Alexandria soldier vindicated

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TALLINN, Estonia — A six-year legal case in this Baltic nation came to an end in April, when the city court here, in the capital, cleared Alexander Einseln, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, of responsibility for officers under his command who had been smuggling handguns.

To Col. Einseln, an Estonian-American from Alexandria, the verdict brought vindication after a long struggle against official cronyism and corruption that dogged him a decade ago during reform efforts in his native Estonia, which is to enter NATO in May.

Hain Rebas, an Estonian emigre from Sweden who returned to lead the Defense Ministry in 1991-1993, said Col. Einseln deserves credit for helping lay the foundation that led to Estonia’s invitation to join NATO.

In addition to Col. Einseln’s military reforms and his work in forming a Baltic states peacekeeping battalion, Mr. Rebas said, Col. Einseln’s contacts with high-ranking NATO and Western military officers helped turn the international spotlight on this small nation.

Einseln was influential and popular, and he had a tremendous effect on the context with the West,” Mr. Rebas said. “The West looked at Estonia and saw there was an American colonel — somebody to trust in this jungle which we were in, the debris of the former Soviet Union.”

Col. Einseln fled Estonia with his mother in 1944 at age 12 as Soviet troops took over. After becoming a U.S. citizen, he enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean War and in Vietnam in a special forces unit. He later worked for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff as a specialist on Japan and Eastern Europe, and served in the U.S. Pacific Command before retiring in 1985.

In 1991, when Estonia broke free of the Soviet Union, Col. Einseln and other Baltic emigres were recommended to Estonian officials by the administration of the first President Bush. Lennart Meri, then president of Estonia, asked Col. Einseln to become commander of the Defense Forces.

The idea was for Col. Einseln to use his broad military experience to de-Sovietize the army, but the State Department objected, not wanting to antagonize Russia. “We remain very concerned about any steps that could be misinterpreted about U.S. intentions in the region,” a spokesman said at the time.

U.S. concern about Moscow’s reaction was apparently misplaced. Esko Aho, former prime minister of Finland who was helping to usher Estonia out of the Soviet era, said he remembered no Russian sensitivities associated with Col. Einseln’s appointment.

Simmu Tiik, who worked in the Estonian Foreign Ministry and was involved in negotiations to get Russian troops out of Estonia, agrees. “The Americans described [Col. Einseln] as an [irritant] toward the Russians, but it was a minor issue,” Mr. Tiik recalled, adding that it had no effect on negotiations about withdrawing troops.

Col. Einseln was not concerned about the Russians and considered it a patriotic duty to help his native land. In May 1993, he accepted the appointment.

Washington’s response was to stop his lifetime military pension and threaten to put him back on active duty and institute court-martial proceedings. Through the intervention of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Col. Einseln’s pension was reinstated.

But the real trouble began after he got to work. Col. Einseln’s story illustrates the inevitable hazards involved in institution-building, which provides fertile ground for cultural conflict.

The colonel made enemies with his straight talk and sweeping moves to turn a Soviet military into a compact force fit for a democratic state. Estonia, unlike Poland or Hungary, had no national army. Recruits were from all over the former Soviet Union, and the official language was Russian.

“I didn’t inherit Estonian officers but Soviet officers,” Col. Einseln said.

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