Ida-Viru County vote magnet: They paid for accommodation and tickets

Aivo Peterson.
Aivo Peterson. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Popular Ida-Viru County candidate Aivo Peterson said a Russian organization paid for his trip to occupied Ukraine during which he recorded and shared campaign videos disseminating the Kremlin's talking points.

Aivo Peterson, who ran on the ticket of the United Left Party in the 2023 Riigikogu elections and got over 3,000 votes, has been posting on social media about the might of the Russian army, the need [for Estonia] to get on well with its neighbor and that the West shouldn't help Ukraine since Russian forces launched their full-scale Ukraine invasion.

Peterson was too late forming a political party before the March elections, which saw his political movement Koos (Together) run with the United Left Party.

Four years ago, the United Left Party, as the successor of the Estonian Communist Party, got 510 votes at Riigikogu elections. This time, it took 14,605 votes or 2.4 percent of the total.

Peterson spent the final stretch of the elections campaign in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Most videos recorded there suggest one should not mess with Russia. Thousands of crimes Russian troops have committed in Ukraine are never mentioned. Still, close to 4,000 people in Ida-Viru County found that Peterson could represent them in the Riigikogu.

Peterson told ERR in an interview how his travel expenses were picked up by a Russian organization and how he sees his political future.

First of all, allow me to congratulate you! You put in a stellar result in Narva.

Yes, I believe congratulations like these amount to a kiss of death. But thank you all the same.

What do you mean?

It was hardly a victory. We tried but couldn't cut it this time.

You feel like you lost?

We were hoping for more, wanted to get at least 4 percent. But we didn't. That much is clear. The pressure was so great that we could not manage to crawl out from under that tank (probably referring either to the T-34 tank monument removed from Narva earlier this year or a destroyed Russian T-72 tank paraded in Estonia – ed.).

Your result is good enough for state budget funding of €30,000 annually. An important milestone for the organization.

That is true. Definitely in the long run. We are surviving on donations alone now. It will help pay for an office, phone and something extra. It should be enough.

When you say "we," do you see the United Left Party and Koos sharing a common future?

That is a good question. This will likely be discussed on the board level. We want to turn Koos into a party. We have not abandoned the idea, and all of our people are ready. The last four months have been a temporary alliance. I see no reason not to. We have the strength and the mandate. Most of those votes were given to the Koos movement.

But the state budget funding will go to the party and not your movement.

Sure. But we have agreements in place, so it will not be a case of simply closing the door on our way out.

You took 14,000 votes between you. To what extent did that fact contribute to the Center Party's failure. How many votes did you take away from Center and how many from elsewhere?

It is relative. Problems inside the Center Party are more relevant here. They dropped those votes and we simple picked them up.

Their political heading is changeable. It is relatively difficult to sit on two chairs at once, trying to cater to both Estonian and Russian voters. They lacked concreteness. It's like they want to appeal to voters one day only to give up the next.

Your personal result in Narva was impressive.

Well, let us say in Ida-Viru County.

Do you also want to tie your political future to the region?

Not quite, as Koos is envisioned as a broad-based patriotic party. I would like to hope we can pursue cooperation all over Estonia. We are also making efforts to become, shall we say, more mainstream.

We simply didn't have enough time. A relatively negative image was created for us.

Why do you think that is?

I suspect it has to do with our foreign policy agenda. That we see the possibility of working with the devil's grandmother, as they saying goes – with Russia.

I have visited many places in Russia and appeared on many talk shows, talking to political analysts. I can say that I have personally discussed possible developments in Estonia and Ukraine with 20 different political analysts. I have quite a strong vision for what is about to happen.

You recently visited Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Let us say they have been occupied from where we're standing, also where Ukraine is standing probably. Russia believes they have a claim to the territory.

What do you think?

You know, I don't think anything. Mine is a position of peace. I'm trying to hurt neither side. You know where I stand if you've watched my videos.

You were very close to the front line. How did you get there? What must an Estonian politician do to get access to Russian-occupied territories?

The process is very simple. You pull up the internet and see which charity organizations move between Donbas and Russia. There's a whole list of them. I singled out one of them and asked them whether they would agree.

I know that journalists from the other side also go there. We had quite a delegation that time. Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, maybe Hungarians, it was difficult to keep it straight. There were also Serbians.

Such groups are taken on location, shown things, allowed to film what they want to see, to a certain extent. Getting around is a problem. No one will ask you where you are or what you're doing or saying on camera. You can film pretty much everything that is not forbidden.

And what is forbidden?

Troop positions likely. We were not taken that far.

They were handing out their humanitarian aid over those four days in Donbas and we could, riding in their follow-me car, ask for stops here and there. There are military patrols of course.

Everything moved through that aid organization. They put the group together and took us there. Accommodation, tickets all came from them. At first, I thought I would have to pay myself. I even took some cash with me in case they might leave me out in the cold.

But who was really picking up the tab? Where was the money from?

Like I said, I contacted an aid organization. They said they would organize a suitable time window.

No one asked us anything after that. I believe it was purely their project.

What was the organization?

I will return to Estonia and have more to say then.

[Peterson arrived in Estonia in the afternoon of March 6 and was questioned at length by the border guard.]

I'm sure law enforcement will take an interest. Let them get the information first.

Do you think law enforcement will want to talk to you once you cross the border?

Why shouldn't they? They also want to know how I went there and why. Make sure I wasn't there fighting. I also had a humanitarian goal to go there, see what is what and try to relay the feeling of what is really happening, which I sincerely hope will never happen in Estonia.

But the aid organization is based in Russia?

I do not know. I saw that they are active in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. I wrote them via Telegram, saying I would like to visit the area. They also looked at my background. They want to know who they're dealing with.

I watched the videos you made. Did you also visit the destroyed opera theater in Mariupol? The one people were sheltering in when Russia bombed it?

The thing about that bombing... The locals have their opinion, the media another.

Which locals would that be? The ones Russia has not managed to kill yet? Local Russia supporters? People from Russia?

No, local people who live in the area. Locals who are returning. Mariupol has started coming back to life. People are returning and many already have.

Have you been contacted by Russian security services?

No, I have not.

But how should I know. I don't even know whether the aid organization driver who helped me with my phone camera might have been... Once you start thinking about it...

I was not forced to do anything, nor was I paid.

I had my own personal expectations for the trip. I needed to visit two places and got to visit one of them. I went there and said my peace because I am sincerely worried Estonia might find itself in a similar conflict. It would be time for us to sit down together and negotiate.

I have heard people in Estonia discussing whether your citizenship should be revoked?

And if people ask whether we should perhaps also kill Peterson, then I say our society is truly very sick. If we are so afraid of a single person and their opinion, without even asking me anything, just trampling me in the mud before elections, it is hardly normal behavior.

No official can call me a potential traitor before I have been questioned. If the interior minister says Peterson might potentially be a traitor, I say it is a very sick society.

I'm sure you have looked at the legal side of this thing. Is it likely that you could lose your citizenship?

I see no grounds. It is not as simple as sending Peterson back to Russia.

I plan to see it through in that case. They will have to prove I have worked against or betrayed Estonia's interests. For as long as Estonian legislation does not explicitly prohibit traveling there, I can go wherever I want.

What did you witness in terms of how Russia controls the region, how it exercises its administrative authority?

The structure is reminiscent of the 90s in Estonia. Squabbles between local authorities and quasi-criminal structures. The Russian state is also trying to get a foot in the door. It's a mess there. We were also not given too much access.

What did the people you spoke to said in terms of when Ukraine might liberate these territories.

They don't think it will happen, they will not be surrendering an inch.

A large part of the population was clearly pro-Ukraine. What has become of them?

I was told they have all left. I don't know more. Those who wished could leave, others stayed. Some also moved to Russia, and there is no way of making sure.

When will you get back?

It will take a little longer. First, I need to get an idea of what will happen.

[A few hours later, Peterson entered the Estonia-Russia border checkpoint and was let in the country after a thorough conversation.]


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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