Electoral alliances taking part in the October 2021 local elections in the eastern Estonian towns of Kohtla-Järve and Jõhvi obtained discounts of well over 90 percent when placing campaign ads in a local free paper owned by a businessman in the town who is at the center of the corruption case which started to unfold last week.
Many of those who placed ads in the weekly newspaper, Panorama, which is owned by Nikolai Ossipenko, a figure at the heart of the current corruption scandal to have engulfed the Ida-Viru County town of 33,000 people, ended up in the coalition or in leading city positions formed after the local elections last October, including council chair Tiit Lillemets and deputy. Anton Dijev.
Both Lillemets and Dijev were also suspects detained in last week's Police and Border Guard (PPA) swoop in relation to alleged bribery and influence peddling involving the local government, the city council and local businesses, though all have been released.
Offering discounts on ad space where the ad is one of a political nature amounts to a prohibited donation, the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) says.
ERJK adviser Zoja Masso said: "According to the law on political parties, a discount as compared with prevailing market prices is considered a prohibited donation."
Two electoral alliances – which provide an alternative to the mainstream parties in local elections and often end up in office – organized by local businessmen saw the regular ad price of €25,000 slashed to just €1,200, ERR reports.
Meanwhile, two other alliances, VL Jõhvikad and VL Progress received discounts of 93.1 percent (from €13,000 regular price to €900) and 97.5 percent respectively €300, down from €13,000).
ERR approached Panorama for comment but found the publication unresponsive.
Meanwhile, local daily Põhjarannik said that while discounts for large-print-run ad campaigns might be normal at election time, these would only constitute around 20 percent off.
Panorama (see cover image) is published by N&V, an Ossipenko company, and is free to the reader.
Opposition councilor and Riigikogu MP Eduard Odinets (SDE) said that he had declined to advertise in the paper ahead of the October 2021 election.
In any case, Odinets, who recently said Kohtla-Järve was basically run by Ossipenko, so far as the business-local politics interface went, polled higher than any other single candidate at the election.
A spokesperson for another electoral alliance, Restart Kohtla-Järve, which did buy ad space in Panorama, likened the practice to any other service.
Mare Roosileht said: "We paid for the service, In the same way, I pay [garbage services firm] Ekovir for refuse collection."
Ekovir itself is an Ossipenko-owned company.
Restart's ad space discount saw them have to pay €600 , down from the €2,134 the paper's price tariff publishes for the type of ad purchased (Two pages of advertisements and more than two sponsored articles, which include the candidate's photo and electoral number.
Progress, one of the electoral alliances which got the over-90-percent discount treatment, did not see this translate into huge electoral successes, picking up only two seats, but this was not an issue since they found themselves in office in the ensuing coalition in any case.
Jõhvikad, running in neighboring Jõhvi, saw more success, winning nearly 20 percent of council seats (four out of 21), and, though this alliance did not end up in office, on of its leading members, Evelyn Danilov, ended up chairing the audit committee and being vice-chair three other committees.
Danilov is another suspect who was detained last week.
Nonetheless, some politicians seem to have grasped the inverse-Midas-touch effect that Ossipenko seems to have engendered; Valeri Korb, long-term leader of the Center Party in Kohtla-Järve and a former mayor, while being a front cover face for Panorama in the 2017 local elections and the 2019 Riigikogu election, was absent from its pages in October 2021.
Korb was also one of the Kohtla-Järve deputies who called for a motion of no-confidence in the current city government, after the scandal broke last week.
Panorama is published in two languages (Estonian and Russian) in the one edition, and has a circulation of 30,000.
Ossipenko pulled the health-issue card after being detained, with at least one image appearing to show him hospitalized and on a ventilator. A Prosecutor's Office request for his formal arrest was denied by first-tier Viru County Court, with all other eight suspects – from electoral alliances, the Center Party, the Reform Party, and the local business community – similarly being released.
The same court barred journalists from the Ossipenko pre-trial hearing at the last minute, after having earlier granted permission for them to attend.
Editor: Andrew Whyte