted some 400 intercepts of Russian military flights near its member countries this year - twice as many as a year ago. Not seen since Cold War times, "it's risky and unjustified," Stoltenberg said. While Baltic countries have asked for a permanent NATO presence on their soil and bigger defense budgets, ordinary citizens of all stripes have been offering themselves up for the country.

"Western European nations have lived in peace and security for so long that younger people take security for granted; it just exists, and you start forgetting about the values of democracy, peace and security," says Martin Hurt of the International Center for Defense Studies, a Tallinn-based think tank on defense issues in the Baltic and Eastern European regions. "In the Baltic states and Poland, people do not see security and defense as a given, and they want to contribute themselves."

From doctors to TV actors to advertising managers

Kaitseliit recruits range from high schools students to Estonians who fought as Soviet conscripts in Afghanistan. Estonian IT college professor Linnar Viik says that history is what gives Estonians a sense of civic duty difficult to find in many Western European countries. "The concept of independence is fragile and sensitive and important in Estonia," Viik says.

"It's a prestigious thing to be in the Defense League," says Raivo Tamm. A TV legend, he's better known for his lead role in the black comedy "Mushrooming," which landed him the title of best actor in 2012, than for wearing military fatigues. "There is always a threat from the East, and I cannot forget about it."

"Unfortunately, our history has shown we have to be prepared," agrees Andres Lehtmets. A medical student in Soviet times and now the head of the Estonian Psychiatric Association, he recently joined the League, at 50. "If you see where Russia is driving at the moment, you see certain parallels in the ideology."

A female volunteer in military fatigues
Women can join Naiskodukaitse, which assists the Defense LeagueImage: Andria Hüva/Kaitseliit

One concern is that Russia could stir things among Estonia's Russian speakers, who make up a third of the people living here. For example in the Russian enclave of Narva, Estonia's third-largest city, on the Russian border. "We all know it: If a Russian citizen gets killed, Putin intervenes and says, we have to help our citizen who was killed by Estonian police," says Mati Sild, 22. "In today's world, war starts in the media and people's heads."

Another 'Bronze night'

It was after a symbolic gesture - the removal of a Soviet war memorial - caused massive rioting among the country's Russian-speaking community, threatening the country's social peace, that Sild became a volunteer League soldier. On that April 2007 'Bronze Night,' as it was later dubbed after the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier, he saw rioters throwing stones at the police and setting stores on fire.

"It was really serious," Sild, then a high school senior, recalls.

Police arrest Russian activists protesting the removal of the 'Bronze Soldier' on April 27, 2007
The removal of the memorial prompted the worst riots Estonia has seenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He also saw how, from atop the citadel of Toompea, a Baroque palace now home to the Estonian parliament, League members stood with their shields up, ready to assist the police. He had wished he could help them out.

The memory of those dangerous moments came back when Russia invaded Ukraine. "If something happens I want to be ready," Sild, now a student of bio-technology, says. "I don't want to be a person who cannot handle a weapon or has to escape to the West."

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