'Protection money' issue continues to dog coalition

State crest as a backdrop to a Stenbock House cabinet press conference.
State crest as a backdrop to a Stenbock House cabinet press conference. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

While the 2023 State Budget Bill passed into law Wednesday following a Riigikogu vote, the controversial "protection money" scheme which accompanies its processing continues to cause tensions within the Reform/Isamaa/SDE coalition, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Thursday.

One sore point has been the return of €6.2 million which was entered into the state budget bill under the Interior Ministry's area of responsibility, but was returned to that ministry with a request they find alternative recipients.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) called a "completely malicious slander" the claim that this money had been returned despite Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets' (SDE) support for the Reform Party's candidate for the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

"I say in no uncertain terms that such a claim bears no relation to what the actual truth is," Kallas said.

The €6.2 million had been earmarked for regional development – which is what "protection money" is primarily aimed at – but since the Interior Ministry had placed the funds into the development of schools and kindergartens, this was rejected and the money returned, on the grounds that education does not fall within this ministry's remit.

Estonia's next ECA representative, from January 1 next year, will be Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, Reform's former finance minister.

The prime minister went on to say Thursday that when the coalition had been engaged in its budget discussions, in September this year, the financing of different areas had been discussed more generally.

The list of specified beneficiaries was added later, when the bill was being processed at the Riigikogu (from the end of September to this week – ed.), the prime minister said.

Prime Minister Kallas added that: "I think it is correct that the investments go towards topics in this field, and luckily the interior minister and the finance committee in the Riigikogu reached an agreement on this."

Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, from the other coalition party, Isamaa, raised the "protection money" issue again at Thursday's cabinet meeting, adding that SDE had been unfairly blocking government moves to raise teacher salaries, in response to the €6.2 million funds being returned to the interior ministry.

Reinsalu said: "I was not happy today when one of the coalition partners blocked the government's order on the increase in teachers' pay, indicating that this still needs to be discussed separately.

"This is somewhat of a hostage crisis, and it is unfair on teachers and unjustifiable. Politicians should provide solutions to things like this, in a way that they do not arbitrarily connect unrelated topics," the minister went on.

Opposition politicians from the Center Party and from the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) meanwhile say that once the next coalition is formed up, after the March 2023 general election, principles for the distribution of "protection money" should be drawn up.

Former Public Administration Minister – effectively minister for the regions – Jaak Aab (Center) said that for clarity's sake, rules on the distribution of these funds should be hammered out during the coalition talks themselves: "So that it is transparent, and in the right areas of the right ministries. Nobody should be prohibited from making political decisions, but these must be ethical, clear and transparent."

EKRE MP Anti Poolamets said: "Trust is definitely broken in the coalition. This is also confirmed by the members of the coalition. But, unfortunately, the election campaign season is here, and the feathers are flying within the coalition too."

Läänemets says he is waiting to hear from the Minister of Education Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) at next Monday's coalition council meeting on what will happen to kindergarten teachers' wages, adding that the reason for blocking the government's orders on this was not related to the return of the €6.2 million to his ministry.

He said: "We may be disappointed, but we are not going to victimize anyone or take revenge. That is not the social democrats' style. As I said, we venture to make public our proposals, to state that the regional development of Estonia is important to us. We dare to be responsible for this. Everything else is up to other people's consciences."

"Protection money" (Estonian: Katuseraha, literally "roof money"), funds allocated to all Riigikogu parties, MP-by-MP and to be allocated to projects of their choice, often in provincial Estonia, have long been a source of controversy in Estonia.

In addition to charges that funds are often summed to acquaintances, friends or relatives of the benefactor, some critics have said they are used as a way of speeding up the state budget process at the Riigikogu, as a quid pro quo to ensure the bill passes before year-end.

This year the practice has been under particular scrutiny with a general election looming in March.

The Reform Party for a long time was a hold out on the protection money scheme, but has joined it in recent years, though individual MPs from all parties can and do opt out of taking advantage of the funds.

Churches, which often have SA (foundation) status and were once mostly the preserve of Isamaa, have been a particularly popular destination for protection money for several of the parties this year.

In the months leading up to a general election it is also common to see cracks appearing in a coalition – the current one has only been in office less than five months and was even stated at the time by some of its participants as only being for the short haul – but they usually limp on to polling day.

The last few months before the March 2019 Riigikogu election saw the then Center/Isamaa/SDE coalition remain in office as a minority government.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: Aktuaalne kaamera

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