Russian cash for Estonian party a security risk: president

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Estonia's main opposition party should be barred from power until it sacks its leader, as claims of shady Russian funding raised the spectre of a security risk, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Tuesday.

"I cannot invite such a party into government until such behaviour has been denounced and banned by the party, and the people involved in such activities no longer belong there," Ilves told Estonia's public broadcaster ERR.

Ex-prime minister Edgar Savisaar, now mayor of the capital Tallinn, has been accused of tapping 1.5 million euros (1.9 million dollars) from Russian sources to fund his left-leaning Centre Party.

He denies the allegations, saying the money was destined to build an Orthodox Church in Tallinn.

The issue of ties with Russia is sensitive in Estonia, a Baltic nation of 1.3 million which was ruled by Moscow from World War II until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

"It is bad enough when shady funds are raised at home, but it is much worse when they are raised from abroad," Ilves said.

"Domestic donations and favours, such as backing some legislative act, taste of corruption. But when coming from abroad, they become a true security hazard," he added.

In a report last week, Estonian security services said Savisaar had solicited money, making him an "agent of influence" for Russia.

Savisaar claims he is the victim of mudslinging ahead of Estonia's March general election, when the centre-right government aims for a new mandate.

"Everybody understands it's ridiculous to call me a Russian agent of any kind," Savisaar, a leader of Estonia's Soviet-era freedom drive, told reporters.

He declined AFP's subsequent requests for comment on claims that the money was for his party, which draws support from Estonia's Russian-speaking minority.

But Tallinn city hall spokeswoman Liina Oja said Savisaar had asked the Russian Orthodox Church to help speed up the church project, in the works since 2003.

"The matter of cash was discussed in regard to private donations gathered for the project. We do not see a need to comment further," Oja told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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