TALLINN - In the single greatest heist since Estonia regained its independence, some 13,000 tons of grain - enough to fill 800 railway cisterns - were stolen from the government's strategic reserve over the course of several years.
News of the theft, estimated at 1.2 million euros, caused an uproar in Estonia, with the government launching an independent investigation and Minister of Agriculture Tiit Tammsaar tendering his resignation.
The predominant theory is that, given the sheer size of the loot, the missing grain - mostly rye - was siphoned off from a silo in Rakvere, in northern Estonia, over several years.
Prime Minister Juhan Parts called the grain incident "the biggest mess" that has happened during the current coalition and promised all the strategic reserves would be audited.
"We should take steps to first of all find out how this could happen and whose activity or negligence has caused it," Parts said at a news conference last week.
The prime minister stressed that there was no direct threat to the food supply despite the missing grain.
According to reports, the state-owned company Eesti Viljasalv signed a 10-year contract with Rakvere Viljasalv, a private company based in the northern town of Rakvere, to preserve the grain in a local silo, one of the five locations for the strategic reserve.
Rakvere Viljasalv, a company with debts running into millions of kroons, received about 575,000 euros for its service over the past three years.
Following the news, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Finance Ministry replaced their representatives on the council of Eesti Viljasalv.
In an interview with the Postimees daily, Tammsaar said that Ago Soots, the head of Eesti Viljasalv, had lost his credibility as he had failed to provide sufficient control over the grain stock.
Vladimir Semyonov, director of Rakvere Viljasalv, and Martin Poder, financial manager, gave themselves up to the police on March 19.
Semyonov, 48, informed Eesti Viljasalv management about the missing grain in a letter on March 15 and referred to "violation of storage rules" and "unauthorized economic activity" as the main reasons for the grain loss.
Experts from the Ministry of Agriculture that visited the Rakvere silo after the loss was reported discovered that the warehouse had been rebuilt to conceal the lack of grain.
In a report presented to Prime Minister Parts this week, Tammsaar, who become agriculture minister in April 2003, suggested the grain theft from the Rakvere silo could have been taking place since 2000.
Worse for Estonia, the mismanagement of grain reserves seems to be a symptom of a wider problem.
Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Meelis Atonen said this week that a strategic fuel reserves audit was carried out last spring and that several serious problems were discovered.
"Under the new [state fuel reserve] tender rules, every kind of risk will be taken into account, and the system will be built so that a company will not keep a state's property but rather be obliged to purchase it, so if anybody would steal it would be stealing from yourself," said Atonen.
According to the minister, it was a coincidence that the new tender for keeping state fuel reserve was announced one day after the grain scandal became public.
Sven Soiver, spokesman for the State Audit Office, said the grain stock and the control system of the Ministry of Agriculture had been under the eye of state auditors but mainly in relation to the purchase prices, which were allegedly unfavorable for the state.
The State Audit Office began auditing the Ministry of Agriculture, including the strategic grain reserve management, in January.
The country's reserve of food, medical and rescue supplies, all managed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Interior, will be placed under stricter control later this year.
The exact volume of strategic reserve of various goods kept by the government for emergency situations is classified information.
The other big embezzlement in Estonia was carried out by Aavo Viiol, who from 1999 - 2001 managed to steal 511,000 euros while heading a state-owned foundation for supporting culture.
It was expected that Prime Minister Juhan Parts would except Tammsaar's resignation, and that the post would be filled by Jaanus Mannik, chairman of the People's Party's faction in Parliament. Tammsaar, also a People's Party member, would then become an MP.