Marti Kuusik (EKRE) has stepped down from his post as a minister in Jüri Ratas' incoming coalition, in the wake of allegations of domestic violence, BNS reports.
Kuusik handed in his resignation to the prime minister on Tuesday, saying he was taking the step for the sake of the smooth-running of the new administration, protecting his family and restoring his reputation. President Kersti Kaljulaid then released Kuusik from the post, it is reported.
Revelations came to light shortly before his entering office to the effect that Kuusik had been stopped by the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), driving over 20 km/h above the speed limit, in a 50 km/h zone, in the town of Rakvere, the morning after the March 3 general election. The PPA conducted a breathalyzer test after stopping him, which demonstrated he had trace amounts of alcohol in his system. However, these infractions were not thought to be any obstacle to being appointed minister, for foreign trade and IT, and President Kersti Kaljulaid duly signed off on the cabinet, including Kuusik, last Wednesday.
Soon afterwards, however, the allegations of domestic violence started circulating in the media, claims which Kuusik and his ex-wife (the latter contacted ERR to put her side of the story across) denied, calling them slanderous. Mr Kuusik said there was no substance to the claims directly to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, when asked.
On Monday, at the oath-taking ceremony in the Riigikogu, the president left the chamber when it was Kuusik's turn to take his oath. He then had to make the customary salutation, after signing to oath, to an empty chair.
By taking up a ministerial post, Kuusik would have lost parliamentary immunity, and the PPA announced they had started an investigation into the case, Monday evening. The prime minister stated that there was no legal provision in place for removing Kuusik from his post, once sworn-in.
"I filed the application today to the chairman of the party Mart Helme, and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, for my resignation from the post of minister. Let me again confirm that the accusations made against me are slander - I am not someone who engages in violence," Kuusik said.
"As of now, the decision of the prosecutor's office to start criminal proceedings against me has been added to the terrifying media attack launched against me in recent days. In a situation like this it is not possible for me to carry out my work as minister. Furthermore, the rest of the government is not able to work normally," the statement reads.
Kuusik expressed a desire to ensure the government taking office has a conducive working atmosphere, to remove his party from attack, and to rescue his family from the psychological terror he says has been taking place in the media.
"I am giving up the office of minister, not because the accusations against me are true, but, on the contrary, in order to focus on defending myself in the criminal proceedings and restoring my good name," the minister from the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) said.
Prime minister's reaction
In response to Kuusik's resignation Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said that where family violence is concerned, there is no room for justifications or doubt.
Ratas added that family violence is an extremely serious and painful problem in the whole of society, government spokespersons said, as quoted by BNS.
"On this, we have no room for justifications or doubt, because we know that there are thousands of victims of domestic violence in Estonia. I unequivocally condemn all types of family and close relationship violence. The police always takes all such cases very seriously, regardless of the person's position. The most important thing is for victims to receive help and be protected," Ratas said, noting that investigative bodies in Estonia have started criminal proceedings to investigate the allegations made against Marti Kuusik.
"In the situation that has emerged, it is not be possible for the government to start working substantively and fulfil its program. As a result, Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology Marti Kuusik today tendered his resignation. I forwarded it to the President of the Republic," the prime minister said.
Ratas told reporters Tuesday evening that he had met to discuss the matter with PPA chief Elmar Vaher, Prosecutor General Lavly Perling, Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) and Interior Minister Mart Helme (EKRE), at his office, Postimees reports.
"The heads of the prosecutor's office and the police both offered an overview of what has happened. I am convinced that the police and the prosecutor's office are doing their work well, and I have definitely no right to comment on their work at the present stage of the proceedings," he said.
Kuusik may be due compensation
According to ERR's Estonian online news, Kuusik may be entitled to around €31,000 compensation, in line with Estonian law.
§ 35 (1) of the Government of the Republic Act 1995 provides for compentation for anyone dismissed from office, stating that:
''A member of the Government of the Republic who is released from office due to the resignation of the Government, the expression of no confidence in a minister or on the proposal of the Prime Minister has the right to receive compensation to the extent of six months' salary''.
Since the minister's monthly wage amounts to €5,243.06, a six month pay packet would come to €31,458.36, to be precise.
This compensation is not applicable if the individual is subsequently appointed a member of the same government, or a successive administration (in the case of an entire government resigning), or in the case of a conviction, or if the individual returns to the Riigikogu.
Since Kuusik, who, under Estonia's d'Hondt system of proportional representation, was elected to the Riigikogu despite receiving 657 votes at the March 3 election, had a seat at parliament prior to being made a minister (government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu), he would lose the potential compensation if he had to claim back his seat (now held by a replacement MP) or if the PPA investigation were to result in a conviction.
On the other hand, Riigikogu MPs have legal immunity which makes prosecuting them more involved. The office of the prosecutor is currently pursuing a request to have the immunity of Centre MP Kalev Kallo, related to corruption investigations. The Riigikogu itself decides whether to strip an MP of their immunity.
In a recent case, Martin Repinski of Centre, who stood down after 18 days in office at the beginning of Jüri Ratas' preceding cabinet, in late 2016, received over €3,000 in wages and holiday pay on standing down, following allegations about misleading consumers on cheese products a company of his was selling, though since he returned to his Riigikogu seat, no further compensation was forthcoming.
Editor: Andrew Whyte