Tallinn mayor defends Kremlin-linked TV deal following secret service raids

Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center).
Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) has defended an agreement under which the City of Tallinn pays for broadcasts by the Baltic Media Alliance (BMA). Latvia's internal security service, the VDD, swooped on BMA's Riga offices on Tuesday in connection with suspected EU sanctions evasion.

Responding to a written question from Tallinn Reform Party chair Kristen Michal, Kõlvart said that the city government had announced its purchase of three Russian-language broadcasts last December, following a tender which also involved public broadcaster ERR and private sector Postimees Grupp.

The total cost of the broadcast procurement was €600,000 plus VAT, according to ERR's online news in Estonian.

"The unit price of two programs has not changed compared to last year. The production and broadcast costs of [the third] increased somewhat, due to the possibility of gaining a larger audience, which in turn is in line with the city's interest in informing Russian speakers in the city," Kõlvart said in response to Michal.

Three Russian-language shows bought

Michal had queried why the city of Tallinn subscribed to what he called the Kremlin-influenced TV channel Pervõi Baltiiskii Kanal (PBK). PBK's parent company is BMA.

Kõlvart also said that BMA was the only bidder of the three which submitted tenders for all three broadcast contracts.

One of the three shows,  "Meie pealinn", had viewing figures of 60,000 [presumably] non-ethnic Estonian viewers on the first broadcast of 2020, a significant increase on last year's average figures, Kõlvart claimed.

The mayor also broke down the costs, before VAT, of buying each program, on Tallinn taxpayer money.

"Meie pealinn" costs a little over €200,000 for 40 shows, with the other two, "Tere hommikust, Tallinn" and "Vene küsimus" coming in at just over €276,000 for over 180 broadcasts, and just under €116,000 for 20 episodes, respectively.

Kristen Michal also noted the significant increase in support for Kremlin-linked media and asked whether the city would be prepared to sever its contracts in line with the Estonian state's battle to reduce the influence of such media.

"Tallinn City Government does not support or fund extra-funded, outside-city TV channels, but purchases an information service to inform city residents, via an organized public procurement," Kõlvart said in response.

Tuesday swoop in Latvia and Estonia

Estonian and Latvian security services jointly engaged in a counter-operation on Tuesday, aimed at suspected attempts to evade European Union sanctions.

The operation led to raids on BMA offices in Riga, in concert with Internal Security Service (ISS) raids on addresses in Estonia.

One of the suspects is Oleg Solodovs, a co-owner and board chairman of Baltic Media Alliance, according to unofficial information obtained by BNS. Solodovs is named on EU sanctions lists which appeared after the 2014 occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and the ongoing insurgency conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Michal's view: City of Tallinn maintains and provides PBK broadcasts in Estonia

Michal referred to analysis by volunteer-staffed anti-misinformation site Propastop in stating that PBK's unquestioning and unfiltered broadcasting of Kremlin-friendly content was common and long-held knowledge.

"Tallinn has been the PBK's Estonia supporter for many years. [It is] Hoping to gain support for the Center Party, United Russia's contracting partner by purchasing using taxpayers' money," Michael said.

Kristen Michal (Reform). Source: ERR

Center's deal with United Russia, Vladimir Putin's party, has long been controversial in Estonia.

As Tallinn TV spend goes down, BMA goes up

Michal also contrasted the procurement with Kõlvart's promises for spending cuts, including on municipal promotion and the closure of Tallinna TV, on becoming mayor in April last year.

Michal also contrasted the procurement with Kõlvart's promises for spending cuts, including on municipal promotion and the closure of Tallinn TV, on becoming mayor in April last year.

Tallinn TV did indeed cease broadcasting at the beginning of October 2019, but still provides online content.

"Today, words have turned into deeds. And they don't conlict. Tallinn TV retained 60 percent of its funding - €2.3 million - and instead half was added to the Kremlin-parroting PBK, with its funding rising from €540 000 to €715 000 this year," Michal said.

Michal also noted his view that Kõlvart seems to see Tallinn and the Republic of Estonia as two discrete entities.

"This is the clear message of Mihhail Kõlvart, who wants to see this information propagated, since, as the 'star' of the Internal Security Service (ISS) yearbook, and a capable man, he knows well whose views PBK conveys and the purpose of its influence. This is not in the interests of the Estonian people, and the sooner it ends, the better," Michal added.

According to ERR, one of Kõlvart's close advisers, and now deputy mayor, Betina Beškina, had helped facilitate the BMA deal.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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