3 January 2003, Volume 4, Number 1
NOTE TO READERS:
This issue covers events in the Baltic states from 14 to 27 December 2002.
REGIONALBALTIC ASSEMBLY SESSION SETS PRIORITIES FOR 2003.
The Baltic Assembly session in Riga on 13 and 14 December adopted final documents, several resolutions, and a 2003 budget, BNS reported. Among the most important changes approved were extending the term of the Baltic Assembly presidency from six months to one year, scheduling the assembly's sessions to coincide with meetings of the Baltic Council of Ministers, and organizing annual conferences about issues of major importance to the Baltic states. The resolutions dealt with Baltic integration into NATO, antidrug measures, and greater cooperation in the areas of science and research. The presidency will pass to Lithuania at the end of the year, with Giedre Purnaveckiene, head of the Seimas's delegation, chairing the new presidium. Under the new procedures, the next Baltic Assembly session will take place on 28-30 November 2003 in Vilnius.
ESTONIAPARLIAMENT SETS EU REFERENDUM DATE, ADOPTS EUROPARLIAMENT ELECTION LAW.
By a vote of 88 to one with one abstention, the parliament on 18 December approved a referendum on EU membership for 14 September 2003, based on a recommendation from the Constitutional Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2002). Voters will be asked to answer the question, "Do you support Estonia's accession to the European Union and the adoption of a law amending the Estonian Constitution?" Lawmakers on 18 December also adopted a European Parliament election law, clearing a path for the country's elections to that chamber on 13 June 2004, ETA reported. Estonia is entitled to elect six deputies for five-year terms. According to the law, a candidate must be at least 21 years old and an Estonian citizen or an EU citizen permanently residing in Estonia. Only political parties appearing under their own name and single candidates can compete for seats. A party list may contain a maximum of 12 names, and members of parties are banned from running on the list of another party.
POLICE SIGN COOPERATION AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIAN LAW-ENFORCEMENT BODY.
The director-general of Estonia's national police, Harry Tuul, and Major General Boris Uemlyanin, the chief of the Russian Interior Ministry's Northwest District, signed a cooperation agreement in Tallinn on 27 December, BNS reported. The document names the agencies that will cooperate and their responsibilities. Tuul noted that cooperation between the countries' law-enforcement agencies has been ongoing, and the signing only formalized its legal basis. The two sides agreed to cooperate in fighting organized crime, terrorism, and the illegal trade in weapons and drugs, as well as to intensify exchanges of information and to conduct joint surveillance activities, in-service training, and consultations.
GOVERNMENT STUDY CRITICIZES DAIRY SECTOR.
A study of the country's dairy sector prepared by the Agriculture Ministry found that farming practices are inefficient, having excessive investments while paying insufficient attention to specialization, BNS and ETA reported on 19 December. In 1999-2001, 504 million kroons ($30 million) was invested in the dairy industry to raise daily production capacity to 2,500 tons, but dairy companies purchased only about 1,420 tons of milk a day in the first nine months of the year. In its EU membership talks, Estonia initially applied for a milk-production quota of 900,000 tons in 2004 and later said it would be satisfied with 750,000 tons. The EU agreed to a 624,500-ton quota, but if current trends continue, Estonia will not even be able to fulfill that figure. From January to September 2002 , the country produced 487,500 tons of milk, which is 8.4 percent less than the 528,600 tons produced in the same period during the previous year.
PARLIAMENT REJECTS BILL CUTTING WAIT FOR CITIZENSHIP.
A bill proposed by four Center Party deputies last December to halve the waiting time between filing a citizenship application and becoming a citizen failed when it received just 47 of the 75 votes cast in parliament on 17 December, BNS reported. Passage required an overall majority of 51 votes in the 101-seat parliament. The bill would have reduced the waiting period from 12 to six months but would not have changed the requirement that a person reside in Estonia for at least five years with a permanent-residency permit to be eligible for citizenship. The bill was supported by deputies from the ruling Center and Reform parties, while deputies from the Pro Patria Union, Moderates, and People's Union voted against or abstained.
RED CROSS TO COLLECT APPLICATIONS FROM VICTIMS OF SOVIET REPRESSION.
The cabinet on 17 December supported a decision of the Red Cross to start gathering applications in 2003 for compensation from people who suffered under Soviet repression, BNS reported. The Red Cross had sent a letter to the government, announcing its readiness to engage in collecting applications for compensation and requested legal guidelines for organizing such work. The government said the Red Cross as an apolitical, nongovernmental organization is well-suited to the task, as it already has been collecting applications from people who suffered under Nazi repression.
CANADA REOPENS PORTS TO FISHING VESSELS.
Canada reopened its ports to Estonian fishing vessels after officials on 15 December acceded to terms stemming from a long-running shrimping dispute, BNS and ETA reported the next day. Canadian Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault said after the deal was struck that Estonia agreed to all the conditions set by Canada. Estonia will thus permit Canadian observers aboard all its vessels fishing in Canadian waters, even if they are leased to another country. Charging that it had "clear evidence of violations" of shrimp-fishing quotas off its eastern seaboard, Canada closed its ports to fishing boats from Estonia in April. Estonia countered that Canadian estimates were incorrect and that it was not exceeding the quotas.
RUSSIAN-ORIENTED PARTIES UNITE.
Three political parties, the Russian Baltic Party, Unity of Estonia, and the Russian Unity Party, merged with the Russian Party in Estonia on 21 December, BNS reported on 23 December. Those three parties will set up liquidation committees and wind down all independent activities. Meanwhile, a congress of the Russian Party in Estonia elected the leader of the Russian Baltic Party, Stanislav Cherepanov, as chairman and the heads of the other three parties as deputy chairmen. The list of deputy chairmen includes Nikolai Maspanov (Russian Party in Estonia), Igor Pisarev (Unity of Estonia), and Alfrida Liivak (Russian Unity Party). The 35-year-old Cherepanov said the party's policy-making council will draw up goals for the March parliamentary elections and present a list of candidates by the 15 January deadline. Another party of Russian speakers, the Estonian United People's Party, did not participate in the merger.
* Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland and Finnish Foreign Trade Minister Jari Vilen agreed in Tallinn on 18 December that they oppose the proposals to create an institution of President of the European Union and a Peoples' Congress, BNS reported. They also discussed other EU-related matters such as Estonia's plans to hold a referendum on EU membership on 14 September.
* Foreign Ministry official Andres Tropp and Czech Deputy Minister of Trade Miroslav Somol signed an agreement in Tallinn on 20 December that will introduce more-favorable terms for exporting Estonian agricultural produce to the Czech Republic starting in 2003, BNS reported. The signing took place at a meeting of the joint committee of the Estonian-Czech free-trade agreement.
* Estonian and Russian delegations met in Pskov and agreed on quotas for fish catches in Lakes Peipsi, Lammi, and Pskov in 2003, BNS reported on 16 December. The quotas will be 5,755 tons for Russia and 4,305 tons for Estonia. In 2002, Russian fishermen caught 5,387 tons and Estonian fishermen 3,805 tons.
* "Eesti Paevaleht" wrote on 16 December that the modern FPS-117 primary radar system purchased from Lockheed Martin for 239 million kroons ($18.7 million) has arrived in Estonia, ETA reported. The assembly of the radar will depend on weather conditions, but the radar is expected to be in operation by the middle of February. The radar has a range of more than 400 kilometers and will be linked with a similar system in Latvia and the regional airspace control center in Lithuania.
* President Arnold Ruutel, parliamentary chairman Toomas Savi, and Prime Minister Siim Kallas made a joint statement on 16 December calling on the Estonian people to vote for joining the EU, ETA reported. They asserted that joining the EU is a firm guarantee for the development of a free society in Estonia and for the existence of Estonia in the future.
* Thirty-seven leading intellectuals, public figures, and business leaders in Estonia issued a statement on 14 December in which they welcomed the conclusion of accession negotiations with the EU and stressed the importance of this historic event, BNS reported. It stated, "After a long, forced separation, Western and Eastern Europe are becoming a single whole continent again."
* An eight-member Estonian delegation led by Defense Ministry Chancellor Indrek Kannik discussed military cooperation with Georgian officials in Tbilisi on 18 December, BNS reported. The delegation expressed a willingness to share the country's experience in applying for NATO membership and in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. Estonia agreed to assist Georgia with advice on how to speed up the withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory. Georgia is requesting that Russia vacate its bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki within three years, while Russia is asking to remain for at least 10 to 14 years.
* By a vote of 40 to 33, the parliament passed a bill on 17 December granting local governments the right to set up municipal police forces, BNS reported. Municipal police will have the right to carry firearms and conduct misdemeanor proceedings, prepare minutes, and impose fines but not the right to conduct pretrial investigations. They will be financed by local governments.
* The Tallinn district court decided on 19 December to reject the appeal by former KGB agent Yurii Karpov, who was convicted of crimes against humanity for rounding up dozens of people deemed enemies of the communist regime in 1949 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 November 2002), BNS reported. He had been given an eight-year sentence, which was suspended due to his age, 81, but he still has to pay a fine of 3,700 kroons ($240).
* Seventeen current deputies in the parliament have announced that they will not be competing in the upcoming parliamentary elections in March, ETA reported on 23 December. They include eight deputies from the Reform Party, four from the Center Party, two from the Pro Patria Union, as well as former Prime Minister Mart Siimann of the Coalition Party.
* East-Viru County Governor Rein Aidma, who recently joined the Reform Party, asked a court on 27 December to revoke the decision of the Kohtla-Jarve City Council on 14 November to appoint Center Party deputy Valeri Korb as the city's mayor, BNS reported. The council had not fulfilled his request on 4 December to remove Korb, because his appointment violated the Estonian Public Service Act, which bans the admission into public service of people who are under pretrial investigation for crimes that can carry a sentence of imprisonment.
LATVIADATE FOR REFERENDUM ON EU MEMBERSHIP SET.
The government decided on 27 December to conduct a referendum on Latvia's entry to the European Union on 20 September 2003, LETA reported. On 23 December, ministers resolved to grant the country's Central Election Commission 1.14 million lats ($1.82 million) for organizing the referendum. The cabinet instructed the State Chancellery and the European Integration Office to decide between themselves who will be responsible for the coordination and implementation of the related public-information campaign. Latvia will be the last of the Baltic states to hold the plebiscite, as Estonia will hold its referendum on 14 September and Lithuania most likely on 11 May.
DELEGATES TO FUTURE OF EUROPE CONVENTION REPLACED.
The chairman of the New Era faction in parliament, Arturs Krisjanis Karins, said on 16 December that some of Latvia's delegates to the EU's Future of Europe Convention will be replaced, LETA reported. Rihards Piks of the People's Party was the only one of four deputies slated as delegates or alternates to a meeting of the convention in February (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 5 March 2002) who was re-elected to parliament in October. Karins said New Era's Liene Liepina and Piks will be delegates, while he and Arvids Ulme from the Union of Greens and Farmers will serve as alternates. The government will continue to be represented at the convention by Transportation Minister Roberts Zile, who was minister for international financial affairs in the previous government. Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete will be his alternate.
BORDER GUARD SERVICE DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY AT RUSSIAN BORDER.
The Latvian Border Guard Service declared a state of emergency at the Terehova border checkpoint with Russia because of actions by the Russian Customs Service on 19 December, BNS reported. Since midnight on 15 December, Russian customs officials have refused to admit Russian passenger cars with transit numbers unless drivers pay a tax and convoying charges totaling $400-$650. The action has resulted in a massive line of hundreds of trucks and passenger cars at the checkpoint. Complaining that they were not informed of the planned changes and that they lack the necessary funds, as well as food and drinking water, 106 residents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan presented a letter to the Latvian Border Guard Service asking that it inform the presidents of their own republics and Russia of their plight. Foreign Ministry Undersecretary of State Andris Teikmanis told BNS that the Russian Embassy in Riga was unaware of the legislative changes causing the situation, adding that Latvia would issue a demarche to the Russian Embassy the next day.
NEW PHARE MEMORANDUM SIGNED.
Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and the head of the European Commission delegation in Latvia, Andrew Rasbash, signed a financial memorandum on the PHARE National Program 2002 (the EU's assistance program) in Riga on 18 December, LETA reported. The program provides for the implementation of 18 projects totaling 42.5 million euros ($43.6 million), of which PHARE will provide 32.14 million euros and Latvia 10.36 million euros. Dombrovskis said he considers an integrated coast-guard system (5.07 million euros) and bolstered customs (5.4 million euros) the most significant projects. All agreements for the projects must be concluded by 15 October 2004 and the financing paid out by 15 October 2005. Rasbash said the EU is "very satisfied with how Latvia is moving on in the accession process," adding that this will be the last PHARE program signed with Latvia, which has been invited to become a member of the EU.
RIGHT-WING PARTY ELECTS NEW CHAIRMAN.
The party congress of the For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK elected former parliamentary chairman Janis Straume the party's new chairman in Riga on 14 December, LETA reported the next day. Maris Grinblats resigned as chairman after the parliamentary elections in October, in which the party lost 10 of its 17 seats. The 466 delegates at the congress gave Straume 309 votes and Riga City Councilman Valdis Kalnozols 134 votes. The congress also elected Janis Birks, Juris Boldans, Einars Cilinskis, Juris Dobelis, Maris Grinblats, Janis Grube, Guntars Krasts, Girts Valdis Kristovskis, Inese Vaidere, and Roberts Zile to a 10-member executive board.
SOCIALIST PARTY RE-ELECTS CHAIRMAN, CALLS FOR COMMUNIST REVIVAL...
The Eighth Congress of the Latvian Socialist Party in Riga re-elected Alfreds Rubiks as party chairman in Riga on 21 December, LETA reported. Filips Stroganovs, Martijans Bekasovs, and Sergejs Hristolubovs were elected as his deputies. The congress made several amendments to its statutes, one of which is a new party slogan: "Power to the people, not the capital!" It also adopted a resolution demanding the right to hold public office for people who were members of the Communist Party, the early-1990s anti-independence group called Interfront, or similar organizations after 13 January 1991. The congress also called for a revival of the Latvian Communist Party, a move that would present problems within the For Human Rights United Latvia alliance, since one of its three partners, the National Harmony Party, is against such a proposal.
...AS RULING COALITION OPPOSES REVIVING COMMUNIST PARTY.
Leading figures from the four-party ruling coalition made it clear that they will not support the restoration of the Communist Party in Latvia, BNS reported on 23 December. New Era parliamentary-caucus chairman Arturs Krisjanis Karins said, "The Communist Party is an antistate organization, and we do not need any such organization." Union of Greens and Farmers faction head Augusts Brigmanis noted that his party opposes such a measure, asserting, "I doubt whether this [party's reemergence] could be possible in modern Latvia." Latvia's First Party faction Chairwoman Jevgenija Stalidzane said, "I think the Communist Party will find rebirth very hard; I hope it will be very difficult for them." For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK Chairman Janis Straume simply called such a revival "impossible."
LATVIAN-VIETNAMESE RELATIONS SAID TO BE DEVELOPING SUCCESSFULLY.
Vietnamese Ambassador to Latvia Nguyen Van Nganh, on an accreditation visit to Riga from his residency in Moscow, held talks with Foreign Ministry Undersecretary of State Teikmanis on 17 December, LETA reported. He said relations between the countries are stable, constructive, and developing successfully, demonstrating that differing historic and cultural traditions, as well as geographical distances, are no obstacle to good mutual relations. Noting that Latvia's foreign-policy priorities include integration into the EU and NATO, Teikmanis explained, "Our bilateral relations will be a part of [the] Vietnamese-EU dialogue in the near future." In concluding the meeting, Van Nganh extended an invitation from his foreign minister to Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete to pay an official visit to Vietnam.
* Romanian Defense Minister Ion Mircea Pascu made an official visit to Latvia on 17 and 18 December, LETA reported. He discussed with his Latvian counterpart Girts Valdis Kristovskis the results of the Prague NATO summit at which both countries received invitations to join the alliance and the contribution of EU candidate countries to the common security and defense system of Europe. Pascu also held talks with Latvia's armed forces commander Brigadier General Raimonds Graube and the chairman of the parliament's Defense and Internal Affairs Commission, Arnolds Laksa.
* Foreign Minister Kalniete signed an agreement on Latvia's participation in the EU police mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina shortly before the NATO summit in Prague, LETA reported on 17 December. According to the agreement, the first group of four Latvian policemen will depart for service in early 2003. The EU formally takes over the UN police mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the beginning of 2003.
* In an interview in the Russian-language daily "Chas" on 20 December, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga expressed support for the idea of making 7 January, Russian Orthodox Christmas, a public holiday, BNS reported. Latvia's First Party, which has several clergymen among its leaders, submitted a bill to the parliament the previous day proposing this action. It is clear that it will not be a holiday in 2003, because the parliament will hold its next session only on 14 January.
* At the annual meeting of Latvian ambassadors in Riga on 17 December, Foreign Minister Kalniete and Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins declared that Latvia will need a new foreign-policy concept after joining the EU and NATO and asked for suggestions, BNS reported. Kalniete said that the new memberships will impose a new responsibility to see that "the region bordering...Europe should evolve into [an] area of stability." On 19 December, Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers discussed with the ambassadors the possibility of activating Latvia's economic representations abroad with the help of embassies.
* The final statement released by the International Monetary Fund mission to Latvia approved of the Bank of Latvia's monetary policy of pegging the national currency, the lats, to the SDR (special drawing right), LETA reported on 18 December. According to the report, the policy had helped to guarantee a low rate of inflation while maintaining external competitiveness and boosting the development of the financial sector. The report noted that the budget deficit was too high and called on the government to postpone its plans to reduce the corporate income-tax and social-tax rates.
* The Naturalization Administration announced on 27 December that more than 9,000 people received Latvian citizenship under its naturalization procedure in 2002, BNS reported. Some 55,000 people have obtained citizenship in this way, but there are still about 500,000 residents in the country without Latvian citizenship. The administration's head, Eizenija Aldermane, told reporters on 27 December that she expects 120,000 to 150,000 noncitizens to become naturalized in the future.
* Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis signed a 33 million-euro loan from the European Investment Bank for investments into the reconstruction of the Latvian segment of the Via Baltica road, BNS reported on 23 December. The funds are to be used by 30 June 2004, but the loan is to be repaid in 20 years.
* The National Statistics Office announced on 16 December that in the first nine months of 2002 the gross domestic product increased by 5.4 percent compared to 2001, BNS reported. The increase was primarily due to growth in trade by 11.8 percent, in the food-processing industry by 6.3 percent, in commercial services by 5.3 percent, and in construction by 7.5 percent. The growth was 3.8 percent in the first quarter, 4.6 percent in second, and 7.4 percent in the third.
* In its last meeting in 2002 on 27 December, the government decided to increase the monthly minimum wage in the country from 60 lats ($96) to 70 lats from the beginning of the new year, BNS reported. The minimum hourly wage will be set at 0.419 lats ($0.67).
LITHUANIACHALLENGERS FORCE RUNOFF IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.
Incumbent Valdas Adamkus was the top vote getter in the Lithuanian presidential election on 22 December with 35.06 percent of the vote, according to official returns cited by ELTA. Rolandas Paksas, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chairman and a former prime minister, finished second with 19.4 percent of the popular vote. Adamkus and Paksas will compete in a runoff election on 5 January, since no candidate received more than 50 percent of the total vote. Parliamentary chairman Arturas Paulauskas was third (8.2 percent), followed by television humorist Vytautas Serenas (7.65 percent), Social Democratic Party (LSDP) First Deputy Chairman Vytenis Andriukaitis (7.2 percent), and Union of Peasants and New Democracy Union (VNDPS) Chairwoman Kazimiera Prunskiene (4.97 percent). Although there were 17 candidates, only about 1.47 million of 2.72 million eligible voters (53.92 percent) participated -- considerably lower than the 71 percent that voted in the 1997 presidential election.
URBAN-RURAL SPLIT APPARENT IN LOCAL ELECTION RESULTS.
Together with the presidential elections, Lithuanian voters also cast ballots to fill 1,560 local-council seats from among 10,138 candidates in 60 municipalities and counties, ELTA reported. The most successful parties in order of seats won were: the LSDP with 332 seats, Homeland Union (Conservatives of Lithuania) (TSLK) with 193, the VNDPS with 190, Liberal Union with 150, Center Union with 156, New Union (Social Liberals) (NSSL) with 138, the LDP with 129, and the Christian Democrats with 116. The LSDP was the main winner, adding 56 more seats than its former component parts, the Democratic Labor Party and the Social Democratic Party, had won in the previous local elections in 2000. The NSSL was the biggest loser, falling from first place in 2000 with 270 seats to sixth place. Most of the other major parties lost a small number of seats but maintained their relative positions. The Liberal Union achieved the distinction of being the top vote getter in the three largest cities: Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda.
COURT BANS SIMULTANEOUS MEMBERSHIP IN PARLIAMENT AND LOCAL COUNCILS.
The country's Constitutional Court decided on 24 December that parliamentary deputies cannot serve simultaneously as members of local councils, "Kauno diena" reported on 27 December. The justices ruled that the president, parliamentary deputies, cabinet members, judges, and other individuals to whom the constitution assigns special status cannot be local councilmen, as they would thus enjoy different status from other deputies. The ruling enters into force on 25 February. In local elections on 22 December, 81 parliamentary deputies competed, and 67 were victorious. They will now have to decide between those mandates before the first meeting of local councils. Twenty-six deputies in the current parliament sit on local councils. The court also ruled that the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers in local communities does not allow a mayor to be a member of the council that elects him. Legislation on elections to local councils thus will have to be amended, as it currently provides for the mayor and other members of the local executive to be selected from among elected members of the local council.
GOVERNMENT PERMITS RUSSIAN CONSULATE IN KAUNAS.
The cabinet decided on 18 December to grant Russia permission to open a consulate in Lithuania's second-largest city, Kaunas, BNS reported. Lithuanian citizens must have visas to travel to Kaliningrad Oblast from 1 July 2003. Russia, meanwhile, has not yet approved a Lithuanian request filed several years ago to open a consulate in Sovetsk in Kaliningrad Oblast. The director of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry's Consular Department, Gediminas Siaudvytis, told a press conference in Kaliningrad that he will not be able to sign a planned Lithuanian-Russian travel agreement on 19 December because the Russian government has not yet finalized it. Kaliningrad Oblast Deputy Governor Mikhail Tsikel countered that the agreement will be signed "in a few days." Lithuanian officials have expressed concern over the delay, since the existing travel agreement expires on 1 January, and the new agreement should offer a simplified visa for haulers, railway employees, and passenger-transport crews.
PHARE MEMORANDA SIGNED WITH EU.
Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite and the head of the European Commission's delegation to Lithuania, Michael Graham, signed four financial memoranda in Vilnius on 19 December for 103.7 million euros in PHARE assistance to Lithuania, BNS reported. The greatest share of funds will go toward the decommissioning of the nuclear-power plant at Ignalina. PHARE will provide 6.3 million euros to finance the Business Support Project, which will be aimed at promoting business development in Lithuania and helping prepare for administering EU structural funds. Some 14.1 million euros will be used to support five projects of economic and social cohesion. All the contracts to implement the projects specified in the memoranda are to be concluded by 30 November 2004 and the work completed by 30 November 2005.
MILITARY-COOPERATION PLAN SIGNED WITH ROMANIA.
Romanian Defense Minister Ion Mircea Pascu and his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevicius participated in the signing ceremony for a bilateral military-cooperation plan for 2003 in Vilnius on 16 December, ELTA reported. It calls for a visit by the Romanian Army's commander to Lithuania, political and military consultations, a study trip by Lithuanian military officers to the regional Partnership for Peace training center in Bucharest, and other training exchanges, among other things. The two countries have signed such plans every year since 1998. Prior to the signing, the defense ministers discussed their respective troops serving in Afghanistan and the possible fields of specialization for their militaries now that both have received invitations to join NATO.
FITCH RAISES CREDIT RATING.
Fitch IBCA credit-rating agency announced on 17 December that it is increasing Lithuania's rating for the second time this year, ELTA reported. Lithuania's rating for long-term loans in local currency was raised from BBB+ to A-. The rating for long-term loans in foreign currencies was hiked from BBB- to BBB. Fitch said the increases were a result of the country's consistent structural reforms, government commitment to maintaining a low fiscal deficit, a balanced state budget, and a moderate level of foreign debt. A successful privatization program, restructuring in the energy sector, and an improved business environment should allow the country to post annual GDP growth of 5-6 percent, the agency forecast. Fitch also increased the rating for long-term loans in foreign currencies for Vilnius Bankas, owned by Sweden's SEB, and for Lietuvos Zemes Ukio Bankas (Lithuanian Agricultural Bank), owned by Germany's Nord/LB, from BBB- to BBB.
* The cabinet approved on 16 December an interim agreement, which was signed by Lithuanian and Belarusian officials in Minsk on 26 November, on travel between the two countries, BNS reported. The agreement, which will go into force on 1 January 2003, provides for a simplified visa-issuing procedure for haulers, people over the age of 70, handicapped people, border residents, and people visiting their relatives' graves in the neighboring country. The agreement should remain in force until Lithuania joins the visa-free Schengen system.
* The Defense Ministry and the NATO Economic Committee organized a forum titled "The Experience of Baltic Regional Economic Cooperation and Its Application in the South Caucasus Countries" in Vilnius on 16 and 17 December, BNS reported. Representatives from the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania attended the forum, the aim of which was to assist Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to start practical regional cooperation based on the successful experience of the Baltic states.
* Vice President of the European Economic and Social Committee Uno Westerlund informed Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas in Vilnius on 17 December about the newly founded EU-Lithuanian joint consultative committee, ELTA reported. The committee will have 12 members, half of whom will be representatives of Lithuanian nongovernmental organizations.
* The Kaliningrad administration released data on 16 December showing that Lithuania is the largest foreign investor in the oblast, BNS reported. A total of 498 enterprises, accounting for 27.4 percent of all joint ventures and foreign-owned companies, are operating in the oblast with Lithuanian capital. In the first eleven months of the year, Lithuania's investments in the stock capital of Kaliningrad-based companies totaled 5.72 million euros, while Germany's and Poland's investments were worth 4 million euros and 1.43 million euros, respectively.
* The head of the European Commission Enlargement Directorate-General, Eneco Landaburu Illaramendi, sent Lithuania's chief EU negotiator Petras Austrevicius a letter informing him that the commission plans to give Lithuania an additional 30 million euros from the PHARE program to finance the closing of the nuclear power plant at Ignalina, BNS reported on 16 December. The letter stated that the assistance will be provided from the PHARE program for 2003 and will be in addition to the 285 million euros envisaged for the period of 2004-2006.
* Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis told BNS on 18 December that the referendum on Lithuania's membership in the European Union will probably be held on 11 May 2003. He said that the date was chosen because it occurs during the period after the accession treaty is signed in Athens in April but before it is ratified by Lithuania's parliament.
* The Argentinean tanker "Princess Pia," which ran aground near the port of Klaipeda on 11 December, was towed to the port and docked near the facilities of Klaipedos Nafta on 16 December after some of its cargo of 49,500 tons of fuel oil was transferred to other vessels, ELTA reported. Fortunately, no oil was spilled from the tanker, which soon will be taken to a Polish shipyard for repairs.
* The chairman of the board of Mazeikiai Oil, Mikhail Brudno, who is also the vice president of the Russian oil company Yukos, announced on 19 December that American Paul Nelson English, a former senior vice president of the refining and chemical division of El Paso/Coastal Corporation, had been appointed the chief executive officer of Mazeikiai Oil, ELTA reported. The board meeting also decided to save money by closing the company's representative offices in Vilnius, Kyiv, and Moscow.
* The cabinet appointed the vice dean of Vilnius University's Law Faculty, Danute Jociene, as the country's new representative to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 18 December, ELTA reported. She replaced Deputy Justice Minister Gintaras Svedas, who had held the post since September 1995 but had to resign because of changes in the law on state service, which came into force in July.