TALLINN - Environment Minister Villu Reiljan, the leader of the People's Union party, handed in his resignation on Oct. 6 after investigations were launched over alleged corruption deals. Reiljan said he would be unable to fulfill his duties during the probe. His resignation followed the arrest of the Estonian Land Board's director general, Kalev Kangur, whose agency was allegedly involved with corrupt property deals.
While Reiljan, as minister, signed off on the land deals, he denied having done anything corrupt. "I have nothing to fear from the investigation, and I have no plans of going to jail," he told reporters.
Two high-profile businessmen, Einar Vettus and Tarmo Pedisaar, were also placed in detention for up to six months, while a third businessman, Tullio Liblik, was arrested but released under strict conditions.
Prosecutors have yet to provide details about the land swaps or their value, but the length of the preliminary incarceration period and the ramifications of the arrests imply that the figures involved are serious.
At the heart of the scandal are a series of land exchanges between the Land Board, an agency that controls state-owned land on behalf of the Environmental Ministry, and Vettus, Pedisaar and Liblik, who hold interests in construction and property companies.
The land exchanged was unprofitable because it was protected by environmental controls that restricted development. However, the businessmen were able to swap their plots with government-owned land in prime locations.
Political analyst Rainar Kattel, professor of public administration at Tallinn University of Technology, said Reiljan's resignation was sudden and unexpected.
"All the decisions of the Land Board were signed by the minister, so he can't say he didn't know what was happening. Whether he knew exactly what was behind the details is unknown," Kattel told The Baltic Times. "If he did not step down, then every day there would have been a new story in the press. There would have been immense pressure on him."
Kattel said it was possible that Reiljan's resignation was a ploy to absolve blame and appear clean ahead of next spring's general elections. "It could be smart for him to stay out of the media while the investigation is happening. It depends on how serious the situation really is," Kattel said.
The environment minister was one of two political leaders who unsuccessfully attempted to return former president Arnold Ruutel to power by ordering his party's parliamentarians not to vote in the recent elections. However, the ploy backfired when the electoral college elected Toomas Hendrik Ilves in what was seen as a protest against the actions of the People's Union and Center Party. Kattel said he did not believe Reiljan's failure to reinstate Ruutel had any bearing on his decision to resign.
Reiljan, who has served as environment minister for nearly eight years, was replaced by Rein Randver, 50, a former county governor who has served in Parliament for the People's Union since 2002. According to the agreement between the three governing parties, the post of environment minister belongs to the People's Union, the junior party in the coalition. However, Reiljan did not step down as leader of his party or as a parliamentarian.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor's Office said the four arrested men had not yet been charged with any offense. Charges will be laid at the end of the investigation, which could take several months.
"We suspect that not all the land was properly exchanged and that there was an exchange of property from the state for land that had environmental restrictions. For some of these exchanges, there is suspicion about how and in what way they were done," the spokeswoman said.
One of the companies under investigation is Merko, one of the biggest property firms in Estonia. But the prosecutor's spokeswoman said Merko was only one of several companies under investigation, and its suspected role in the deals was minor.
Tonis Lukas, co-chairman of the opposition coalition party The Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, said that Reiljan had made the right decision to step down.
"If we have a case of corruption, then Reiljan is responsible as minister," Lukas said.