Former Swedbank Estonia CEO: Of course I'm sorry

Robert Kitt.
Robert Kitt. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Former head of Swedbank Estonia Robert Kitt told ERR in an interview that he is sorry he had to leave. Kitt rules out going to work for a competitor, such as SEB, simply because it wouldn't be right.

Robert Kitt, what are you guilty of?

I suppose people can be said to be guilty of various things. As concerns running a bank, I have done my work to the best of my ability, with the know-how and the team I had. Was it enough? Sometimes, as concerns the Estonian economy, I feel we could have done more. It feels not enough was done when it comes to anti-money laundering. On the other hand, Delfi wrote about banks versus e-residents a year and a half ago. So it seems more than enough was done in places. To be honest, I don't really know how to answer that question.

Do you feel there were problems with money laundering at Swedbank?

This kind of rhetoric is not strictly accurate. Banks do not launder money. Banks are like roads, infrastructure used by cars. The banks monitor speeds and make sure the cars run fine. Banks do not launder money.

Was our monitoring effective enough? Could we have done more? It's always possible to do more. But the world has changed, and we need to look at when things happened and when they came to light. Our Google looks different in 2019 than it did in 2012.

Do you mean that times were different, as were rules and legislation, and that they have changed today?

That is one way to put it, while the principles of know your client and avoid money of suspicious origin have not changed over time. The principles have remained the same, while formal ways and norms of how they need to be observed have changed. The latter have become more specific and effective.

Were you accused of anything specific when you were let go?

I was never employed. Mine was a service relationship, I had the chairman of the board's contract. And no accusations are necessary there. I wouldn't say there was anything specific.

The bank described the problem as past lapses in anti-money laundering efforts. What were those shortcomings?

Swedbank has a million clients, including about 100,000 companies. It is always possible to do more, also today. Monitor transactions, which could also be done more closely today, obstruct corrupt schemes etc. And looking back, it would have been possible to do better in the past, it is possible today and will be possible tomorrow.

We happen to live in an era of a paradigm shift. An important milestone here was the so-called Panama papers affair. When I talked to entrepreneurs before the scandal, they said "it's not as if it's forbidden." That changed after the Panama affair when everyone agreed that "even if it's not forbidden, it's unacceptable."

What do you say to people who believe Swedbank simply sacrificed its Estonian executives?

I believe I'm not competent enough to make such a comment about myself.

But speech is free.

Speech is always free.

When you left, did you sign a document that does not allow you to talk about things that went on at the bank as freely as you would like?

Non-disclosure agreements aside, it is a matter of principle. That you come to a bank and trust them with your financial affairs. When a company takes out a loan, it trusts the bank with business secrets. And you do not want them to leak. Agreements aside, that is the point of banking secrecy that you don't talk about those things. It is our good practice not to discuss things that concern clients or procedures or business secrets.

I will not go to work for SEB because it simply wouldn't be right.

That also means it will be very difficult for you to defend yourself.

First of all, I don't have to defend myself. I have done my work, and everyone – employees, owners and clients – have been satisfied with it. Looking if only what has been written on social media, I have felt supported. I don't have to defend myself. I'm sure the opportunity will arise should more serious legal disputes follow.

What will you do next? Will you work at a bank?

(Laughing) I will probably not be working at a bank. As incredible as that sounds, I have found the time to relax, wipe the dust off my bookshelf. I'm planning to put together a compendium on complex systems. And help out if I'm asked to help life come along in Estonia or be of use some other way. I do not have a fixed plan for turning up as something else tomorrow. But the world is round, and everything is possible.

Are you sorry it turned out this way?

That is a very good question. I went to work at the North Estonian Bank on August 1, 1994. It has been my work for 25 years. I liked it. I loved what I did. We had a great team. I enjoyed every conversation I had with Estonian entrepreneurs. Of course I'm sorry.

How often have you thought about former Danske Estonia CEO Aivar Rehe lately?

(Long silence). I must admit I have.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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