Government targets unwanted NGOs

  • 2004-02-26
  • By Larissa Semjonova
In July 2003 Minister for Population Affairs Paul-Eerik Rummo claimed that the very absence of pro-minority parties in the recently elected Estonian Parliament is evidence of successful integration into Estonian society.

On Jan. 29, 2003, in the daily Postimees a journalist listed the achievements of then chief director of the "political" Security Police as they were mentioned "by officials well-informed about security service activities." The split of a Russian community - preventing a creation of an influential pro-minority parliamentary party - was at the top of this list.
We argue that the absence of pro-minority parties in Parliament is favorable to many Estonian political forces but not to the Russian community itself. Furthermore, the poor results at the elections were the consequences of large-scale defamation campaign that victimized both pro-minority political forces and the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights, which is a leading NGO dealing with minority rights in Estonia.
The campaign started in late 2001 when the local press published allegations about corruption in the Tallinn Department of Social Security and Integration. The chief director of the department, and one of the city's deputy mayors, belonged to the pro-minority United People's Party of Estonia. The case was actively used by the country's mainstream parties to influence the local Russian electorate. In short, the scandal was necessary to change the ruling coalition both in the capital and on the national level. An investigation was conducted by the Security Police; however, the Prosecutor's Office failed to prove in court the "creation of a threat to the safety of city money." The former director of the department managed to prove in court that her forced retirement was also illegal; she was later granted compensation by the Tallinn city government for violation of her rights.
The Department of Social Security and Integration was the first specialized municipal institution in Estonia which was to address the problems of the non-Estonian population. It ceased to exist in early 2002. The Legal Information Centre for Human Rights has participated in different DSSI projects (preparation of a city integration program, research on interethnic relations in Tallinn, legalization of illegal minors). But in early 2002 the Tallinn Tax Board began auditing LICHR. State auditors paid special attention to the projects funded by the department. No violations were found in this regard. Nevertheless the board made several claims for additional taxes. These claims were rejected by LICHR as ill-founded. The argumentation of the Centre was prepared in cooperation with the auditors from the Baltic branch of "Ernst & Young." On Jan. 22, 2004, the tax center of the Tallinn Tax Department decided to arrest the banking accounts of LICHR. Thus LICHR's work is now paralyzed.
It is worth mentioning that activities of the Tax Board may follow a tricky scheme. Thus, they normally coincided with pre-election periods in Estonia. The first claims were made before last local (October 2002) and national (March 2003) elections when LICHR director Aleksei Semjonov was a candidate of the United People's Party of Estonia. Then the board kept silence for 11 months until Semjonov's participation in the European Parliament elections was first aired.
Also, before the last local elections the press reported about the "problems" of Arkadi Presjazhnyi, then leader of the Union of Russian Compatriots' Organizations of Estonia. Later, in July 2003, a former officer of the Tax Board confessed that he personally sent this information to the press. He said he had been asked to do so by his boss, who had received similar instructions from the Security Police.
LICHR appreciates the successes of a democratic development in Estonia, but now we regret to inform that a few Estonian officials have decided to implement "advice" of Central Asian regimes that rid themselves of inconvenient NGOs with the assistance of tax and law enforcement bodies. EU accession is understood by these politicians as a carte blanche for radical solution of a minority problem and development of an ethnic-based model of democracy.

Larissa Semjonova is deputy director
of the Legal Information Center
for Human Rights in Estonia.