«Passport mafia» led by babushka

Risto Berendson
, reporter
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Sander Ilvest

Investigators have reasons to believe that the criminal scheme published yesterday may have been a lot broader and lasted a lot longer than herewith officially shown. 

For half a year, internal police audit was watching female Tallinners linked to «passport mafia» do their criminal business – finding clients, fixing them the needed certificates, pocketing thousands of euros for the service – and how Russian citizens ended up with Estonian citizenship or residence permit in a manner outwardly legal.  

For investigators, the «passport mafia» conspiracy exceeded all expectations. Via personal connections, the dames had thus ordered the affairs that cooperating officials at police citizenship and migration department could process the applications without fear of getting caught.


Outwardly, the documents were in order. And to detect any danger the «passport mafia» paid an individual at police who was able to keep an electronic eye on procedures so as to avoid glitches.

Had any questions arisen within the state system regarding an application, while the investigation was underway those involved could have just rolled their eyes and look surprised. And that would probably have been the end of the matter.  

And that’s why, for the first half year, the inner police audit was forced to just watch. And be amazed at what they saw – the coterie of friends and acquaintances were obtaining documents totally decent, on the face of it, whether language exam certificates, or documents medical or educational.

With these, it was possible to secure documents a notch stronger – Estonian citizenship, or residence permits. Among Russian citizens, these are valuable documents allowing unlimited travel.

Thus, in Russia clients abounded. For police to process document applications of all-out Russians, «passport mafia» had to have its insiders. These were two officials seated behind a Tallinn servicing counter, plus a Northern prefecture citizenship/migration official and an information manager at the main police headquarters. For the most part, these were veteran employees of over a decade of service under their belt.

With the help of these people, unnecessary questions were avoided while the applications were processed. As a «client» speaking no Estonian could not show up at the passport office, they found a person outwardly similar who was made further similar by a make-up artist. The next step was sending the lookalike to the «right» worker at the passport office counter.

And so the business was buzzing: real-world people and documents were being moved, applications were being satisfied, and for the services Russian citizens were paying «passport mafia» a fee of couple thousand euros.

Nobody would have ever noticed, if not for the personnel changes at Police and Border Guard Board last year. As a result of this, a new person ended up working with follow-up check of citizenship applications, to whom lots of cases seemed an anomaly.

People with positive responses to applications looked like they had nothing to do with Estonia whatsoever. As the cases were dozens, the official up and told internal audit. That was seven months ago.

A month went by and a criminal investigation was officially launched. According to internal audit head, former murder investigator Raul Vahtra, the six months that followed entailed a whole lot of surveillance.  

The result was discovering a «passport mafia» of eleven, like a football team. At the top of it, there sat a retired Russian speaking lady (65) with no earlier criminal record.   

«She has Estonian citizenship, but she had gotten herself two extra identities in Estonian Republic,» said chief state prosecutor Steven Hristo Evestus in charge of the investigation.

The three-identity lady had woven a group with warm relations between private persons and officials. For its members, the regular extra income or a gift for each success was welcome.

While communicating, nicknames were used. They met in unfrequented spots and the money moved through an in-between pot. Bribes were arranged by three in the grouping. Others had other tasks. Like finding a make-up artist at some beauty parlour.

Client overload

The numbers of those desiring documents significantly outweighed what «passport mafia» was able to service. But we are still talking about dozens of cases. In only the last seven months.

Also, an «independent branch» of the selfsame biz was discovered: having heard, as an insider, of the opportunity to cheat with documents, the individual launched into it independently. To now complement the ranks of suspects.

On Tuesday, October 27th, the investigators opted to get with it, and switch to public procedures. While searching the homes of the «passport mafiosi», many owned up to what they had done. The only one arrested was the 65-years old lady leader.

Considering that behind the fraudulent passports and residence permits there lies a large bunch of other outwardly correct documents issued on wrong basis, the criminal investigation may significantly grow in scope.  

That would include suspects, criminal episodes, and areas of activity. «The investigators have a huge work on their hands,» predicted, Mr Vahtra, the internal audit head.