Diary of a notorious gambling fiend

  • 2004-11-01
  • By Andrei Tuch
TALLINN - Sometimes, you just can't do anything right. No matter how hard you try, or how much you struggle, you just don't seem to have any luck. And unless you can break out of the losing streak, you end up in trouble. A lot of trouble.

Such, at least, was the jam that Avo Viiol got himself into a couple of years ago. As director of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, a government institution that supports the arts and dispenses grant money, Viiol had access to a bank account that proved too hot to handle for him.

Over a period of three years, he made regular withdrawals on behalf of the CEE, with the money ending up in a casino vault. Viiol's private use of public funds ended up endowing Estonia's gaming industry more than anything else, and cost Viiol's employer over 8.5 million kroons (540,000 euros), and his boss, then Culture Minister Signe Kivi, her job.

Viiol pleaded guilty to grand embezzlement, and was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence. Paroled in February of this year, he moved back to his hometown of Johvi in southeast Estonia, and began thinking of ways to repay his debt to society - literally. In the best traditions of celebrity villains everywhere, he decided to write a book.

"A Life Too Long" appeared in bookstores last week, retailing for 185 kroons (12 euros), which is surprisingly steep, even considering that the government claims half of whatever the book makes - after taxes. The thin paperback features Viiol's prison diaries and three interviews he gave at various points after his trial, as well as a first-hand account of his descent into a private, if lavishly decorated, hell.

In anticipation of the book's release, the Eesti Ekspress weekly (whose publishing house produced the book) ran excerpts from the diaries.

Reading the comments about them on the newspaper's Web site, which is typically a battleground for strongly opinionated people, I got the strange sensation that nobody really gives a damn about Viiol's now-legendary exploits. I can understand why people might not care about the book, but surely the theft of 8.5 million kroons - more money than any lottery jackpot in recent history - should get Estonians' blood boiling.

Or maybe not. Perhaps Estonians don't care because these most pragmatic of people consider the state funds allocated to the Cultural Endowment to be money down the drain in the first place; or that much of the cash has in fact been returned to the CEE, an institution that is anyway financed partly through gambling taxes. Or it might possibly have something to do with the fact that Avo Viiol managed to get his hands on a pot of gold - and then lost it.

Everybody loves a winner, and this was not the first or the largest embezzlement scandal in recent Estonian history. A lot of money has vanished into thin air over a dozen years of independence, bankrupt banks being only one example. There was once a rather famous case of a missing $10 million but the people who were alleged to have been behind the scandal back then have managed to make nice careers for themselves.

But that's just human, and especially Estonian nature for you. If you get away with scamming the system you're admired just for having the guts to have done it. But if you got caught, then you are nothing more than a sad loser, worthy of nothing more than pity at best and a few cruel jokes at worst. The unfortunate thing about this particular story is that this sums up the case of Avo Viiol. Never mind the fact that the man was an obsessive gambler who lost everything he had.