November 14, 2019 / 4:29 PM / a month ago

Russian security services used Estonia to fund activities abroad - Estonian minister

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Russia’s security services moved money through Estonia to finance operations overseas, the Baltic country’s finance minister, who is leading a clean up after a money laundering scandal, told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Estonia's Finance Minister Martin Helme of far-right EKRE Party in Tallinn, Estonia April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Martin Helme said that Estonian authorities are also investigating whether individuals under U.S. sanctions benefited from the movement of money through Estonia, which is undertaking reforms after 200 billion euros (£172 billion) in suspect transactions flowed through Danske Bank’s branch in the country.

The Kremlin, Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Security Service and Investigative Committee did not reply to emailed requests for comment.

“There are two sorts of money that come from Russia. One is stolen money that wants to escape Russia,” Helme said during a telephone interview with Reuters, adding that the remainder was “very closely entangled” with Russia’s security services.

Helme, who heads a committee including police and prosecutors tackling money laundering and terrorism financing, said some of the money “has been used by the Russian security services to finance their operations abroad”.

Danske Bank (DANSKE.CO) was ejected from Estonia, a former Soviet satellite, this year after admitting suspicious money flowed through its branch there between 2007 and 2015.

A spokesman for Danske Bank, which has said it had Russian clients in Estonia, declined to comment because of ongoing investigations into its activities.

Helme did not specify which Russian entities he was referring to or cite any evidence to support his allegations.

The head of Russia’s Federal Service for Financial Monitoring told President Vladimir Putin this week that Moscow was winning international recognition for its efforts to tackle money laundering.

Estonia is investigating money that flowed through the country in recent years and is sharing information with U.S. authorities, Helme said, adding that this included whether people subject to U.S. sanctions were involved.

“We are very worried about that,” he said.

As in neighbouring Latvia, the United States has been the driving force behind the clean up of banks in the Baltics, many of whom offered a bridge for Russians moving money to the West.

Reforms are taking place against the backdrop of Washington’s efforts to diminish Russia’s influence in countries like Estonia, which has historically fraught relations with Moscow and hosts NATO troops to deter any potential incursion.

Helme said he had discussed international sanctions during an October meeting in Washington with Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing.

LATVIAN ECHO

The allegations by Helme echo an earlier warning by a minister in Latvia that Russian citizens, including people subject to U.S. sanctions, had put money in Latvian banks, some of which may have been used for political manipulation.

Three senior Latvian officials told Reuters last year that authorities investigated the movement of funds from Russia through a Latvian bank to support an attempted coup in 2016 in Montenegro. A Kremlin spokesman denied any such activity. (reut.rs/2NOyZ2w)

Helme said Russian authorities had recently visited Estonia, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and was once governed by Moscow.

FILE PHOTO: Estonian Finance Minister Martin Helme attends the swearing-in of the incoming coalition government in Tallinn, Estonia April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

“They are here to find out what we know and use that information to better conceal their operations,” he said.

The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Russia’s central bank has revoked hundreds of bank licenses in recent years as part of efforts to strengthen the sector and fight money laundering.

Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova in Moscow and Tarmo Virki in Tallinn; Editing by Alexander Smith

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