Christmas is over, everyone’s had their say, so now it’s time for some questions and answers regarding the Savisaar/Yakunin business. For those who missed it: Edgar Savisaar, the leader of Estonia’s main opposition party, who also happens to be the mayor of the capital, has apparently been caught asking the head of a Russian state company for money. The Estonian counter-intelligence agency (Kapo) got wind of it and prevented the actual handover from happening. The information got leaked to the press and generated a massive shitstorm on the Estonian political scene, reinforced by the fact that the parliamentary elections are coming up in March. I’ve done my best to follow it and figure out what’s going on, and the relevant points are listed below.
Did Savisaar take money from Russia for a politically-motivated project?
Yes. This is not in dispute by anyone. Savisaar’s electoral base is heavily tilted towards the Russian-speaking minority (especially in municipal elections, where all residents get to vote, even those who are not Estonian citizens). As mayor, he got heavily involved in the construction of a new Russian Orthodox church in the capital’s predominantly Russian suburb. He asked for money to build the church from Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the Russian railroad company. The construction of the church was financed to the tune of some 13,5 million kroons (860 000 Euro) of money that came from the Russian government.
Was he being up front about it?
Yes and no. Simply inviting another government to pay for a community project is not illegal; it’s not even particularly immoral. However, the church financing was not transparent. The money actually came from the accounts of a Russian entrepreneur associated with the transit business. It was only after Kapo confronted Savisaar that an official contract was signed between the Estonian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and a charitable fund controlled by Yakunin. That said, Savisaar did announce Yakunin’s involvement publicly at the start of the construction, so while the implementation is iffy, there’s really nothing major to put against Savisaar in this regard.
Did Savisaar ask Russia for money to finance his election campaign?
Yes. This is the question that Savisaar will not answer directly. All his public statements have called attention to the fact that the church financing was legitimate, that he never actually got any money, that he was cooperating with Kapo, that someone leaked secret information to the press, etc. However, the core of the accusation against Savisaar – his primary wrongdoing – is that he conspired with a Russian state official to secretly receive 1,5 million Euro of the Russian government’s money for his election campaign. Savisaar has entirely avoided this point in his press statements. He has not said that this is untrue.
Did he actually get the money?
No. The chief of Kapo invited him over for a chat and told him not to take the money. This was a day before Yakunin was due in Estonia on an official visit. Previously, a planned handover by somebody working for Yakunin failed in a slightly mysterious way that also suggests Kapo involvement – see below.
What if he had gotten the money?
It would have given his party a hell of a budget for the campaign, by Estonian standards. It also would have meant that a person who could potentially become the prime minister, or hold another key government post, would owe favors to the Russian government. Certainly Yakunin thought it was a sufficiently big deal to demand absolute secrecy, not discussing anything on the phone, not even setting up meetings on the phone, for fear of wiretaps. (Yakunin himself is a former KGB operative.) On the other hand, as was pointed out by the former Chancellor of Justice, the parliament actually recently passed a bill that de-criminalizes receiving money in secret for political purposes, so even in the worst case scenario, Savisaar would not have gone to jail.
Did he really need the money?
Yes. The Center Party is deeply in debt. Member contributions have been shrinking. Earlier this year, a construction company actually sued for bankruptcy of the party for failure to pay for renovations to their HQ. At that time, the debt got paid off from money that is handed out by the state as support for political parties – meaning that the Center Party’s own fundraising efforts have not been successful. In addition, Savisaar has recently gone through a divorce; his wife, who was a major Center Party figure as well, is now a member of the European Parliament for Estonia. Savisaar does not appear to have much of a personal fortune, especially not after the divorce. Even if this scandal had not happened, Savisaar’s chances to win the upcoming parliamentary elections would have been quite slim without the money to run an all-out campaign.
Is this election that important to him?
Yes. This is the big one, for the parliament, and it will determine who gets to be prime minister – who gets to run the country for the next four years. Savisaar’s support base will already be narrower, since only Estonian citizens can vote in parliamentary elections (all residents can vote in municipal ones, which is how he got to be mayor of the capital – a lot of the Russian-speakers are either citizens of Russia or non-citizens, and just have residence permits). The ethnic-Estonian voters are already galvanized against Savisaar to a large extent; in his efforts to gain the favor of the Russian voters, who tend to feel disenfranchised and hate the right-wing coalition parties, Savisaar has built up an image of someone who is very cozy with the Kremlin. His failure to denounce the Bronze Soldier riots in 2007 did not help, and this year he is up against an inevitable popularity boost for the pro-European coalition, on the back of Euro accession. His Center Party has always been one of the greatest political forces in Estonia, and it’s not unthinkable that he would win the parliamentary elections. But another four years in opposition will be terrible: he’s an old man, and some senior figures in his own party would not mind seeing him leave. I won’t be so categorical as to say this is Savisaar’s last chance, but it’s an increasingly uphill battle for him.
Has the scandal destroyed his chances in the election?
Not really. There are still enough voters out there who either benefited from Savisaar’s policies – such as old-age pension supplements to Tallinn residents – or just plain hate the coalition parties. The Russian-speakers in Tallinn and the heavily-immigrant northeast of the country have a deep distrust of the coalition parties, and will vote for Savisaar regardless, simply because he is the only option they see. And not to put too fine a point on it, but a lot of them won’t see the problem in their candidate taking Kremlin money to begin with.
Can the Kapo report be trusted?
A lot of Savisaar supporters just dismiss it outright. Until they see facts, they will not believe any of it happened; as far as they are concerned, the chief of Kapo is simply lying. Never mind that the report does actually contain some verifiable details (such as the presence of Yakunin at Savisaar’s farm outside of any official visits). This is something every reader just has to decide for themselves. In my opinion, if the Estonian security services were to lie outright, they would probably make it more compelling than this. Kapo did not leak the information, and was very reluctant to issue any kind of public statement at all; after the report I translated, they have not commented at all. If Kapo was out to discredit Savisaar, doing the coalition’s dirty work, they would probably have let the cash delivery go ahead and taped it, catching Savisaar in the act – not prevented it. Some of the senior Center Party members – those that have held the post of Internal Affairs minister, so have worked with Kapo directly – said they trust the report (although these are also Savisaar’s internal opponents). Finally, like I said before, Savisaar has not actually denied asking Yakunin for campaign finance. For that matter, Yakunin has not actually commented at all.
Was Kapo politically pressured?
Yes. Releasing information like this is highly unusual for any secret service. As little as the Kapo chief actually said in his report, it was still something he would not have done without massive political pressure from the cabinet.
What is on the conversation tape?
Nothing conclusive. Savisaar has demanded that Kapo release the tape of the conversation between him and the Kapo chief, when he was notified that Kapo was involved. For Savisaar, it’s a no-lose scenario: Kapo will almost certainly refuse for reasons of spycraft best practices alone, so he can continue confusing the media message. Even if Kapo released the tape, what could it possibly contain? A third-degree interrogation of a powerful politician? Or a civilized discussion, with mentions of continuing to draw the Russians in, just in case something interesting develops? Even if the Kapo chief was not putting out cigarettes on Savisaar’s arm, it doesn’t mean Savisaar was not caught doing something extremely unpleasant.
Who told Kapo about the deal?
Probably Denis Borodich, the deputy mayor of Tallinn. We’ll never know for sure, at least not for a few decades, until the memoirs are published. But Borodich was there at key points in the negotiations (even if the Kapo report is carefully structured not to suggest his direct involvement). He was originally supposed to receive the Russian cash from Yakunin’s man, but was conveniently unreachable on the day. He was out of the country when the scandal broke, and upon his arrival, was whisked away by Savisaar for another one of those civilized conversations. It’s likely that Borodich felt like he was being set up. Hell, maybe he genuinely felt that taking Kremlin money for campaign finance is wrong.
Who leaked the story to the press?
Hard to say for sure. Possibly the prime minister or one of the other key cabinet ministers, possibly some of the people that were notified after the fact. Apparently this included foreign diplomats (almost certainly station chiefs for intelligence services of friendly nations), and senior parliament members. It might even have been Ain Seppik or Kalle Laanet – two of the Center Party’s Old Guard who are said to be engineering Savisaar’s ejection. What’s certain is that the government was not at all disappointed when the leak occurred.
Any other questions?
Savisaar would also need to form a coalition to rule. That might have been possible if Pihl had stayed as head of SDE. Now Mikser had the opportunity to walk away from the coalition in Tallinn. Centre is very isolated. Even if Savisaar wins in March, he probably won't be able to form a coalition.
It's not impossible that Centre could form a coalition with Reform again, but that coalition would not include Ansip.
As for Centre Party figures engineering Savisaar's ejection, I did get a very nice Christmas card from Jaak Aab this year.
Thanks for writing this.
A Reform-Center coalition without Ansip or Savisaar would be... interesting, I suppose. Not the worst thing that could happen.
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