Vote rigging in Estonia: Anti-Russian freedom fighter falls on her own sword

“Our credibility to inspire change in Russia depends on our honesty.”  Guy Verhofstadt, Keynote Speech at PARNAS conference “European Union and Russian Federation,” Moscow, 7 December 2012



Vote rigging in Estonia: Anti-Russian freedom fighter falls on her own sword


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



“Our credibility to inspire change in Russia depends on our honesty.”  Guy Verhofstadt, Keynote Speech at PARNAS conference “European Union and Russian Federation,” Moscow, 7 December 2012



A Greek tragedy is being played out in tiny Estonia ever since allegations of vote rigging were leveled against one of the most prominent leaders of the ruling Reform Party, Kristiina Ojuland and she was expelled from the party on 5 June.  Ojuland has told the press that she is innocent, that others were responsible, and she is consulting with her lawyers on next steps.  However, whatever the outcome of any investigation may be, the damage to her credibility has been done: a significant and real incident of violation of the new e-election procedures in Estonia has been exposed right under her nose.


It is more than curious that this scandal and her removal from the party have not brought Ojuland to the attention of Euronews or any other media outside of Estonia, where the story was carried by the website of Estonian Public Broadcasting and other sites.  The last time Ojuland was at the center of a major scandal, in February 2005, when she was fired from her post as Foreign Minister of Estonia over secret files which disappeared from her ministry, BBC News was quick to inform its worldwide audience. To be exact, 92 secret documents had gone missing, and the Prime Minister at the time justified her sacking with the comment: “Foreign policy is based on trust, and Kristiina Ojuland has lost it.”  Her removal was sufficiently important to have raised the possibility of the nation’s coalition government falling.


Perhaps the current disinterest of the world media in Mme Ojuland’s travails results from her being just an MEP rather than national minister. After all, the European Parliament is perceived as a kind of Siberian exile destination, if not a cemetery for failed politicians. Moreover, Estonia is one of the European Union’s smallest Member States and does not carry much brand awareness on the Continent.

However, it must be recalled that Mme. Ojuland was a rising star with pan-European ambitions going back to the start of the new millennium. In June 2004, she even ran for the post of Secretary General of the Council of Europe. She attracted only 51 of 299 votes, but certainly made herself known outside the Baltic States.

And her ejection from the Estonian government in 2005 did not prevent her from climbing the ladder of power in the all-European family of neo-liberal parties immediately thereafter. From 2007, she was already a Vice Chair for the ALDE-PACE Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As from 2009, she became an MEP, where she joined the neo-liberal ALDE bloc and moved up to become the right-hand (wo)man to bloc president Guy Verhofstadt (Open VLD, Belgium) in his growing campaign against alleged failings of rule of law and political corruption in Russia.


Ojuland had long been skilled at riding fashionable human rights issues to keep the spotlight on herself. Here she easily found common ground with a fellow grand-stander Guy Verhofstadt. Previously she had spoken out about the problem of violence against women.  From 2009, she could ride the wave of anti-Russian emotions of a large swathe of her countrymen while helping ALDE make common cause with Russia’s borderline seditious opposition of the Parnas party grouping.  She took Verhofstadt around Moscow, helped him forge common positions, common press releases, common op-ed publications with Mikhail Kasyanov and others in the PARNAS leadership, as well as with isolated opposition personalities like Gary Kasparov who have no following in their homeland but who have avid supporters in Washington, D.C.


Verhofstadt’s selection of Ojuland as Russia expert for ALDE was wrong on two counts. First, there were the questions about her ethical compass which gave rise to her dismissal as Foreign Minister in her home country.  Second, there were the problems with her home country itself. It is a matter of public record that Estonia, alongside Latvia, has been guilty of daily violations of the human rights of its substantial Russian-speaking minority, which is largely disenfranchised and stateless by the wishes of the ruling majority. And with diabolical consistency, Estonia has positioned itself as a leading voice in the fight against the ‘Putin regime,’ including opposition to liberalization of the EU’s visa regime for Russian nationals. This is the case notwithstanding the country’s dependence on substantial tourist flows from Russia and notwithstanding the considerable ownership of Estonian resort properties by Petersburgers and Muscovites dating from before the break-up of the Soviet Union.  It should have been patently obvious to Verhofstadt that fair mindedness and due diligence would not be likely to characterize ALDE policies on Russia under Ojuland’s stewardship.

It was in her capacity as ALDE spokesperson on Russia that Ojuland drove ALDE into the welcoming arms of Bill Browder and his global Magnitsky Act campaign. Thus, Ojuland organized and was scheduled to host a conference entitled “Russian Political Prisoners” in the European Parliament building on 5 June where Browder and some stellar personalities from the Russian opposition would denounce the regime and urge passage of the European equivalent to the Magnitsky Act.  The date was selected to follow directly upon publication of an Address to Foreign and Interior Ministers of the EU signed by 47 MEPs rejecting any visa liberalization for Russia unless a Magnitsky Act were passed in tandem, allegedly to punish human rights violators in the Putin regime by denying them access to the EU and freezing their real estate and liquid assets. And that publication date was timed to coincide with the semi-annual EU-Russia Summit then going on in Yekaterinburg, where a partial end to the visa regime was due to be concluded. This very nice dog and pony show went ahead without her since the scandal in Tallinn was just then reaching its climax.

Ojuland’s last-minute replacement was another ALDE human rights defender, Leonidas Donskis.  However, I am told she has returned to Brussels to resume her duties as MEP. It will be interesting to see whether Verhofstadt follows the logic of his Keynote Speech in Moscow last December and removes this disgraced figure from his entourage now that she is no longer a member of the affiliated ALDE party in Estonia.  Or will he follow expediency and continue to rely on the services of someone who has been so useful to his anti-Kremlin campaign.


In case the objection is made that the possible and still unproven moral weakness and flawed judgment of one overly ambitious person cannot be taken as significant for an entire movement, allow me to draw the reader’s attention to a still greater catastrophe for the cause of the Russian opposition and their allies in ALDE which is waiting to happen. I have in mind the eventual public airing of the questions surrounding Mr. Bill Browder and his global anti-Russian campaign.

In an essay I issued last week, I suggested that Browder’s personal efforts to wreak vengeance on the Putin regime for the death in police custody of his attorney Sergei Magnitsky have gone way beyond the normal behavior of top international executives, who tend to ‘move on’ and avoid head-butting with sovereign states. That the American press has passed over in silence all the peculiarities of this would-be heroic human rights defender is understandable given the nearly total conformism of American elites with respect to things Russian.

That being said, an Op-Ed piece entitled “Russia’s Newest Dissenters” by Russian journalist Vadim Nikitin published in The New York Times last week broke the ice.  Amidst an exposé of several current darlings of the American media who are faux dissidents, faux martyrs of Russian villainy, Nikitin speaks of the “shady money” Browder accumulated “while talking up Putin to foreign investors until their game was up.” As Nikitin rightly points out about Browder, Pavel Borodin and Sergei Guriev: “For years, they reaped the fruits of such collaboration…”

To this first stone in the water, I can suggest a few more:  how did Browder manage to rise so swiftly in the Russian financial world and add such value to his overseas investors in Russian equities that his company Hermitage Capital grew in a few years to be the single largest portfolio investment manager in Moscow? In Russia’s roaring nineties, this would have been possible only with a “krysha” – some very highly placed protectors.  Moreover, Browder boasts about his whistle-blowing activities on behalf of minority investors in state-owned concerns.  It is inconceivable that he could have carried on these activities for any period of time without more of the same protectors.  Finally it is inconceivable that he could have operated so profitably without doing as other Russians and foreigners did at the time and aggressively pursued tax optimization, risking direct confrontation with the authorities at one point or another. 

These and a host of other questions demand full disclosure before Browder’s horror stories about the Russian regime can be weighed judiciously. It is high time for Mr. Verhofstadt’s colleagues to ask their leader where is the hard talk.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.