Wojciech Kość in Warsaw -
Tensions between Estonia and Russia reached a new high on August 19 after a Russian court sentenced Estonian security police officer Eston Kohver to 15 years imprisonment on charges of espionage, arms smuggling, and illegal crossing of the border with Russia.
On September 5 last year, Kohver, an employee of the Estonian Internal Security Service, was on his way to meet an informant near the village of Miikse, a few kilometres from the border with Russia. He was reportedly attacked with stun grenades and taken across the border to Russia at gunpoint. He was put on trial in Pskov in June, with the prosecution demanding 16 years’ imprisonment.
The eventual sentence of 15 years has sparked outrage in Estonia and internationally. Estonia claims that Kohver’s trial did not live up to standards, in that he was denied legal aid or the presence of the Estonian consul during the proceedings.
The Estonian ministry of foreign affairs “strongly condemned” the Pskov court verdict and demanded the immediate release of the police officer. “The abduction of Eston Kohver from the territory of the Republic of Estonia by the FSB on 5 September and his unlawful detainment in Russia thereafter constitute a blatant breach of international law,” the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marina Kaljurand said in a statement. “We call on Russia to immediately release Eston Kohver,” the minister added.
Estonia was backed up by the European Union. “Mr Kohver’s abduction and subsequent illegal detention in Russia constitute a clear violation of international law,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said in a statement. “Moreover, from the very beginning, Mr Kohver has been deprived of the right to a fair trial: there was no public hearing of the case, the Estonian consul was not allowed to be present at the hearings and Mr Kohver was deprived of adequate legal aid,” Mogherini added, demanding the immediate release of Kohver and his safe return to Estonia. The US State Department also spoke in a similar tone.
Tensions between Moscow and Tallinn have been running high since Russia’s conflict with Ukraine broke out early in 2014. The Estonian authorities have said repeatedly that Estonia and its Baltic neighbours Lithuania and Latvia may well be Russia’s next target for provocation or, some of the more hawkish Baltic politicians say, war.
The tensions have pushed Tallinn to increase its defense spending by 7% in 2015, making Estonia one of only a handful of Nato member states that meets the alliance’s recommended target of 2% of GDP for defence.
In mid-2015, the Baltic states rejoiced when Nato announced plans to station tanks and heavy weapons in the region in an effort to reassure countries on the Russia’s doorstep that the alliance would back them up.
It looks unlikely, however, that the alliance will take any firm action against small provocations such as the one Russia pulled off in the case of Kohver.
“In a larger sense, Kohver's case is emblematic of Russia's ongoing challenge of the West,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore wrote in early June, shortly before the Kohver trial started. “It starkly illustrates the Kremlin's campaign to intimidate its neighbours, flout global rules and norms, and test Natos defences and responses.”
In Estonia, the Kohver case has also sparked a controversy over why the officer was put in such danger.
Former Estonian Internal Security Service official Henri Sepp told the Estonian media that Kohver that should not have been allowed near the Russian border in the first place because “he is too well known to Russian security services”, ERR reported.
Sepp alleged Kohver's name had been mentioned on a FSB-related website, while the head of FSB's branch in Pskov said in 2011 that Kohver was one of the main handlers of Estonian spies in the area, according to ERR.
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