Mike Collier in Riga -
Representatives of the Estonian and Russian border guards were due to meet September 8 in an attempt to break the deadlock over the circumstances of an incident that has resulted in an official of the Estonian security services appearing in a Moscow courthouse.
The agent was either arrested on Russian territory on a spying mission or snatched from sovereign Estonian territory by his Russian counterparts on September 5, according to which side you believe.
Russian TV pictures showed the officer, named by the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB) as Eston Kohver, an officer of the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) handcuffed and stony-faced as he was remanded in custody.
As reported by bne on September 5, Kohver appeared on Russian territory, whether by fair means or foul, less than 48 hours after US President Barack Obama had visited Tallinn and guaranteed Estonia's security.
The Russian ambassador to Estonia was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an explanation shortly before the FSB named the agent and said he had been arrested while carrying out “an apparent surveillance mission.”
On September 6, Estonia's Interior Ministry refuted the claim, saying: “Yesterday, an incident occurred at the close range of the Estonian-Russian border, near the Luhamaa border checkpoint on the Estonian territory. An Estonian KAPO official was detained by the Russian authorities while fulfilling his duties."
By the morning of September 8, Kohver had already appeared in court where a judge rubber-stamped his detention for two months while an investigation is conducted. Yet according to Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, no access has been given to Kohver for Estonian officials in Moscow.
For its part, KAPO has opened criminal proceedings based on “the deprivation of liberty and the illegal crossing of state borders and temporary border lines” - a phrase suggestive that perhaps Kohver was actually operating in a disputed border zone, which might give both sides a chance to back down without losing too much face.
Indeed, after an initial storm of protest and social media comments that John Le Carre might have written the entire incident, the Estonian side appeared to try to pour oil on troubled waters. Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur released a tatement saying: “I would like to reassure all citizens of Estonia that the Estonian border is safe and living in Estonia is safe. The matter is about an incident that occurred in dealing with a smuggling count, and this is how it should be perceived. A smuggling case. An individual incident.”
The main evidence provided so far to back up the FSB's claim that Kohver was on an undercover espionage mission is not hugely convincing. TV cameras lingered meaningfully on a table on which lay €5,000 in cash, a mobile phone and a small-calibre Taurus-brand pistol – an unusual choice for an agent of KAPO where Russian-made Makarovs are being replaced by newer Austrian Glock handguns.
More usually considered a "handbag" pistol for the defence of American housewives, the Taurus is however rather prominently engraved with the words "Made in Miami, Florida, USA" for the benefit of anyone not sure in which country both Miami and Florida are located.
bne understands from Estonian security sources that Kohver has been a particularly effective operator against cross-border smuggling operations for some time and that elements within Russia have been “after” him for years – raising the possibility that he was set up.
Nevertheless, if found guilty of spying, Kohver could face a Russian jail sentence of 10 to 20 years.
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