Dispatch: A Case Study of Russian Influence in the Baltics

MIN READDec 27, 2010 | 20:19 GMT

Analyst Eugene Chausovsky examines the political scandal surrounding an Estonian political leader and Russia's alleged influence over him. Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. A political scandal in Estonia in which a high-ranking political figure is being accused of being an "agent of influence" of Russia continues to play out after weeks of accusations have been swirling around. These developments represent a unique case study into what Russia's influence and levers into the Baltic state looks like. The controversy began when reports emerged on December 16 that Edgar Savisaar — who is the mayor of Tallinn, Estonia's capital, and the leader of the Center Party, which is Estonia's largest opposition party — had received funding from an NGO that has ties to Russia. The Estonian intelligence agency, known as KaPo, had sent the Estonian government a letter detailing how Savisaar through the funds had basically become an agent of influence of Russia and that he represented a threat to Estonia's national security. The NGO that Savisaar is being accused of having direct ties to is no ordinary NGO, and it is in fact one that is led by Vladimir Yakunin, who is a leading Russian political figure and heads Russian Railways, which is a state-owned rail company in Russia. Yakunin is infamous for being one of the most powerful figures within Russia and is reported to be a former KGB agent and in Vladimir Putin's innermost circle. With many accusations and counteraccusations now flying around, Savisaar has said that the primary reason for the release of this report is political. Estonia will be holding parliamentary elections in March of 2011, and his party has been gaining in popularity due to its economic and populist message while Estonia has faced some pretty tough economic conditions following the financial crisis. Beyond domestic politics in Estonia, this controversy demonstrates what Russian levers into the Baltics states look like. Rather than overt and direct influence like Russia has shown in countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine, Russia has to be more nuanced and subtle with its levers into these states because the population is more skeptical of Russian moves and designs in the region. In this case Russia is using an NGO to build grassroots influence through cultural and religious means, and it's also using this as an opportunity to show that Savisaar and his party are being attacked by all sides right now for political gain for the other parties. Whether or not Russia will be successful in advancing its interests in Estonia through these means is unclear, but the fact that it's trying to do this is a certainty.

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