23 December 2002, Volume
BALTIC STATES SATISFIED WITH EU ACCESSION TERMS.
The presidents and prime ministers of the three Baltic states joined representatives of seven other candidate states at the EU summit in Copenhagen on 12-13 December, where they received invitations to join the EU in 2004, BNS reported. The financial terms improved the final day when, primarily due to Polish demands, the EU agreed to offer an additional $442 million, mostly for agricultural subsidies. Aid levels for the first three years on a per capita basis will be: Lithuania 387 euros, Estonia (357 euros), and Latvia (348 euros). Aid to Lithuania includes EU expenditures for closing the nuclear-power plant at Ignalina and Russian transit subsidies with the Kaliningrad Oblast via Lithuania. The higher Estonian level is also due to country-specific projects.U.K. TO OPEN LABOR MARKET TO BALTS AND OTHER EU CANDIDATES IN 2004.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair informed Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas in a letter dated 11 December that Lithuanian citizens along with citizens of other EU candidates will have an opportunity to work in Great Britain after their countries join the EU in 2004, BNS reported. In its EU membership negotiations last year, Lithuania agreed to the EU's proposal of a seven-year transition period restricting the free movement of its labor, but Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden announced they would open their labor markets to Lithuania when it joins the EU. Blair apparently sent similar letters to other postcommunist EU candidate countries. Foreign Minister Jack Straw said later that the opening of the U.K. labor market to Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian, Slovak, and Czech workers will be beneficial to the country's economy.BALTIC STATES HOLD MILITARY-COOPERATION TALKS.
At a trilateral meeting in Riga on 10 December, the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian defense ministers issued a communique calling for continued military cooperation to enhance their countries' contribution to European security and NATO missions, BNS reported. The ministers decided to instruct their respective army commanders to submit proposals on how best to integrate their regional defense projects -- including: BALTBAT (land forces), BALTRON (naval forces), BALTDEFCOL (higher education), BALTNET (air-space control), and BALTCCIS (command-and-management IT systems) -- into NATO projects by their next meeting in Vilnius in March.SURVEY PROBES RUSSIAN ATTITUDES TOWARD NATO.
A majority of Russians continue to believe that Russia should cooperate more closely with NATO, polit.ru reported, citing a national poll by the Public Opinion Foundation. According to the poll, 56 percent of respondents support closer relations, while 23 percent oppose them. In May, these figures were 62 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In June 1999, 45 percent supported closer ties, while 32 percent opposed them. The latest survey also found that 35 percent of respondents favor Russian membership in the trans-Atlantic alliance, while 41 percent oppose it. Nonetheless, 48 percent of Russians view NATO as "an aggressive military bloc" and just 26 percent see it as "a defensive military bloc." These figures are virtually identical to the results of a similar survey conducted in September 2001. Sixty-nine percent of respondents in the latest poll expressed opposition to the entry into NATO of the Baltic states. The survey found the strongest distrust of NATO among the elderly and the middle-aged. Among those under 35 years of age and under, 35 percent oppose the entry into NATO of the Baltic states and 39 percent view the alliance as an "aggressive military bloc."
ESTONIA CONCLUDES EU MEMBERSHIP TALKS.
Estonia completed its EU membership negotiations on 9 December, ETA reported the next day. Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland said the country won some concessions, including the right to import steel from Russia and Ukraine without price restrictions; fishing quotas for Baltic herring, and continued hunting of bears and lynx. The EU will also finance the testing of oil-shale products for entering the European markets and support improving Estonian border controls to Schengen levels with some 60 million euros of funding. The annual milk-production quota was set at 646,000 tons -- a compromise between the EU's proposed 562,000 tons and Estonia's appeal for 900,000 tons -- but the figure may be raised if other candidate countries' quotas increase.PARLIAMENT PASSES 2003 BUDGET WITH DEFICIT.
Parliament on 11 December passed a 2003 state budget with projected revenues of 38.43 billion kroons ($2.46 billion) and expenditure of 38.76 billion kroons, ETA reported. The bill was approved by a vote of 48 to 36 with 12 abstentions. Eight People's Union deputies left the chamber to enable passage despite the party's stated opposition to the government's draft budget. People's Union Chairman Jaan Mannik reasoned that it would have been irresponsible to leave Estonia without a budget ahead of the March parliamentary elections, adding: "The new ruling coalition will have an opportunity to amend the budget...to its liking." This marks the first time since Estonia regained its independence in 1991 that lawmakers have approved a deficit budget, projected at 324 million kroons.PARLIAMENT AMENDS WELFARE LAW.
Parliament on 10 December approved by a vote of 43 to 38 amendments to the law on social welfare support that backers say will result in annual savings of 137 million kroons ($8.8 million), ETA and BNS reported. The ruling Center and Reform parties voted for the amendments, while the opposition parties, Pro Patria Union and Moderates, rejected them and most People's Party deputies did not vote. The changes define students up to the age of 24 as dependents unless they are married or have children of their own. The amendments also base eligibility for benefits on more than a family's income, including real estate, buildings, vehicles, bank accounts, and securities holdings. The articles on students will go into effect from 1 January and for others from 1 July 2003.PARTIES MOSTLY FAVOR EU ACCESSION, ALBEIT GRUDGINGLY IN SOME CASES.
Despite widespread public opposition to EU membership, all the major political parties have declared their support for EU accession, ETA reported on 13 December. Right-center parties, such as the Pro-Patria Union and Reform Party, have previously expressed their support. People's Party Chairman Villu Reiljan meanwhile said on 12 December that joining the EU is a better option than remaining outside the group, but he added that it is the lesser of two evils. However, the ruling Center Party has not expressed an unequivocal position. Chairman Edgar Savisaar declared that the party's official position on the issue will only be decided at a party congress next summer, while Deputy Chairman Peeter Kreitzberg asserted that the party will definitely support EU membership.PRO PATRIA UNION ELECTS NEW CHAIRMAN.
A congress of the right-center Pro Patria Union in Tartu on 7 December elected parliament Deputy Chairman Tunne Kelam as its party chairman, BNS reported. The 66-year-old Kelam, who ran unopposed, received 430 votes with none against and several dozen ballots deemed invalid. The key theme of his program is "open nationalism," which he defines as Estonia and Pro Patria Union being open to all nonethnic Estonians who respect the Estonian language and culture, are loyal to the Estonian state, and consider Estonia their home. He said an increase in civic solidarity and compassionate conservatism are matters of national interest. Immediately after the congress, the party's council elected Peeter Tulviste and Trivimi Velliste as deputy chairmen and Tarmo Loodus as secretary-general. It also approved Kelam, Tulviste, and former party Chairman Mart Laar as the three top names for the March parliamentary elections.GOVERNMENT SUPPORTS BAN ON SINGLE-HULL TANKERS IN BALTIC SEA.
The government issued a statement on 10 December urging an immediate ban on the use of single-hull oil tankers in the Baltic Sea, ETA reported the next day. It noted that the Baltic is a relatively narrow and closed sea and thus especially sensitive to environmental pollution. Estonia called on all countries on the Baltic Sea to support a 6 December decision by the EU transport, telecommunications, and energy ministers' council and to cooperate in protecting the environment of the Baltic Sea by banning the entry of single-hull tankers to Baltic Sea ports.NARVA GETS NEW MAYOR.
The Narva City Council elected Tarmo Tammiste, the manager of a municipal maintenance firm, to be the mayor of Narva on 13 December, BNS reported. Tammiste received 20 votes while former Mayor Imre Liiv received 10. Both candidates are members of the Center Party, which won 18 of the 31 seats in the council. Tammiste was proposed by the leader of the Center Party's Narva chapter, Elsa Suikanen, while the council's current chairman Mikhail Stalnukhin nominated Liiv.
* A delegation from the Georgian parliament led by Chairwoman Nino Burdjanadze made an official visit to Tallinn on 10-11 December, BNS reported. With her Estonian counterpart Toomas Savi, who had invited her during a visit to Tbilisi at the end of 1998, she discussed Estonia's preparations for NATO and EU membership. Burdjanadze also met with President Arnold Ruutel and Defense Minister Sven Mikser and gave a lecture at Tallinn's Concordia International University.
* An Estonian-Hungarian free trade agreement signed on 11 December will introduce more favorable conditions for exporting Estonian agricultural produce to Hungary from the beginning of 2003, ETA reported. It abolishes import tariffs and increases tariff quotas for Estonia to export fish and fish products, milk, meat products, juices, canned food, and pastry products to Hungary. In 2001 Estonia's exports to Hungary were worth 545 million kroons ($34 million) and imports 778 million kroons.
* Responding to a question from parliament deputy Sergei Ivanov, head of the group for cooperation with the Russian Duma, Defense Minister Sven Mikser declared on 12 December that Estonia does not regard Russia or Russians living in Estonia as risks to the country's security, BNS reported. He said that the Estonian security concept does not see any immediate military danger from any country, but many security risks exist in the world and NATO membership is the best way for Estonia to eliminate them.
* The Russian-language daily "Molodezh Estonii" wrote on 12 December that Patriarch Aleksii II of Moscow and All Russia is planning to visit Estonia in February, BNS reported. The visit, which has been postponed from this year because of the Patriarch's poor health, will include a stop in Narva on the way to Tallinn.
* Dissatisfied with the government's failure to comply with their demands to raise the tax-free income limit to 1,400 kroons per month and the monthly unemployment benefit to at least 700 kroons next year, the Central Association of Estonian Trade Unions (EAKL) organized protest actions on 9 and 11 December, ETA reported. On 9 December some 3,000 workers in textile and metal processing companies in Narva held an hour-long work stoppage while the pilots and railway workers unions held 15 and 45 minutes stoppages. On 11 December, the association held a protest meeting in front of the parliament building in which about 500 people participated. The Estonian Employers Central Association called on the unions to stop their protest strike actions as they directly affect them and not the government against whom the actions are aimed.
* Eesti Energia (Estonian Energy) reopened the hydroelectric station at Linnamae at the Jagala River after a break of 61 years on 10 December, BNS reported. The station had been built in 1924, but was destroyed by Soviet troops in 1941. Its restoration was begun last year and completed at the cost of 34 million kroons ($2.1 million). The station, which has an output of 1.1 megawatts, will boost the share of renewable energy sources in Estonia's power output to 0.3 percent from the previous 0.2.
* Although the Center Party and Res Publica have called for establishing more lenient terms for granting Estonian citizenship to the 168,000 stateless persons living in the country, Prime Minister Siim Kallas of the Reform Party and former Prime Minister Mart Laar of Pro Patria Union have declared that there is no need to simplify the citizenship rules, BNS reported on 11 December. The citizenship issue, however, may become a factor in the March parliamentary elections.
* The chairman of the Russian Baltic Party in Estonia, Viktor Lanberg, announced on 10 December that he was resigning from the post he had been elected to at the party congress on 15 June, BNS reported. In the local elections in October the party won some seats in some smaller communities, but was unsuccessful in Tallinn. Asked what he considered the future of the party to be, Lanberg replied: "It is like that of all Russian politics in Estonia -- there isn't going to be any at all."
* The Estonian Newspaper Association on 12 December named Legal Chancellor Allar Joks the most press-friendly public figure in 2002 and Environment Minister Heiki Kranich the most press-hostile public figure, ETA reported. Joks was praised for being ready to explain the background of complicated legal problems to the press, and also suggesting possible solutions. Kranich was charged with being too uncommunicative with the public and not being able to clearly explain several environmental problems to the public.
* Moody's Investor Service upgraded the deposit and debt ratings of the Hansapank, Uhispank, and Sampo Pank on 12 December, BNS reported. The action was expected since Moody's had raised the rating of Estonia by three notches in the fall and on 14 November initiated a review of the banks for possible upgrade.
PRIME MINISTER TAKES NEW BUDGET TACK, WILL SUBMIT DRAFT IN NEW YEAR.
After a meeting on 9 December with the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) permanent representative in Latvia, Prime Minister Einars Repse vowed to establish new guidelines for drafting a 2003 budget, LETA reported the following day. The IMF's Adalbert Knoble reportedly recommended to Repse that Latvia's 2003 budget deficit not surpass the current year's deficit. Repse explained the previous government's philosophy as, "Give us money, and we will then figure out how to spend it," saying the new approach will be one in which budget funds are allocated only after the government decides they are justified. A special task force was established for a detailed review of the financial objectives of each ministry and government agency, LETA reported, and the draft 2003 budget will be submitted to parliament only next year after the cabinet makes those findings.GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER VISIT.
A delegation from the Georgian parliament led by Chairwoman Nino Burdjanadze began an official two-day visit to Latvia on 9 December, LETA reported. Her counterpart, Ingrida Udre, shared Latvia's experience in seeking NATO and EU membership, and accepted an invitation to visit Georgia next year. The delegation also met with Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis, Foreign Affairs Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins, and academic Norbert Reich. Responding to Burdjanadze's request that Latvia support Georgian interests in the EU and NATO, Riekstins said his country supports NATO's "open-door" policy and is ready to give advice concerning the formation of the national-defense system, democratic control over the armed forces, and the training of military and civil staff. On 10 December, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told her that she favored greater economic and political cooperation between the two countries and pledged Latvia's assistance in carrying out reforms to assist Georgia's development.LATVIA ASKED TO KEEP 'MUM' ON NATO BUDGET PAYMENTS.
The head of the delegation for NATO membership negotiations, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins, told the newspaper "Diena" that Latvia was asked not to disclose the amount it has agreed to pay into the alliance's budget until similar negotiations are completed with the other six candidate countries, BNS reported on 11 December. In talks that day in Brussels, Latvia reached an agreement on NATO budget payments and on the approximate number of posts in NATO's international offices that will go to Latvia. "Diena" wrote on 12 December that the annual membership fee is less than $3 million.REQUEST TO RUSSIA TO EXTRADITE EXTREMIST LEADER.
Prosecutor-General Janis Maizitis on 12 December signed a request directed to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Ustinov to extradite Vladimirs Lindermans, chairman of the Latvian civic group "Uzvara" (Victory), which serves as a front for the Russian National Bolsheviks, BNS reported. Lindermans and three other Uzvara members arrested in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2002) are charged with illegal possession of explosives, issuing calls for the overthrow of Latvian authorities, and a conspiracy to assassinate President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (see "Baltic States Report," 13 December 2002). Lindermans told BNS that he hopes the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office "will carry out its own investigation into the matter and conclude that there are no grounds to extradite me to Latvia."
* The second round of Latvia's NATO accession talks was completed at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 11 December, LETA reported. The Latvian delegation was headed by Foreign Affairs Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins and the NATO delegation by NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Political Issues Guenther Altenburg. Latvia promised to improve its security on classified NATO information. In March, it also will have to submit a specific strategy for concluding reforms in the Latvian armed forces, defense planning, and information security measures.
* Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete traveled to France on 6 December to participate in the first of a series of regional forums to debate the future of Europe which will continue until 2004, LETA reported. She was the featured guest of the forum in Orleans and the only representative of an EU candidate country invited. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and other French ministers also attended the forum.
* Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and Bank of Latvia President Ilmars Rimsevics held talks with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission in Riga on 9 December. The mission, which arrived on 5 December and plans to stay until 17 December, is scheduled to meet with representatives of the finance, agriculture, economy, and transport ministries as well as officials from numerous other government agencies, banks, and business associations. Its aim is to review Latvia's economic development, the financial system, and the national budget.
* National Border Guard Deputy Chief Arijs Jansons and municipal leaders from three eastern counties on 11 December discussed with representatives from the Belarusian Border Guard Committee and municipal officials from three western counties the details of drawing up lists of people residing near the border who will be eligible for free visas in the Latvian town of Silene, BNS reported. The meeting was a follow-up to the Latvian-Belarusian government agreement on simplified visa procedures signed on 17 November which called for the creation of permanent lists and other arrangements for issuing the visas.
* Responding to Sweden's TV4 television station broadcast on 5 December accusing Latvian fishermen of large-scale poaching in the Baltic Sea (see "Baltic States Report" 13 December 2002), the Swedish-Latvian company Banga Seafood is preparing to file a complaint with Sweden's law-enforcement authorities, BNS reported on 12 December. Latvia's Fisheries Department head Normunds Riekstins said the charges that Latvia did not count fish hauls were false and Latvian authorities had confiscated more than 62 tons of illegally caught fish this year.
* Ambassador to the UN Gints Jegermanis signed two UN conventions on the prevention of transnational organized crime in New York on 10 December, BNS reported the next day. One convention includes a protocol on the prevention of trafficking in women and children with mechanisms for prevention and punishment. The second convention deals with the prevention of smuggling illegal immigrants by road, sea, or air routes as well as the protection of rights for the illegal immigrants smuggled into a country.
* The president of the European Socialist Party, Robin Cook, sent a congratulatory letter to Dainis Ivans, the recently elected chairman of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP), with an offer of assistance and support in reorganizing and renewing the party, BNS reported on 10 December. He expressed the wish to visit Latvia next year and meet with the board of the LSDSP, which he called the largest and most influential social democratic party in Latvia.
* Expressing dissatisfaction with the repeated complaints by Latvian Ice Hockey Federation President Kirovs Lipmans that the Riga City Council is hindering the organization of the 2006 Ice Hockey World Championship by not assigning a plot of land for the construction of a needed ice arena, Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars ordered the city development department on 11 December to evaluate the options of building a hockey arena with local government funds and foreign investors, LETA reported. Bojars said that the city needed such an arena and "whether the hockey championship will be held there is up to the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation."
* The Central Statistics Bureau announced on 12 December that during the first 10 months of the year exports were worth 1.17 billion lats ($1.9 billion) -- 10.7 percent more than in the same period last year, while imports rose by 13.2 percent to 2.04 billion lats, LETA reported. The increasing trade deficit is a matter of concern to Latvia.
* The Central Statistics Bureau announced on 9 December that in November the consumer-price index was 0.2 percent higher than in October and 1.6 percent higher than in November 2001, BNS reported. The prices of goods grew by 0.3 percent, primarily due to a 1.0 percent rise in food prices, especially sharp for vegetables, while the price of services fell by 0.3 percent, influenced by a 0.9 decline in transportation costs due to lower railroad fares.
* The investors' service Moody's upgraded the deposit and debt ratings of Latvijas Unibanka and Latvijas Hipoteku un Zemes Banka (Mortgage and Land Bank) on 12 December, BNS reported. The action was expected since Moody's had raised the rating of Latvia by three notches in November and placed the banks on review for possible upgrade on 14 November.
PARLIAMENT ADOPTS 2003 BUDGET.
The parliament, in its last scheduled session this year, adopted on 10 December the 2003 national budget by a vote of 72 to 43 with five abstentions, ELTA reported. It foresees revenues increasing by 6.8 percent year-on-year to 11.09 billion litas ($3.2 billion) and expenditures increasing 7.7 percent to 12.41 billion litas. The leftist government touted the budget as one that is "socially geared and meeting the needs of Euro-Atlantic integration." The opposition claimed the deficit -- which represents almost 14 percent of the state budget or, according to BNS, roughly 2.4 percent of GDP -- is too high, adding that there is an excessive increase in the cost of public administration. Lawmakers also approved by a vote of 45 to 11 with seven abstentions the 2003 budget for the state-run social-insurance fund, SoDra, including a planned surplus of 825,000 litas. They also amended the social-security law to raise the monthly benefits of pensioners with at least 25 years of work experience and set minimum disability pensions at 325 litas from 1 January. The parliament decided that it will hold its next session on 9 January and extend the work of the fall session until 29 January.OIL TANKER RUNS AGROUND OFF KLAIPEDA.
The Argentinean tanker "Princess Pia," sailing under a Panamanian flag and carrying 49,500 tons of fuel oil, ran aground on the evening of 11 December shortly after leaving the port of Klaipeda, ELTA reported the next day. The tanker, built in 1979, is single-hulled but has a double bottom. Although there are at least three holes in the bottom of the hull, the largest of which is 30 centimeters wide, reportedly no oil had leaked out by the morning of 13 December. Efforts by five tugboats to tow the tanker off the seabed were unsuccessful. Plans to pump some of the oil out of the tanker and tow it back to port got under way on 13 December. The Lithuanian Transport and Communications Ministry's Water Transport director, Juozas Darulis, noted on 12 December that Lithuania plans to ban single-hull oil tankers from entering Klaipeda.PRESIDENT STRESSES UKRAINE'S PLACE IN 'VISION OF EUROPE.'
Valdas Adamkus on 12 December said Lithuania will use its emerging place in Europe to help stabilize nearby Ukraine and enhance ties with Russia, Reuters reported. His remarks came on the eve of the Copenhagen summit on EU expansion, at which Lithuania and nine other countries hope to conclude talks on joining the bloc. "Our vision of Europe is incomplete without Ukraine," Adamkus said, urging the West to avoid isolating that country despite serious concerns about President Leonid Kuchma. "Today the most important thing is that countries like Ukraine have not reversed their policies and continue to struggle for an open and democratic society and free market," Adamkus said. He declined to comment on neighboring Belarus, Reuters reported, where strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is increasingly isolated by the international community. Adamkus also said Lithuania's long-standing ties to Ukraine can help the EU engage its neighbor, Russia, adding that he is pleased with the gradual shift away from the threatening tone that dominated bilateral relations between Vilnius and Moscow after Lithuania regained its independence in 1991.NGO BATTLING HUMAN TRAFFICKING TO RECEIVE UN AWARD.
The Lithuanian Support Center for Families of Missing Persons will receive this year's UN Vienna Civil Society Award, BNS reported on 11 December. UN representative Cihan Sultanoglu told a press conference in Vilnius that the UN representative in Vienna, in cooperation with the Austrian Foreign Ministry and Vienna city officials, selected the center among first-place winners from 220 nominees. The center -- which was founded in 1999 to combat human trafficking, assist with integrating victims returning to Lithuania, provide assistance to their families, and search for missing persons -- will be awarded a medal and split the $100,000 award with two individuals and another organization in official ceremonies in Vienna on 17 December. Sultanoglu noted that the Support Center is the first nongovernmental organization (NGO) to receive the award and should encourage the work of other NGOs in Lithuania.FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH RUSSIAN COUNTERPART.
At the 10th meeting of the Council of Ministers of the OSCE in Porto, Portugal, on 6-7 December, Antanas Valionis discussed with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov a possible visit to Lithuania by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the second half of 2003, BNS reported. It would mark the first visit to the country by a Russian leader since the restoration of Lithuania's independence. The two foreign ministers also discussed Russian transit through Lithuania to the Kaliningrad Oblast, the signing of a readmission treaty, improving border checkpoints, and the construction of a new bridge over the Nemunas River.EU MEMBERSHIP DISCUSSED WITH GERMAN FOREIGN MINISTER.
Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis traveled to Berlin on 9 December for talks with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer on the final terms of Lithuania's admission to the EU, BNS reported. After the meeting, he said Fischer predicted that accession talks will conclude at the 12-13 December summit in Copenhagen rather than in Brussels, as previously expected. Valionis said getting any additional funding from the EU will be difficult, but noted two issues of particular importance that merit further subsidies: funding for closure of the nuclear power plant at Ignalina, and transit between the Kaliningrad Oblast and the rest of Russia. He also said Fischer told him: "The issue of Kaliningrad transit is a shared affair of Lithuania and the European Union" which has to be resolved in a constructive and matter-of-fact way.
* President Adamkus signed a decree on 11 December forming the delegation which will hold NATO accession talks, ELTA reported. Foreign Ministry Secretary Giedrius Cekuolis, Defense Ministry Secretary Povilas Malakauskas, and Ambassador to NATO Ginte Damusyte were named co-chairpersons of the delegation. The other 11 members of the delegation are representatives from the foreign affairs, defense, and finance ministries and the State Security Department. The first meeting will be at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 13 January.
* The director of the World Health Organization for Europe, Marc Danzon, completed a three-day visit to Vilnius on 13 December with a news conference hosted by Health Minister Konstantinas Dobrovolskis, ELTA reported. The previous day he told parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas that the country's health reforms were moving in the right direction and pledged technical advice for the health-care system.
* The president of the European Liberal Democrats and Reform Party Faction of the European Parliament, Graham Watson, traveled to Vilnius on 9 December to discuss the issue of Kaliningrad transit prior to the EU summit in Copenhagen, BNS reported. He had a meeting with the parliament's European Affairs and Foreign Affairs committees on Lithuania's completion of EU membership negotiations before the summit. Watson also met with the leaders of the four Lithuanian parties -- Liberal, Social Liberal, and Center Union parties as well as the Liberal Democratic Party -- who would belong to his faction.
* Social Security and Labor Minister Vilija Blinkeviciute and Dutch Ambassador to Lithuania Pim Dumore signed an agreement in Vilnius on 12 December on the payment of social benefits abroad, ELTA reported. The initiative for the agreement came from the government of the Netherlands because its laws provide for payment of social benefits abroad only when relevant international agreements have been concluded.
* Customs Chief Valerijonas Valickas proposed to his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Vanin, in Vilnius on 13 December that the date of the scheduled talks on transit matters should be advanced since the announced suspension of the TIR system in Russia from 24 December would seriously affect Lithuanian carriers, ELTA reported. About a quarter of all cargo volumes handled by Lithuanian carriers are directed to Russia.
* Ambassador to the UN Gediminas Serksnys signed a protocol against the illegal manufacture and sales of arms, their parts, and ammunition in New York on 12 December, BNS reported. The protocol appends the UN Convention Against International Organized Crime of 31 May 2001. The protocol will go into effect 90 days after the UN secretary-general receives the 40th ratification document. Some 49 countries have signed the protocol, but only three parliaments have ratified it.
* Belarusian officials asked a visiting delegation from the Lithuanian Economy Ministry in Minsk on 10 December that Lithuania become a defender of its interests when Lithuania becomes a member of the EU, BNS reported. They expressed particular concern about future trade in textiles, synthetic fibers, and potassium fertilizer, fearing that the EU may impose dumping tariffs on Belarusian exports.
* The parliament amended on 11 December the excise law to increase the general excise-tax rate for tobacco goods by 56.2 percent on 1 March 2003, BNS reported. The excise tax rates have been raised twice this year and will continue to increase until they reach Western European levels by 2009 as agreed in EU membership negotiations. The higher taxes are expected to increase illegal tobacco sales which are already estimated to account for 15-20 percent of total cigarette consumption in Lithuania.
* The Statistics Department announced on 12 December that in the first 10 months of the year exports were worth 16.85 billion litas ($4.5 billion) or 9.4 percent more than in same period last year while imports went up by 12.6 percent to 23.18 billion litas, ELTA reported. Great Britain, Russia, Germany, and Latvia were the main export destinations, while imports came from Russia, Germany, Italy, and Poland.
* The Statistics Department announced on 9 December that in November the consumer price index was 0.2 percent higher than in October, but 1.0 percent lower than in November 2001, BNS reported. In November, prices of clothing and footwear grew by 1.0 percent, transportation costs by 0.8 percent, but the price of food fell by 0.1 percent.