On 24th of September 2020, entrepreneurs from Maardu who are protesting against the closure of accounts and disruption of business operations by Swedbank, and the bank’s customers and investors who because of Swedbank lost more than 8 million euros in Romanian land transactions organized the first protest rally in front of Swedbank’s head office in Tallinn.
The purpose of the protest rally was to draw the attention of the Estonian and Swedish public to the fact that Swedbank continues to violate its due diligence obligations in Estonia as a provider of settlement and investment services and does not answer legitimate questions or complaints of its customers.
According to entrepreneur and a member of the bankruptcy committee, Kaupo Nõlvak who spoke at the protest rally as a representative of investors who lost money in Romanian land transactions because of Swedbank, an unconventional public rally had to be organized to attract the attention of bankers, the public and financial regulators to the matter. “Swedbank has not found time to explain or apologize to its customers and investors whose money the bank’s investment managers lost in suspicious Romanian land transactions,” he explained. “We have demanded an answer to our questions directly from the bank, in court and in announcements published in the Estonian and Swedish media, but until now the result has been zero. And this is is in spite of the heartwarming media statements in which the bank’s CEO Olavi Lepp told the public that the Romanian land transactions affair should be clarified and that the bank should communicate with its customers.”
“Recent public attention to Swedbank’s failure to comply with money laundering rules, growing resentment in the Estonian society about the bank’s activities in closing customer accounts and criminal and money laundering investigations against Swedbank in Estonia and internationally could now force the bank to effectively clean up, correct mistakes and restore trust with customers,” noted Nõlvak. According to him, Swedbank’s arrogant attitude towards Estonian society and towards the concerns of local customers is also shown by the fact that in two months neither Göran Persson, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Swedbank, nor any other bank manager have found time to respond to the public statement made by former Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas in the summer which attracted attention to the bank’s shortcomings in serving and informing customers and investors.
“I hope that this sense of intouchability and arrogance will be curtailed by the criminal investigation that is being conducted by the Estonian law enforcement authorities into money laundering in Swedbank. For me, the first sign of restoration of justice is the ruling of the Tallinn Circuit Court, which entered into force on Tuesday, which waived the initiation of criminal proceedings against Swedbank in the Romanian land transaction case, but only due to the expiration of guilt, not due to its absence,” said Nõlvak. The court ruling confirmed the previous position of the Public Prosecutor’s Office that just like the investors who filed the criminal complaint in the spring and the Central Criminal Police that responded to it, the prosecutor agrees that in raising Romanian land investments, an investment scam was committed in 2006-2007 and that Swedbank’s involvement in mediating the investments and attracting the investors has been proven.
Nikolai Degtjarenko, a member of the Maardu City Council who spoke at the protest rally about problems that Maardu entrepreneurs have with Swedbank, pointed out that sudden closures of customer accounts caused by money laundering problems of Swedbank, the largest bank on the market, have already disrupted Estonian businesses and the economy.
“Maardu entrepreneurs working in Muuga Harbor, which is located in the territory of the city of Maardu, confirm that there are massive problems with Swedbank. Many small businesses have found themselves in a difficult situation because of Swedbank that has disrupted their operations in terms of transit of goods and international settlements,” he noted. According to Degtjarenko, smaller companies usually have one account in the bank, while money launderers have dozens. And when the bank closes one or two accounts of an honest entrepreneur, he immediately gets into trouble because it’s impossible to conduct business without a bank account. “The bank closes the account although people have not committed illegal acts, have not violated the law, are engaged in business activities that are fully controlled by the state through the Tax and Customs Board. Who pays for this damage?” asks Nikolai Degtjarenko. He emphasized that these companies work within the framework of Estonian legislation, pay taxes, and provide the residents of Tallinn and Maardu with well-paid jobs. They are also not e-residents or non-residents who do not live in Estonia. “We are talking about Estonian entrepreneurs, Estonian citizens who are suffering and whose business is being hit.”
According to Degtjarenko, the problems arose when Swedbank was caught laundering money. Instead of fighting those laundering money, the bank started massively to attack Estonian entrepreneurs who have been conducting their business honestly. Swedbank started closing corporate accounts in 2018 and has continued to do so during 2019 and 2020. “I am also a victim of Swedbank, although I have been a Swedbank customer for decades and the state has no remarks about my business. All my company’s attempts to bring Swedbank staff to sense have failed,” he explained.
According to Degtjarenko, Maardu entrepreneurs are participating in the protest rally to announce through the press that they will make appeals and raise a cry of distress, as they consider that Swedbank is significantly violating the rights of Estonian residents. “We have also contacted the Chancellor of Justice, the Financial Supervision Authority and the Ministry of Finance. Until now, officials have responded by referring to the current regulations, but it seems that they are now beginning to realize that it may be time to change the current regulations, because Swedbank is abusing them to the detriment of Estonian entrepreneurs.”
A selection of photos from the protest rally