The curious case of Mihhail Korb, the Baltic Times, & a dodgy crypto coin

An incident three years ago still raises some questions.

Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned in the early hours of this morning as details of a major alleged corruption scandal began to emerge yesterday. The scandal allegedly involves the Secretary General of his Center Party, Mihhail Korb, who resigned yesterday.

When I saw Mihhail Korb’s name in the news again, I was reminded of an incident three years ago that was never resolved. I thought now would be the right time to retell it.

Rewind to 2017.

First, some background. Crypto was booming. Not just Bitcoin, but also a wide range of crypto tokens launched by private companies through so-called ICOs or Initial Coin Offerings.

There was potential for this to positively transform finance, both for people doing business globally and startups seeking to raise capital from small investors. But there was also a severe lack of transparency, which meant many of these ICOs were either horrendously mismanaged or just outright scams.

Most governments around the world were mere spectators to all this, unsure of what their regulatory role would be.

But some in Estonia, particularly at the e-Residency programme where I worked, saw an opportunity to embrace crypto by supporting new regulations. Estonia already had some advantages. We have, for example, a very transparent business environment because a significant amount of company data is both public and verified to be accurate through the use of our digital IDs. Oversight by the Estonian Police is pretty thorough too. By adding new regulatory guidelines for companies issuing crypto tokens, perhaps we could help the market flourish in Estonia while keeping away the bad guys.

Afterall, Estonia has a good track record for welcoming emerging industries through sensible regulations that both embrace entrepreneurs and protect the public good. For example, Estonia was a leader in regulating ride sharing, delivery robots on pavements, and now AI. That helped our country benefit from excellent startups, like Bolt and Starship Technologies.

Alongside these regulatory proposals was an idea for Estonia to launch its own crypto token, dubbed Estcoin. Perhaps it could be used exclusively within our community of e-residents to facilitate trade. Perhaps it could offer people around the world a way to invest directly into Estonia and therefore incentivise more people to help develop our economy and support our country more generally. We weren’t pretending we had all the answers, but by speculating openly it kicked off a largely positive debate about the possibilities.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to dwell on whether Estcoin was a good idea or not. Plenty of people hated it too — both inside and outside of Estonia — and it never got off the ground (although ironically one of the fiercest critics, the Bank of Estonia, is now exploring something similar to some of the proposals).

But all this context is key to understanding what happened next.

TokenEST

In December 2017, Estonia seemingly did launch it’s national crypto token project, now seemingly called TokenEST, and invited people around the world to invest. It had a website and was putting out press releases that resulted in some international media coverage. They used statements in their materials that clearly indicated that they were some kind of new Estonian government agency launching Estonia’s national crypto tokens. Here is just one of those articles still online in which it is repeatedly stated that the Estonian government has launched this project.

This was all false.

This kind of thing wasn’t a huge surprise though. There were all kinds of crypto scams emerging globally at the time (and still are today). They usually lacked any serious credibility and could be shut down relatively easily, often with a simple complaint to the web host.

TokenEST was different though. For a start, their credibility was boosted by the fact that they had multiple pictures of their team inside the Estonian Parliament ..alongside Mihhail Korb who the project touted as their board member. One of those pictures is the cover photo on this article.

It was disappointing to think that people around the world could be losing their money to yet another crypto project with misleading claims and no credible basis for their ability to make any returns on those investments. It was even more outrageous, however, that this was being done by exploiting the trust and reputation of the Republic of Estonia and its state. Also, dealing with this was a waste of time for people whose job it is to promote Estonia and attract legitimate international investment on behalf of the Estonian taxpayers who pay their wages.

The Estonian government issued a statement to clarify that our state had no role in TokenEST and that statements made by them to the contrary were false. We also spoke to all commercial partners to the project we could identify who then ended their support. Finally, the Estonian media covered the story.

One journalist who did a particularly good job covering this was Ronald Liive from Geenius.

All this, eventually, put an end to the TokenEST project. But not before they made one more bizarre move.

I need to add that there was one media outlet that, rather than reporting the TokenEST scandal, instead actively promoted it.

The Baltic Times.

While the project mostly seemed to be targeted at Russian-speaking audiences through Russian-language content, the Baltic Times ran sponsored articles from TokenEST in order to help target English speakers.

The articles were poorly written and quite incoherent, but they repeated the false claim that TokenEST was being launched by the Estonian government. The author of these articles was a TokenEST board member, although the words ‘Paid article’ only appeared at the very bottom. Nevertheless, even sponsored articles require accuracy and basic editorial standards.

After articles began appearing in the Estonian press exposing TokenEST, the Baltic Times ran one more sponsored article promoting the project with more misleading claims. This time, however, they began by launching a personal attack on Ronald Liive for daring to question them.

As far as crypto marketing goes, this wasn’t just unprofessional in an ethical sense but also unprofessional in terms of having no basic communication skills or strategy. The rest of that article was largely incoherent too. Also, all of the criticisms of the project were in Estonian but they felt the need to attack back in English where it would be read by people who didn’t even notice the original criticism.

I called the Baltic Times and sent increasingly concerned emails to their editor. He, nor anyone else from the Baltic Times, ever responded to me.

Eventually, a colleague of mine got through to the Baltic Times and received a promise that the false claims that TokenEST was a government project would be edited out. To this day, however, you can still read the rest of that hilariously bad article on the Baltic Times website here below. I have to warn you though, it is seriously weird.

I don’t expect this blog post to have any impact on Estonian party politics, which I never get involved in anyway. Supporting Estonia’s reputation abroad means working with all political parties and all sections of Estonian society. We all benefit from having a good international image that represents everyone.

Although I’m disappointed that there were no repercussions, this story is old news. All the facts are already public. And, obviously, there are bigger things going on politically right now.

However, I hope that by retelling it, it can raise bigger questions about what is going on inside the Baltic Times.

Some of you reading this across the Baltic states might be thinking: ‘What on Earth is the Baltic Times?’

But, as someone who grew up in both the Estonian and Latvian diaspora in the UK, I know the Baltic Times was once a beloved source of English news about the region for the wider world. While visiting the Baltic states as a child, I could always buy a copy of it from most newsstands and understand better what was going on locally.

Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Print copies have disappeared, its website is archaic, and its news quality is poor. In fact, many of its articles are copy and pasted word-for-word from elsewhere without accreditation or permission, much to the annoyance of the original authors, particularly at ERR News and LSM — Estonia and Latvia’s respective English language news services for their public broadcasters.

Laundering its reputation to promote TokenEST was just one incident in a longer story of decline and mismanagement.

In the void left by the Baltic Times, Estonia and Latvia’s public broadcasters, as well as Estonian World, all do a good job in their own way to communicate what is happening locally in English. Part of the decline of the Baltic Times is largely due to the fact that the idea of the Baltic states as a single regional unit is no longer as relevant as it used to be. As a proud Estonian and a proud Balt myself, I actually wish that wasn’t the case. Maybe it’s not too late for a pan-Baltic English media outlet to flourish once again.

Either way, I hope this kind of behaviour never happens again.

I will update this article with explanations from the Baltic Times if, three years later, they finally decide to respond.

Saunapreneur at EstonianSaunas.com. Previously Chief Evangelist at Estonia’s e-Residency programme.

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