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.
His top priority was stopping the appalling conditions he found inside the military. Officers commonly drank alcohol on the job, and sexual harassment was tolerated as a privilege of rank, he said. Also rampant was the brutal hazing practice known as “dedovshchina,” in which new recruits are beaten and abused, and soldiers’ mothers praised his efforts at curtailing it.
Concern for the individual soldier was absent. Col. Einseln recalled one cadet who was accidentally killed on the firing range during training. The range officer decided to go home for the day. “There were no procedures to identify the dead and tell the family,” Col. Einseln said.
When he integrated ethnic Russian soldiers with Estonians, a disturbing issue arose. It became clear that should a confrontation with Russia occur, some ethnic Russian troops would not be loyal to Estonia, he said.
Mr. Rebas, the former defense minister, now a professor at the University of Kiel in Germany, said Soviet officers aggressively pushed for a higher rank and expected to maintain Soviet-era privileges, demands that he and Col. Einseln found unacceptable.
Col. Einseln fired more than a dozen officers in his first eight months, deepening resentment. “I’d made a decision early on that conversion had to be done cold turkey,” he said. “The gradual approach wouldn’t work.”
Reform attempts were often hindered by the intrigue and corruption endemic to the system after Soviet misrule, he said. One day he was surprised to find delivery of a $50 million Israeli weapons purchase, mainly rusted and worn .23 caliber anti-aircraft guns and Galil rifles.
“It was unusable junk,” Col. Einseln recalled. “I said ‘Send them back and make the seller pay the transport bill.’”
But sales commissions had been paid, Col. Einseln said, and the weapons stayed. He threatened to resign, saying he hadn’t been consulted about the deal, and called for an impartial commission to investigate and make its findings public. “I became very unpopular because of that,” he added.
When an officer hinted that another weapons deal worth $19 million could be arranged, he began to understand that corruption was pervasive, he said.
Reform also suffered from strained relationships with Estonian politicians. Col. Einseln clashed repeatedly with Estonia’s 34-year-old prime minister, Mart Laar, in 1994, usually about threat assessment.
Months after Russian troops withdrew, in August 1994, Moscow progressively turned up the anti-Estonia rhetoric, suggesting a reoccupation of its “near abroad.”
Col. Einseln issued an order for Estonian troops to fight if the Russians come across the border. He said he was aware that Moscow politicians were spouting election rhetoric at the time but that he believed that the order was symbolic and necessary. Afterward, his popularity soared.
“Someone here in Estonia had to show confidence that some resistance would take place,” Col. Einseln recalled. “The Estonian army had never fought when the Soviets walked in in 1939. I didn’t want anyone to think that would happen again.”
Mr. Laar’s phlegmatic approach to the Russians contrasted starkly with Col. Einseln’s.
“Sometimes our commander went a little bit more on what the Russians would speak,” Mr. Laar said. “He took them too seriously. You can’t understand Russia, but you can experience it. If you have experienced it enough, then you know how to behave.”
Mr. Laar said Estonians who lived through the Soviet occupation have a better grasp of Estonia and its huge neighbor.
Col. Einseln’s worst misstep came when he began speaking publicly about corruption as the biggest threat to Estonia. The government probably viewed this as an intrusion into politics by a military leader.
In late 1995, Col. Einseln, who then held the rank of major general in the Estonian military, was promoted to full general and Mr. Meri asked him to retire. His arrest a few months later, ruled illegal by the court this year, led to the legal charges and the curiously long trial, which Col. Einseln says was designed to keep him out of politics after he left the military.
Michael Clemmesen, a Danish general leading the Baltic war college in Tartu, Estonia, criticized Col. Einseln’s clashes with politicians because they helped create a “legacy of lack of subordination of the military to the elected government.”
He added that Col. Einseln faced the classic emigre conflict: trying in vain to re-establish an ideal version of the Estonia he left as a child.
“Even though his motives were noble, he simply couldn’t read the society he was in,” Mr. Clemmesen said, adding that many well-meaning Estonian politicians were viewed as corrupt Soviets by Col. Einseln.
Mr. Tiik of the Foreign Ministry, who had worked on Russian troop withdrawal, suggested that Col. Einseln made a necessary bang. “He perhaps helped to shake up the newly formed Defense Forces but not to settle it down,” Mr. Tiik said.
Although Col. Einseln’s house-cleaning methods were sharp, they largely paralleled the Estonian government’s economic strategy demanding a clean break with the Soviet era, which was successful despite some damaging social consequences.
All Estonians can share credit for their country’s startling progress toward expected entry into the European Union in 2004, a step that Col. Einseln sees as positive for his homeland.
Looking back, he dismissed critics who believe he set the bar too high.
“I didn’t come back here to adjust to the Soviet-influenced culture. I came to change it,” Col. Einseln said.