A businessman detained, now released, in the eastern Estonian town of Kohtla-Järve has been the kingpin of a complex intermingling of political power, influence and business for decades, Social Democratic Party MP and opposition member in the town's local council chamber Eduard Odinets says.
Odinets made his remarks in the wake of the detention of Nikolai Ossipenko, a local businessman and former mayor of the town, along with several other suspects, mostly local politicians, all of whom, the MP said, were connected to Odinets in one way or another.
Odinets said: "Kohtla-Järve has been ruled by the same people for more than 20 years. The same clique. [Former mayor Yevgeni] Solovjov, who was found guilty of corruption and who had to leave the position of mayor, first ended up with Ossipenko's landfill company."
"And now that same former mayor of Kohtla-Järve, Ossipenko, works in another company. The same people, the same scheme, the same system
Ossipenko "controls" people via a system of various favors and rewards, Odinets went on.
This included: "Options to obtain benefits, to get jobs, or maybe also to get orders for your small companies. It is viable to find your relatives, friends somewhere to work. If we also look at the current composition of the council and those people who may be related to this scandal yesterday and today, they all have somehow worked in Ossipenko companies, or are currently working at all."
"The deputy chair of the council (Maria Merkulova - ed.) is the chair of the board of one of Ossipenko's companies. Ossipenko's stepson is the council chair (Tiit Lillemets)."
Both individuals were detained on Tuesday in relation to the corruption scandal.
"One council deputy currently works in his company. Two more are former employees of his companies," Odinets went on.
"What also characterizes Ossipenko's empire is that he constantly moves people around from one company to another. He offers places, promotes people, while if someone behaves badly, he bounces them down to a lower position. He constantly plays, as on the chessboard, with people. This creates a situation where everyone is connected to everyone and everything owes to everybody. Such a classic scheme," he continued.
This meant that political and business decisions were practically indistinguishable, with Ossipenko the kingpin.
Odinets pointed out that Ossipenko had been on trial a decade ago for courruption issues, while not only did he get off any penalty after claiming ill-health, by liquidating the assets of the company in question he was able to avoid having these confiscated.
"Only the mayor and one of the deputy mayors were punished, but one million euros of money simply disappeared from the city budget," Odinets said, noting that the sums involved this time around are not clear yet.
Ossipenko's firms, as it happens, mainly provide municipal services to municipalities in Ida-Viru County, in such diverse areas as road maintenance, refurbishment work, flower planting and even cemetery maintenance.
The quality of service in many cases in recent years had not been impressive, Odinets added, while some municipalities even "dared" to terminate contracts with an Osspienko firm, he added.
Odinets, who as noted is in opposition on the council in the city of around 33,000 people, said he had been involved in organizing protests, attended by townspeople, over one near Kafka-esque situation whereby garbage trucks owned by an Ossipenko firm were unable to do their job on some days last winter and remove garbage in some cases, since deep snow drifts prevented them getting near to the garbage bins.
Responsibility for clearing the streets of snow meanwhile was also that of another company owned by, none other than Nikolai Ossipenko, Odinets said.
Virtually no attempt had been made to say boo to the city government's goose over this and other issues, such was Ossipenko's grip over the town, he went on.
Continually reorganizing companies and their boards kept things shaken up to the extent that identifying culpability was also challenging, he added.
Ossipenko and eight individuals were detained Tuesday in Kohtla-Järve, suspected of involvement in bribery and influence peddling, while a total of around a dozen people have been of interest to the Police and Border Guard Board.
However, while the Prosecutor's Office, in line with standard practice, sought a full arrest for Ossipenko and most of the other individuals – as noted city government officials and council chamber officials, as well as business associates of Ossipenko – the Viru County Court rejected this request.
Center Party MP Martin Repinski said Wedensday that in a town of the size of Kohtla-Järve, such interweaving of business and politics was impossible to avoid.
The local government politicians under suspicion were members of Center, the Reform Party and a local government electoral list.
Editor: Andrew Whyte