Dec 27, 2010 | 17:09 GMT

6 mins read

A Political Scandal in Estonia and Russian Influence in the Baltics

Prominent Estonian political leader Edgar Savisaar has come under fire for accepting a grant from a Russian nongovernmental organization. Since the story broke, Estonian politicians have been busy questioning their peers' patriotism and involvement with the Russians. With elections due in Estonia in March and citizens fixated on the country's economic and financial problems, this scandal demonstrates Russia's unique form of influence in the Baltic state.
Estonia faced ongoing political controversy Dec. 27 as Tallinn mayor and opposition Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar faced accusations by opposing party members of pro-Russian leanings. The scandal stems from a now-declassified report from Estonia's intelligence agency, Kaitsepolitsei (KaPo), labeling Savisaar an "agent of influence" of Russia and a "security threat" due to his acquisition of 1.5 million euros (about $2 million) from a Russian nongovernmental organization (NGO). The controversy began after Estonian newspaper Postimees reported Dec. 16 that KaPo had written the Estonian government describing Savisaar as a national security threat. This was not the first time Savisaar's ties to Russia had been publicly aired, nor the first time that KaPo had leveled criticism against him. The scandal undoubtedly will serve as a leading issue in Estonian parliamentary elections set for March 2011. It also highlights the nuanced and subtle influence Russia exercises in Estonia and the Baltic region in general — as well as Moscow's opportunity to expand its influence in the Baltic state.

Savisaar and Estonian Politics

Savisaar, an important figure within Estonian politics, has served as prime minister, interior minister and economic minister over the past 20 years. He now heads the leading opposition party in the Estonian government, which draws a substantial portion of its support from the country's ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, who comprise 25 percent of the total population. This composition means the Center Party has a much more pro-Russian orientation than the rest of Estonia's political parties, most of which — like the main party, the Estonian Reform Party — are firmly oriented toward the West, particularly through institutions such as the European Union and NATO. In 2004, Savisaar signed a cooperation agreement between the Center Party and Russia's pro-Kremlin United Russia party, now led by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Savisaar frequently has traveled to Russia. KaPo described his latest visit to Russia in early 2010 as "undermining" the country's morale in a way not seen since post-Soviet independence. KaPo's latest accusation alleges that Savisaar attained funding from a Russian NGO called the Andrei Pervozvannoi Fund (APF), which offers support to Russians in foreign countries for the construction and restoration of Russian Orthodox churches. Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who heads the Reform Party, has said the information has not changed his attitude toward Savisaar, which he called one of distrust. Ansip alluded to the possibility that the investigation could be a clever media plan by the Center Party to better argue for foreign monies by bolstering its support among Russian-speakers, but he said it was the security service's place to decide what was really happening.

The Russian Connection

Intriguingly, APF is no ordinary charity. It is chaired by Vladimir Yakunin, who heads state-owned Russian Railways and is one of the most influential people in the Kremlin — according to STRATFOR sources, he is in Putin's innermost circle. Yakunin also allegedly is a former first directorate KGB agent who served at the United Nations. Yakunin has been responsible for Russian forays into Europe via financial and business interests and has personal ties to Estonia, where he lived and studied for many years. Savisaar has insisted that his relationship with APF is harmless. He has acknowledged receiving 1.5 million euros from Yakunin but said they are for the construction of a church rather than for the advancement of his political party. He has pointed out that freedom of religion is guaranteed in Estonia and said he has received funds from several organizations to build other religious buildings, including synagogues and Lutheran churches, none of which sparked KaPo probes. Savisaar described the report as "inattentive." While it asserted Savisaar's relationship with Yakunin only began in the past year, he says that he had in fact known Yakunin for at least five years. Savisaar also accused KaPo of working with Russian intelligence against him and that KaPo had told him to make connections in Russia. He said the release of the report was a politically motivated attempt to discredit his Center Party, which has been gaining in popularity due its populist and economic-focused agenda, ahead of March 2011 elections. Estonia was hit hard during the financial crisis, suffering a contraction in gross domestic product of roughly 14 percent in 2009. While the country has since returned to economic growth, inflation remains high and unemployment has not fallen. APF, meanwhile, has called KaPo's allegations preposterous and stated that such accusations send a message to other political, NGO or commercial organizations not to help Russians living in Estonia.

Russia's Geopolitical Position in the Baltics

From a broader perspective, the scandal reveals Russia's subtle form of influence in the Baltics. Moscow is often painted as the villain ahead of elections in the Baltics, where linking political opponents with Russia is a time-honored political tactic. Casting Russia in a negative light is not terribly difficult, as Russia in fact engaged in cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007, while the Russian community protested the removal of a Soviet-era monument to World War II, when Russia overran Estonia. It also underscores the challenge Russia faces in expanding its resurgence in the Baltic states. Unlike in other former Soviet states like Belarus, Kazakhstan, or Ukraine, Russia's projection of influence must be subtle to succeed in the Baltics. Though these rumors began in the Estonian government, Moscow tends to have a hand in the timing of when these sorts of scandals break, revealing its nuanced approach. Grassroots and cultural ties remain Moscow's most effective levers into the Baltics, particularly targeting Russian populations. In this case, Moscow is not only using this fund to build influence through cultural and religious means, but it is also playing up the attack by Estonian security services and politicians on the pro-Russian Tallinn mayor to smear Estonia's parties, saying this is simply a pre-election ploy.

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