Ousting of third EKRE minister costs public servant position

Kersti Kaljulaid.
Kersti Kaljulaid. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center Party) released from office Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik but granted him a final wish in also dismissing the ministry’s secretary general Illar Lemetti yesterday. Unlike the PM, leading members of Järvik’s Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) admitted that letting the secretary general go was a part of the price Ratas paid for keeping his coalition together.

It was much more difficult for Ratas to explain the decision to dismiss the high-ranking public servant. The PM said it was a management problem but could give no examples of what Lemetti had done wrong.

Talk of a “management problem” drew strong criticism from President Kersti Kaljulaid who, in an unprecedented move, apologized to the dismissed secretary general. “This decision has let everyone who serves our country – our very own Estonia – know that if they protect rule of law, proceed based on the official’s code of ethics and their oath of office, point out political piggery they will become a “management problem” for the government,” the president said. She described the government’s decision to release Lemetti as deeply incomprehensible and unacceptable. “It is unacceptable when a public servant who draws attention to a minister’s incompetence and possible corruption is made an object of political horse trading,” Kaljulaid said.

EKRE leader, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme listed several reasons Lemetti had to go yesterday and said that there could not be peace at the rural affairs ministry if the secretary general stayed on. “The new minister will not have to wage war against the secretary general and other top officials of the ministry from day one,” he said. The leader of the national conservatives said EKRE still supports Järvik and does not perceive in his actions mistakes that would warrant his removal.

Mart Helme.
Mart Helme. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Why did the party agree to give up a third minister then? “It was the prime minister’s decision,” Helme explained, adding that EKRE deferred its power of decision to the PM. As government decisions are based on a consensus, EKRE minister had to agree to dismissing Järvik just like their colleagues from Center and Isamaa.

Peterkop criticized by Helme

Mart Helme, who had previously recognized the independence of the committee of officials formed to look into Mart Järvik’s scandals, changed his tune yesterday, saying that State Secretary Taimar Peterkop’s report was one-sided.

“I do not doubt Peterkop’s independence. I do, however, perceive the cast of mind and logic of a state official who has too much power in the Republic of Estonia,” he said. “Peterkop’s committee used the materials at its disposal to draw a one-sided conclusion,” Helme added.

Ratas said the report confirmed that Järvik’s past actions made it impossible for him to remain a member of the government. “Minister of Rural Affairs Mart Järvik has caused serious problems with his words, actions and in some cases inaction and made cooperation extremely difficult for the public, his coalition partners and for me,” the PM said.

Developments yesterday suggest that while Ratas managed to convince EKRE to let go of Järvik, the price of keeping his government was also dismissing the ministry’s secretary general. While it is clear Ratas was willing to pay that price, its true significance will not become apparent for some time. Secretary General Illar Lemetti has promised to contest his release from office in court.

A part of the final price will be made up of the message this concession sends to public servants – a message EKRE have been looking to send for some time. The general idea was explained by Mart Helme yesterday: “If officials believe that a minister’s political guidelines and desire to improve agencies in his administrative area are illegitimate, something is rotten in the Republic of Estonia. Perhaps public servants who have been contemplating resisting democratically elected ministers will now reconsider.” The interior minister also warned that EKRE plans to amend the Civil Service Act. Helme did not want to say which aspects of the law his party aims to change.

“A strategy and tactics made public can be considered failed,” he said.

Lemetti’s release from office was confirmed at a government sitting held over the phone yesterday. In an address that followed, PM Ratas deemed it necessary to say that officials can point to problems in the future, without fear of political intervention. “Officials have many opportunities for pointing out obstacles, inaccuracies, blatant lies and violations in their work and receiving help in solving these problems. I recommend seizing these opportunities also in the future, without fear of it resulting in unpleasant consequences. There is no political persecution of officials in Estonia nor can there ever be,” Ratas said immediately after communicating that the government had released Lemetti from office.

Jüri Ratas. 
Jüri Ratas. Photo: Konstantin Sednev

Asked what specifically can be held against Lemetti, Ratas only pointed to lack of cooperation. While Ratas said that the situation that had developed at the rural affairs ministry in recent weeks needed a clear solution, Mart Järvik said in a public letter that cooperation with the secretary general started falling apart in May.

Järvik: I followed my conscience

Therefore, the law would have allowed Järvik to ask the PM to release the secretary general from office in October, after they had worked together for six months. Why Järvik only decided to seek Lemetti’s dismissal once he found himself at the heart of scandals and the target of the prime minister’s inquiries remains unclear. Now, one of Järvik’s final requests as minister has been granted. Järvik also said in a letter sent to the press that he acted in accordance with the law and his conscience as minister and emphasized that the work can only be successful if there is effective cooperation with officials and agencies.

Both Mart Järvik and Illar Lemetti will be eligible for severance pay of €31,000 and €28,000 respectively.

EKRE head Mart Helme said the party has several potential candidates for the position of rural affairs minister. Helme refused to name names but ruled out Peeter Ernits, Anti Poolamets and Merry Aart. He said the new minister will be moving forward with structural changes at the ministry, including abolishing the position of Deputy Secretary General Toomas Kevvai.