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Russian businessman embroiled in citizenship-for-cash scandal

  • 2006-12-20
  • By Joel Alas

MEN IN BLACK: Businessman Filatov (left) is one of 13 people up for honorary citizenship, despite the fact that the Russian millionaire sponsored an anti-Estonian propoganda film.

TALLINN - Estonia's system of granting citizenship to large investors has come under scrutiny after a proposed recipient, Russian millionaire Andrei Filatov, was revealed as the sponsor of an anti-Estonian propaganda film. Filatov's name was put forward for citizenship by Center Party leader and Economic Minister Edgar Savisaar, who said the transit company tycoon had contributed to the economy by making investments.

However, it was discovered that Filatov was the financier of a foundation that created the controversial Russian documentary "Estonia 's Crossroads of History."
The half-hour film, which was distributed earlier this year on DVD, depicts Estonia as a pro-Nazi nation and distorts the country's history, according to those who have seen it.

Filatov, as director of the Russian transport company Severstaltrans, is one of 13 people to be considered for honorary citizenship by the Cabinet on Dec. 21. By law, the government is allowed to grant citizenship to 10 people each year for making outstanding contributions to the nation.

Previous recipients have included sportsmen and artists. But more controversially, businessmen who have made large investments are typically included on the list 's including the Italian real estate baron Ernesto Preatoni, who was later stripped of his citizenship after running into problems with tax inspectors.
A handful of protesters gathered outside the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) on Dec. 14, waving placards that read "Estonian citizenship is not for sale."

Among them was parliamentarian and member of the opposition party the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica Urmas Reinsalu.
"Citizenship should only be given for extraordinary services to Estonia, and it should be a sign of loyalty to the country and its people. This film gives a negative view of Estonia's history," Reinsalu told The Baltic Times.

The full list of nominees and their credentials remains confidential until after the cabinet has made its decision. Reinsalu said the process should be open and transparent.
"It should be the same as for those who are considered for state decorations, which our courts decided should be publicly known," he said.

Among the other known nominees is Russian millionaire Rustam Askenenko, the 31-year-old son of a former Russian minister of railways, whose name was put forward by Population Minister Paul-Eerik Rummo.
Rummo told the Citizenship and Migration Board that Askenenko deserved citizenship because of his sizable investments in the country through his transit companies.

But Filatov's nomination is the most controversial because of his links to the documentary.
Filatov admitted that he was the financier of a fund called Momentum that produced the film. His name also appears at the end of the credits as a special contributor to the project.
The businessman said he had no editorial control over the film, and did not consider it appropriate to censor its content.
"Consequently, there are no grounds to allege that the positions of the authors of the film coincide with Filatov's," a spokeswoman for his Severstaltrans group said.

"In regards to respecting war graves, Filatov agrees with the authors of the film, but in several other significant issues raised in the film his views differ substantially from those of the film's makers."
Filatov said he would be happy to answer any media questions but asked reporters to wait until after the coming spring elections to avoid political interference.

"I understand very well that Estonia's forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union through an agreement between Stalin and Hitler was a horrible tragedy for Estonians, and I'm also aware that this annexation brought about numerous human sacrifices and sufferings," Filatov said.
"I sincerely regret when projects with which I am connected in some way hurt somebody's feelings. My aspiration has always been for my activity not to turn people against one another but on the contrary to bring them together," he said.
Interior Minister Kalle Laanet, a member of the Center Party and who is responsible for the granting of citizenship, said the background of all nominees was scrutinized by security police.

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip called on Filatov to distance himself from the controversial film. He said it "goes without saying" that people seeking citizenship must display loyalty to the Estonian state.
"If he wishes to continue to be a candidate for Estonian citizenship, he has to clearly distance himself from the film that seeks to rewrite history," Ansip said.
Savisaar justified Filatov's nomination, saying the millionaire businessman was the "author and executor of Estonia's new oil transit strategy."
Political analyst Vello Pettai, professor in politics at Tartu University, said the issue was far less prominent now than in previous years.

"In the mid-90s, there was no limit on the number. The government gave citizenship to hundreds of people a year. The limit came after the mid-90s, when more conservative parties decided to limit it to ten a year," Pettai said.
"Since then, the names of people have not aroused public scrutiny. But this time, the person is connected to this controversial film, and people are paying attention to the system again."
But Pettai said he did not believe Estonia's citizenship was on sale and pointed to Lithuania as an example of a nation where citizenship was more blatantly linked to political donations.

In 2003 the then president of Lithuania, Rolandas Paksas, granted citizenship to his largest campaign financier, Russian businessman Yuri Borisov. The citizenship was later revoked and ultimately led to Paksas' impeachment.