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PM may face dismissal over shooting incident

  • 2001-02-15
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - A bizarre incident at a shooting range in which Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar allegedly fired at a photograph of opposition leader Edgar Savisaar two years ago may cost him the top job.

Kesknadal, the official publication of SavisaarÕs Center Party, published an article on the episode, which was supposed to have taken place on May 13, 1999, when Laar and a group of officials from the Pro Patria Union, which he chairs, took part in military exercises at the Nursi shooting ground.

The paper stated that Laar placed a photograph of Savisaar, who is chairman of the Center Party, to the regular man-shaped target and announced that anyone who missed it would be a proven friend of his long-time political enemy.

The article also said that Laar and his band of sharpshooters, which included former Voru County Governor Robert Lepikson, were drunk.

It has been established that participating in an incident like this can be qualified as a particularly cynical brand of criminal hooliganism and, according to the criminal code, could be punished with up to five years in prison.


Quickfire

In an interview on nationwide television on Feb. 7, the day the story was published, Laar emotionally explained that the story was complete nonsense. But the next day, Lepikson, who has since retired from all political positions and does not belong to any political party, publicly accused Laar of amnesia and recommended that he see a doctor.

ÒLaar did shoot at a photograph of Savisaar. I have never lied before and do not intend to do it now,Ó said Lepikson. He added that he would not like to comment on the details unless a court asked him to do so.

Lepiskon even agreed to undergo a lie detector test arranged by the daily Eesti Paevaleht and Estonian criminology specialist Jaan Huik. This was duly arranged, and Lepiskon passed with flying colors. The daily wrote on Feb. 10 that this shows Lepikson is telling the truth.

Laar rejected an offer to undergo the same test by saying there are more important things for him to do than participate in the pre-election propaganda of a political competitor, the Center Party.

On Feb. 9, Laar tried again to calm the growing scandal by sending out an official statement and apology. But according to this, it was LepiksonÕs idea to put SavisaarÕs photo on the target.

ÒAt the end of the shooting exercise, when it became dark, we began to practice night shooting, and ex-County Governor Robert Lepikson put an invitation card to some event arranged by Savisaar to his target,Ó Laar stated.

ÒI cannot confirm now whether anybody shot or hit that target. I am deeply embarrassed I did not call Lepikson to order, prevent his action and give it a speedy ethical appraisal. I apologize to those personally affected by the incident,Ó wrote Laar in the statement.

The moral image of the Estonian defense forces officers who organized and controlled the exercise and who would never allow such childish action cannot be doubted, according to Laar.

ÒI really do not remember the exact details. It was not an incident worth remembering,Ó said Laar at a special press conference held on Feb. 12. However, the prime minister admitted that he could have shot the photograph.

Laar stressed that he had given only two official comments on the case, and confirmed he would not deny his previous statement on the story published in Kesknadal. ÒThe story is nonsense, and I was rather angry when I read it,Ó repeated Laar.

The prime minister said he had suspected that Lepikson and Savisaar had been planning some act of defamation, and it was just a question of time when the libel would be published.


Bad memory

ÒBelieve it or not, everything that happened on May 13 two years ago was not correctly described in the Center Party paper,Ó Laar continued. ÒThere is only one thing I would like to deny, namely, lying to my people.Ó

The prime minister apologized twice more at the press conference, and emphasized that he is only human and can easily make mistakes.

But the whole story would not end with apologies, according to Laar. ÒSavisaarÕs wish to destroy the current government is clear,Ó he said. However, the prime minister added he hopes Estonians are aware of the fact that the government has done nothing to deserve a no-confidence vote.

This is the aim now of the political opposition, which is after LaarÕs dismissal from office. They will pass a bill to the Parliament to organize a special commission that will investigate the incident and decide whether a no-confidence vote is necessary. Savissar himself said he hopes Laar will not wait for an investigation and resign.

Sven Mikser, an MP for the Center Party, said there is no difference how Laar quits. ÒAlongside his participation in unethical activities, the prime minister is lying, and is therefore unsuitable for office,Ó he said.

The prime minister hopes to keep the scandal within Estonia. ÒThis incident will neither seriously spoil nor improve EstoniaÕs international image,Ó said Laar.

Academics and political observers have already offered their thoughts. Dr. Frank Emmert, dean of the Law School of Concordia University, has commented that Laar should certainly not resign.

Emmert said he could see two possible versions of the episode. ÒIf Laar arranged the shooting to express his hatred and get rid of political and personal aggression, then it was a serious mistake.

ÒBut if everything was set up without informing him then I would not worry if I were in his shoes,Ó said Emmert.

In America, where many people are well acquainted with weapons, everything would soon vanish from the headlines, Emmert concluded, saying that it is ridiculous to make such a fuss.

However, fresh evidence has emerged that could give this story a further twist in the tail.


A darker tale

The Estonian daily Postimees claims it has the comments of Meelis Lao, an Estonian businessman allegedly involved in the local criminal underworld, stating that Lepikson has tried to use the entire affair in order to become the preferred bidder in a public tender for a lucrative area of land near the town of Paldiski.

Lao told Postimees that, with his help, Lepikson tried to sell the story to Laar. Lepikson intended to give the story to Savisaar if Laar did not satisfy his wish to buy the land.

Tallinn Mayor Juri Mois, who knows both Lao and Lepikson personally, confirmed this explanation of the events. But Lepikson and Laar have so far declined to comment.