27 March 2000, Volume
Baltic Ministers Agree On Witness Protection
The three Baltic interior ministers on 17 March signed an agreement in Tallinn on the protection of witnesses and victims. Estonian Interior Minister Tarmo Loodus and his counterparts Mareks Seglins of Latvia and Ceslovas Blazys of Lithuania also discussed further cooperation in the fight against crime. The new agreement facilitates cross-border protection of witnesses and victims, and deals with legal issues such as relocation to a second country. Seglins said that "in declaring war on organized crime, we must also offer a guarantee to the residents of our countries that their lives will not be threatened in the course of this struggle," adding that "only then will people trust us," BNS reported.
* A UN report revealed that the Baltic countries have some of the fastest aging populations in Europe. The survey shows that in 1999, 19 percent of Estonians, 20 percent of Latvians, and 18 percent of Lithuanians were over the age of 60. However, by 2050, the figures are projected to rise to 38 percent, 36 percent, and 35 percent respectively, giving Estonia the seventh oldest population in Europe.
Estonian Current Account Deficit Drops
Estonia's Central Bank announced on 20 March that the country's current account deficit for 1999 was 4.64 billion kroons ($250 million), or 6.3 percent of annual GDP. This result represents a drop from the previous year's 9.2 percent of GDP, which the bank attributed to an improvement in the balance of Estonia's economy and its openness, ETA reported. The decrease was fuelled by reduced consumer demand, as Estonia's negative trade balance makes up the largest share of the deficit.Estonian Premier Presents Nato Case In Brussels
Prime Minister Mart Laar, Defense Minister Juri Luik, and acting Defense Forces Commander Colonel Mart Tiru presented Estonia's NATO action plan to the North Atlantic Council in Brussels on 21-22 March. During a speech to NATO ambassadors on 22 March, Laar called the document the "most thorough state defense document ever adopted" by the country, and outlines in part a planned defense spending increase to 2 percent of GDP by 2002, ETA reported. Laar also stressed that "special attention is naturally paid to the Baltic countries' defense cooperation," BNS added. During a brief meeting, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson confirmed a trip to Estonia on 17-18 May, "Eesti Paevaleht" added.
* The World Bank on 16 March approved $25 million in funding for the $49.5 million project to upgrade the Tallinn-Tartu-Luhamaa highway. The Estonian government will cover most of the remainder of the cost.
* Finnish Interior Minister Kari Hakamies visited Estonia on 22-23 March to discuss cooperation in areas such as border defense and anti-drug efforts. Earlier, Hakamies suggested Estonia would be barred from EU entry because of increased cross-border drug smuggling to Finland. Hakamies said the press misrepresented his statements.
* Rene Berting on 21 March was appointed the new head of the anti-drug unit in the Tallinn police. He replaced Kalev Motus, who will now coordinate the Border Guard service's anti-drug efforts.
* The Supreme Court on 17 March struck down a challenge by Legal Chancellor Eerik-Juhan Truuvali, who claimed that supplementary amendments to the 1999 budget were unconstitutional.
* A total of 7,281 individuals were on parole in Estonia as of early March. Only about 300 are post-incarceration parolees, while the vast majority are serving suspended sentences.
* Estonia's month-on-month producer price index rose by 0.5 percent in February.
Radical Russians Threaten To Kidnap Latvian Ambassador
The radical Workers of Russia party, led by Viktor Anpilov, told a press conference that their supporters would kidnap Latvia's ambassador to Russia in retaliation for Latvia's prosecuting of Soviet war criminals, BNS reported on 21 March. Anpilov told the press, "If Latvian authorities do not respond, we will have the right to call on our supporters to abduct the Latvian ambassador, for example, and hold him hostage." Anpilov suggested the creation of a partisan force named after convicted war criminal Vasilii Kononov, whose conviction on 21 January has stirred up protests in front of the Latvian Embassy in Moscow since. The embassy has been defaced several times by vandals since the conviction.
* Russian Ambassador to Latvia Aleksandr Udaltsov warned that Russian-Latvian relations have reached a "dangerous stage" and that further deterioration may be difficult to halt if the "negative trend gathers momentum." Latvia is drafting a plan of action in case Russia imposes economic sanctions, as is currently being debated in the Russian parliament.
* A parliamentary regulatory commission decided on 22 March not to immediately revoke the parliamentary mandate of Janis Adamsons, despite a finding in early March that Adamsons had effectively been an agent of the KGB during his Soviet-era service as a Border Guard. Opinions differ on whether the decision violates the country's election law, which bans former KGB operatives from parliament.
* State Revenues Service chief Andrejs Sonciks believes that some 40 percent of tax revenues are bypassing the state treasury.
* Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis visited the United States from 17-22 March. While in Washington, Kristovskis met with various officials to discuss developments in Latvia's defense sphere. Kristovskis also traveled to Michigan to meet with officials of the Michigan National Guard, which has a partnership with the Latvian Home Guard.
* Renowned composer and music professor Adolfs Skulte died at the age of 90. The Kyiv-born composer is best known for teaching composition at the Latvian Academy of Music, passing on knowledge acquired from decades of composition and even instruction from the famous Jazeps Vitols. He had been a professor at the academy since 1952.
* The SKDS polling firm reported on 20 March that 51 percent of Latvians are worried about the "Americanization" of Latvian culture. The percentage rose by a fraction from a similar poll in 1998.
* Unemployment as of the end of February stood at 9.1 percent. The highest regional jobless rate remains in Rezekne, where unemployment stands at 27.7 percent.
* Latvia's producer price index rose by 0.1 percent in February.
Lithuania Holds Local Elections
Lithuanians went to the polls on 19 March to vote for local councils in 60 municipalities in what is seen as a trial run of the parliamentary elections due in autumn. Turnout was about 52 percent nationwide. Provisional results from the State Election Commission showed that the parties winning the most seats are the New Alliance (Social Liberals), followed by the Peasants' Party, and the Conservatives (see "End Note" below).Jailed Lithuanian Deputy Returns
Audrius Butkevicius, convicted and jailed for bribery, returned to parliament on 20 March after being released on parole. The disgraced deputy, who served about two and a half years in jail, continues to maintain his innocence, calling his red-handed arrest "a political provocation," BNS reported. In a controversial June 1999 session, the parliament failed to revoke then-jailed Butkevicius's mandate, earning the wrath of President Valdas Adamkus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 1999). As a result of his parolee status until 2001, Butkevicius cannot run in the fall parliamentary elections.Lithuanian War Crimes Case To Restart
The case against suspected war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis is due to restart soon in Vilnius Regional Court, as an appellate court returned the case following the legalization of trials in absentia. Legislation passed in February allows defendants who cannot be physically present in the courtroom to be tried, providing them the ability to monitor proceedings by closed-circuit television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2000). Lileikis' attorney said that his client has become even more infirm, and that the ex post facto usage of the new regulation violates Lileikis' constitutional rights, ELTA reported. The trial has been suspended since September 1999 due to Lileikis' declining health.
* President Valdas Adamkus' office said on 17 March that Adamkus would veto newly-passed amendments on the registration of residences until Soviet-era provisions for mandatory registration are lifted. Adamkus also criticized the ruling Conservative Party for not getting rid of the obsolete regulations during the past 10 years of independence.
* The government approved a disaster plan on 22 March to deal with any potential mishaps at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The plan incorporates environmental issues, mobilization of military forces for assistance, funding for any crisis, and other actions during an emergency. The accident classification system is drawn on EU and International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines.
* Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas visited China from 19-26 March. During his visit Saudargas met with various officials, including Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, and signed an agreement on civil and criminal legal assistance.
* The parliament on 21 March approved the Lithuanian-Russian agreement on the promotion and protection of investments.
* Labor Minister Irena Degutiene and Belarusian Welfare Minister Olha Darhel signed on 17 March an agreement on the mutual recognition of pension status. The new agreement allows for the possibility of individuals to receive pensions from both states.
* Lithuania's producer price index rose by 0.6 percent in February.
Local Elections Rock Lithuania's Political Boat
By Mel Huang
Local elections held in Lithuania on 19 March rocked the political establishment, as fringe and minor parties claimed victory over the established political elite. Lithuanians, angered by the economic downturn and disenchanted with endless political squabbles, placed much of their faith in smaller, untested political parties to govern their local councils. Political observers warn, with some alarm, that this outpouring of disenchantment with the political establishment may reoccur in the autumn parliamentary elections.
The center-left New Alliance (Social Liberals), founded by former prosecutor-general and presidential candidate Arturas Paulauskas, is claiming victory on the strength of winning 270 local council seats nationwide. The party took first place in races for more than a dozen of the 60 councils, including the industrial city of Siauliai. In addition, the party came in a strong second in most other large cities including Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda. Such impressive results will assure the party a role in the formation of governing coalitions.
Paulauskas campaigned to redistribute state funds away from defense and to education--an issue which appears to have struck a chord with voters. Although Paulauskas stressed the party is pro-NATO and is interested in increasing defense spending, his singular call to temper that increase, when compared to the other larger political parties, gave the New Alliance a unique position on that issue. Also, by adopting left-of-center positions, Paulauskas gained the votes of those disenchanted with the ongoing left-right feud between the ex-communist Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDDP) and the ruling Conservatives, as well as those confused about the platform of the Center Union.
The success of the fringe Peasants' Party, headed by ex-collective farm boss and current parliament deputy Ramunas Karbauskis, was also surprising. The economic and export crisis of August 1998 left its heaviest toll on Lithuania's rural economy. Recovery from the 1998 crisis has been slowed by the lack of state funds to pay back subsidies and VAT refunds. Taking advantage of rural discontent, the Peasants' Party was able to win a total of 209 seats and take control of 15 county councils--two with absolute majorities.
Since the start of the 1998 economic crisis, Karbauskis has campaigned systematically among Lithuania's discontented rural populace. During the summer of 1999 he helped stage several large-scale protests. Though they were not on the scale of similar confrontations in Poland, Karbauskis clearly sees himself as the "Andrzej Lepper" of Lithuania in rallying farmers to his political cause. Karbauskis has announced that, if the Peasants' Party repeats its success in the parliamentary elections, he will campaign against Lithuania's integration into the EU and its membership in the WTO, calling both disadvantageous to Lithuanian agriculture.
Despite a strong standing in pre-election polls, the Liberal Union fared relatively poorly, coming in sixth nationwide with only 166 seats. Although the total number is disappointing for charismatic ex-Premier Rolandas Paksas's party, the Liberals appear to have captured two major councils--those of their traditional stronghold Klaipeda and the capital, Vilnius. The party's success can be attributed largely to the popularity of its new leader, especially in Vilnius, where Paksas was a popular mayor. Outside of Vilnius, the party did poorly, capturing only a handful of councils. Even the stronghold of Klaipeda may be lost if other parties manage to form a coalition to oust the only Liberal-led council before the election.
The results from the second largest city, Kaunas, presented political watchers with their greatest shock, as the radical Freedom Union, led by populist politician Vytautas Sustauskas, won 11 of 41 total seats. Sustauskas is best known for organizing street protests such as the "march of the poor" and the "feast of the homeless," which forced the cancellation in January of the annual Vienna Ball charity event in Vilnius (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2000).
Observers are concerned that the outpouring of support for the Freedom Union reflects only a portion of the level of popular discontent in the country's second largest city. If Sustauskas can muster the support of the New Alliance and another party, he could very likely become the mayor of the interwar provisional capital. His anti-foreigner and anti-foreign investment positions, in turn, could jeopardize several major projects in Kaunas, including the planned leasing of utility Kauno Energija (Kaunas Energy) to Sweden's Vattenfall.
The apparent losers in the local elections were the five established parties that earned deputies in the last parliamentary election: the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats, the Centrists, the Social Democrats, and the LDDP. The Conservatives, for example, dropped from nearly 500 seats to just under 200--although they fared much better than pre-election polls indicated. One example of how much the political climate has changed is the apparent willingness of top Conservative party officials to consider local council coalitions with their arch-rival, the LDDP, suggesting that ideological differences at the local level have become less important. The Centrists, poised for victory before the emergence late last year of the Liberal Union, also fared poorly, and were fifth with 172 seats. The Social Democrats and Christian Democrats--saddled by recent splits--saw their internal crises reflected in their election results and only won about 100 seats each.
Lithuania's political landscape has been significantly altered by the 2000 local elections. Voters expressed their anger and discontent with the five established parties, regardless of political orientation. Smaller parties from various parts of the political spectrum found success at the expense of their more established brethren. These small parties now must prove that they can govern at the local level, in order to retain the support of their voters nationally. The local elections offer a hint of what may come in the fall--when voters will determine who will lead Lithuania for the next four years.