May 27, 2009
Tallinn was abuzz about bribery this week. Perhaps that’s overstating things, but at meetings there yesterday, people were keen to discuss the prosecution and conviction of former Environment Minister, Villu Reiljan.
Just last week, Reiljan was found guilty of demanding bribes in exchange for favorable treatment on a real estate deal. It seems that as Minister of the Environment, he was able to sway the outcome of the auction of a valuable building. His accusers claim he demanded a bribe; he countered by claiming there was no conclusive evidence he did so, and that he was being targeted for political reasons.
He was brought down by recorded conversations from wiretaps performed by the elite “Defense Police”, a group organized initially to catch Russian spies yet bearing the authoritarian marks of police groups of the days when the Soviet Union dominated the country.
If the prosecution was heavy-handed, the sentence was light. He was sentenced to 27 months’ imprisonment, but with immediate eligibility for parole. He has resigned from his ministerial position, but remains on the government payroll while he pursues an appeal.
The minister’s conviction might start to break down the widespread assumption that anti-bribery laws don’t apply to senior politicians. Everyone we spoke to agreed that bribery is less prevalent than it was during the economic problems of the 1990s and the Soviet occupation before that.
On the other hand, the minister’s sentence will do little to dispel the sense that the courts and the Estonian business community retain a “country club” atmosphere. With just 1.3 million people—and half of them living in Tallinn—the country has a tiny business elite and readymade networks for those determined to skew the system. This remains a country where the most fashionable way to conduct business is to take a customer boar or moose hunting in Estonia’s pristine forests.
Anti-bribery enforcement in Estonia is not out yet of the woods.