Reform members try to block extraordinary joint select committee sitting

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The majority of the time during Tuesday's extraordinary joint Riigikogu select committee sitting focusing on Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) husband's business ties to Russia, was taken up by disputes over the legality of holding such a sitting, initiated by members of the Reform Party. It was only during the final third that a representative of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board was questioned. The committee chairs promised to agree a convenient time for another sitting to take place, this time involving Prime Minister Kallas, who was absent on Tuesday.

MPs Erkki Keldo and Valdo Randpere (both Reform) attempted to prevent Tuesday's extraordinary joint Riigikogu select committee sitting on wartime business with Russia, from getting underway by questioning whether it was legitimate to hold the sitting in the first place.

It was only after an hour and 38 minutes that the implementation stage of the sitting was reached. That is, the point at which the agenda for the meeting was adopted.

The sitting ran for a total of two hours and 28 minutes.

Keldo, who was attending the sitting in place of Maris Lauri (Reform), a member of the State Budget Control Select Committee, referred to the clear tasks of the Riigikogu committees as outline in the law.

Keldo said that the State Budget Control Select Committee did not have the competence to discuss the business activities of Prime Minister Kallas' husband and that there was therefore no reason for the two committees to meet jointly.

Keldo also announced that he has sent a letter to the leadership of the Riigikogu asking for clarification on the legal aspects surrounding the issue. As Keldo considered that holding a joint sitting with such an agenda could be a contrary to Estonian law, both he and Randpera voted against it taking place.

Keldo also defended Kallas' decision not to attend the joint meeting of the two committees on Tuesday, saying that the prime minister was prepared to come to meetings of committees that have the competences required to discuss issues related to the scandal.

In defending Kallas, Randpere pointed out that ministers and their advisers have refused to attend similar meetings in the past. He then named the current chair of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) Martin Helme as one such example. "No one else protested then!" Randpere said.

Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), chair of the State Budget Control Select Committee, who chaired the joint sitting, said it was right for his committee to discuss the issue. In his view, the prime minister's behavior was contrary to the basic principles and ethics of international public sector conduct, which the Riigikogu is responsible for overseeing.

"I understand the tactics of the Reform Party representatives to block this parliamentary process. The question is instead, why they want to block off inconvenient topics," Reinsalu said. "This situation is extremely embarrassing and undermines the dignity of the parliament. A very serious scandal has occurred. After all, what is being defended is business, production, in Russia, which is still going on. /---/ And this has to do with Kaja Kallas' husband and the prime minister herself, who has given him a loan. To say that it does not concern the parliament is disingenuous and dishonest," Reinsalu added.

Chair of Riigikogu Anti-Corruption Select Committee Mart Helme (EKRE) said that the Kallas case had brought the committee to the point of "detecting a cancerous tumor, where we can see the spread of the transfers." Helme claimed that Kallas was directly involved in business activities in Russia when she loaned money to her husband's company, and asked where the €350,000 Kallas gave had come from. "We have not established where these savings came from - she has to show that this is not undeclared money earned on the side," Helme said.

Helme said that what was happening was an obstructionist move by the Reform Party and stressed that Kallas should have been brought before the Anti-Corruption Select Committee. "I say that we are only just starting to deal with these issues," Helme said.

Eduard Odinets (SDE), former chair of the Anti-Corruption Committee, recalled that both Mart Helme (EKRE) and Mailis Reps both previously refused to appear before the committee during their times as ministers. "However, returning to the question of who has the right to summon and discuss the prime minister, as a former chair and current member of the Anti-Corruption Select Committee, it seems to me that there is something to discuss with regard to the prime minister," Odinets said. "As a member of the Anti-Corruption Committee, I would like to see the prime minister here and to question her."

However, Odinets also suggested not holding a joint meeting of the two commissions, as this would make it clearer for the prime minister and others involved in the issue when deciding whether to attend. If there are questions on broader issues, they can be asked in other parliamentary working formats, Odinets said.

Keldo also supported inviting Kallas to the Anti-Corruption Committee.

Priit Sibul (Isamaa), expressed support for Odinets' idea to establish a parliamentary  inquiry committee to deal with the issue, as it would have far greater powers and rights than the parliamentary problem committees.

Toomas Uibo (Eesti 200) said he was also in favor of substantive discussion of the issue, though in the Riigikogu Anti-Corruption Committee. "I don't see that the joint committee has this competence," he said.

Odinets also stressed that coalition MPs do not wish to derail the debate, but instead want to meet the prime minister to ask questions and gain clarity over the issue. "We have to follow the same rules, regardless of who is in opposition and who is in the coalition," he said.

 Keldo and Reinsalu disagree on sitting's legality

When contacted by ERR later in the day, Keldo stressed that he did not want to prevent the sitting from taking place, but sought to clarify whether there was a legal basis for holding a sitting on such a topic, which in his view, there was not.

"In our opinion, today's sitting of the State Budget Control Select Committee was not lawful. The responsibilities of the select committee are clearly defined. The subject that chair of the special committee, Urmas Reinsalu, wished to discuss today does not fall within the remit of the select committee. In its work, the Riigikogu and its committees cannot violate the rules adopted by the parliament as laws," Keldo said. "Unfortunately, we have repeatedly seen how Urmas Reinsalu does not chair the State Budget Control Select Committee in accordance with its purpose and tasks, but uses the select committee to create a political platform for himself and his political party," he added, citing the case of the financing of the Pere Sihtkapital foundation, which Reinsalu was involved in setting up, as an example.

However, in his opening remarks, Reinsalu said, that claims the commission he chairs does not have the remit to deal with this issue, as it is not budget-related, contradict the internationally agreed basic principles of public sector auditing, which are laid out in the documents of global audit organisation INTOSAI (International Organization of of Supreme Audit Institiutions), to which Estonia is a signatory.

"The task of the State Budget Control Select Committee is not only to discuss and monitor the reports of the National Audit Office, but also to enhance the effectiveness of public sector control via its own questions and opinions," Reinsalu stressed.

"The way in which the E.U. sanctions policy is implemented in Estonia and the ways in which sanctions are circumvented, are unambiguously linked to the functioning of the state and the use of the resources allocated from the state budget for these tasks," he continued. "We are also talking about the credibility and governance of the state more broadly, which is a prerequisite for the state's activities when it comes to the use of all funds," Reinsalu added.

At 11.38 a.m., the committee decided by a vote of 10-2 to begin the sitting. The two votes against came from Keldo and Randpere. The former is a member of the State Budget Control Select Committee, while the latter is in the Riigikogu Anti-Corruption Committee.

Afterwards, Külli Kurvits, head of the customs department at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board, gave an overview of the work of the customs board, the control in place to ensure compliance with sanctions and any infringements detected.

Referring to the restrictions laid out in the Taxation Act, Kurvits did not provide any information regarding specific companies.

Reinsalu and Helme said that, as committee chairs, they had the right to convene a new meeting and draw up its agenda. They also promised to consult with the prime minister in order to find a suitable time for that meeting in order for her to also be able to attend.

In addition to Kallas, executive manager of Martti Lemendik and Kristjan Kraag, the executive managers of the AS Metaprint and Stark Logistics respectively, the two companies at the center of the case, also both opted not to attend.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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