10 February 2003, Volume
NOTE TO READERS:
This issue covers events in the Baltic states from 25 to 31 January 2003.
OPPOSITION PARTIES CALL FOR INTERIOR MINISTER'S RESIGNATION.
Twenty-eight deputies of the Pro Patria Union and Moderates factions on 29 January initiated a no-confidence motion against Ain Seppik, ETA and BNS reported. The motion was prompted by newspaper articles that morning charging that Seppik, while a judge in 1985, participated in the sentencing on fabricated charges of youths opposed to the Soviet regime. After talks with Seppik and Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar, Prime Minister Siim Kallas said he has asked Legal Chancellor Allar Joks to look into the possibility that Seppik violated his oath of conscience. The no-confidence motion will be discussed in parliament on 10 February. Seppik has denied the charges, saying the youths were charged with hooliganism for vandalizing a national monument with Nazi symbols and setting fire to a Soviet monument. The board of the Center Party voted the charges are false and that there is no reason for Seppik to resign.COALITION PARTIES TO SEEK EXTENSION OF LOCAL POLITICAL MANDATES.
The Center and Reform parties' coalition council expressed support on 27 January for convening an extraordinary parliamentary session, most likely on 25 February, to debate a constitutional amendment to extend the terms of local councils from three to four years, BNS reported. The council would like the amendment to be passed by the current parliament before the upcoming parliamentary elections on 2 March. Reform Party Secretary-General Eero Tohver suggested that -- since opposition parties have signaled support for the extension -- those political groups will not oppose calling such a session after the last scheduled regular session of the current parliament on 13 February. Constitutional amendments require approval by the parliament on three occasions, with a period of at least one month between the second and third votes. The local term extensions were proposed in October and passed in a second reading on 22 January.GERMAN LAB FINDS DIOXIN LEVELS ACCEPTABLE IN FISH.
A German laboratory conducting tests on 15 fish samples from Estonia informed the Environmental Studies Center that the dioxin level in one of the fish, caught in the open part of the Baltic Sea, slightly exceeded allowed levels, ETA reported on 28 January. The results from five fish samples from the Gulf of Riga are expected later in the week. Estonian fishermen had feared less favorable results since recent tests conducted in the United Kingdom on Latvian fish revealed excessive dioxin levels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2003).RUSSIAN CHURCH LEADER AGAIN POSTPONES VISIT.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksii II, has postponed his planned 7-13 February visit to Estonia until May or June, BNS reported on 30 January. Leonti Morozkin, the press secretary for the Metropolitan of Tallinn, explained that the patriarch's physicians "have categorically advised him against undertaking such a trip now." The daily "Eesti Paevaleht" wrote the same day that Aleksii, who was born in Estonia in 1929, was planning during his visit to choose a gravesite for himself in the cemetery of the Pyhtitsa Convent in northeastern Estonia to which his parents brought him every year during his childhood.
* In meetings in Vienna with Austrian President Thomas Klestil, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, parliament Chairman Andreas Khol, and Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner on 29 and 30 January, Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland stressed that the planning of institutional changes in the EU should be based on the principle of equality of the member states, BNS reported. She also discussed political and economic relations between the two countries, Estonia's planned membership in NATO and the EU, and Baltic defense cooperation.
* Accompanied by his wife, Ingrid, President Arnold Ruutel began a four day trip to Sweden on 29 January, ETA reported. The next day after visiting the Estonian school in Stockholm during a lunch with parliament Chairman Bjorn von Sydow he discussed the future of the EU and the role of small countries within the organization. On 31 January Ruutel met with Prime Minister Goran Persson and later with King Carl XVI Gustaf, whom he invited to visit Estonia.
* Chairwoman of the Estonian Jewish community Cilja Laud, Chairman of the Association of Former Prisoners of Ghettos and Concentration Camps Vladimir Perelman, and Rabbi Shmuel Kot sent a letter to the Media House advertising agency asking it not to publish the advertisements of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which offer a reward of $10,000 for information leading to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Estonia, ETA reported on 29 January. Director of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office Efraim Zuroff called the decision of the agency not to publish the ad "shocking and unheard-of" and protested the action. Tartu University Semiotics Department head Peeter Torop said that although the text of the advertisement does not call for violence, it instigates ethnic hatred and "accuses Estonians as a nation of murdering Jews."
* Fulfilling the government decision in August, schools in Estonia marked 27 January as Holocaust Day for the first time, BNS reported. Education Minister Mailis Rand in a circular sent to the schools in the fall noted that not only the Nazi crimes against Jews but also all other victims persecuted for ethnic, racial, religious, and political reasons should be remembered. The ministry gave the schools a free hand in deciding how and in which classes the subject should be handled.
* The cabinet decided on 28 January that the country would not take part in Expo 2005 in Japan from 25 March to 25 September 2005. BNS reported. The decision was primarily based on the findings of the Economy Ministry that the costs of participation would be relatively high in comparison with its benefits to the economy. The cost of participation would have been at least 50 million kroons ($2.9 million) A total of 51 countries, including Latvia and Lithuania, had announced their participation by October 2002.
* Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts mentioned on 26 January three conditions that would be necessary for cooperation with the Reform Party after the 2 March parliamentary elections, BNS reported the next day. The first is a balanced budget, unlike that of 2002. The second is abandoning the policy of hiking taxes and duties at short notice, and the third is the demands for a professional army and the privatization of Tartu University.
* The government approved an increase in the salaries of the personnel of the police, the security police, and the Information Board, which is also a security agency, on 28 January, BNS reported. For example, the minimum monthly salary of police staff will increase by 250 kroons to 5,300 kroons ($365.66) on 1 July.
* The Statistics Office announced on 27 January that 620,700 tons of milk and 247.3 million eggs were produced in 2002, or decreases of 9 and 11 percent, respectively, compared to 2001, ETA reported on 27 January. A total of 92,000 tons (live weight) of livestock and poultry were sold for slaughter or about 1 percent more than last year.
PRESIDENT ATTENDS DAVOS ECONOMIC FORUM.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga was the only Baltic leader attending the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 23-28 January. On 25 January, Vike-Freiberga held talks with EU Commissioner for Education and Culture Viviene Reding on preserving Latvia's cultural heritage, LETA reported. Recalling her visit to Riga 10 years ago, Reding called the Latvian capital part of European culture and, like her homeland, Luxembourg, deserving of EU support for the preservation of historical monuments and cultural environment. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych asked Vike-Freiberga to share Latvia's experience in preparing for EU accession. The Latvian president also discussed the situation in Iraq with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. On 27 January Vike-Freiberga told participants at the "Global Leaders for Tomorrow" ceremony that only mutual understanding, compassion, and trust will promote global unity among various world regions.MILITARY-REFORM PLAN SUBMITTED TO NATO.
Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins told BNS on 28 January that Latvia submitted its draft military-reform plan to NATO headquarters in Brussels earlier that day. The reform plan has five sections: politics and economy, defense and military matters, information security, resources, and legal issues. "The purpose of the reform plan is to ensure that Latvia will be able to work in line with NATO standards by its accession to the alliance on 1 May 2004," Riekstins said. NATO officials were to examine the document and review it with Latvian officials on 4 February. NATO may propose certain amendments and alterations to the plan, which after revisions will be submitted to the government for approval. Riekstins noted that the plan will be made public once its final version is approved, except for certain items with "the status of restricted information."RULING PARTIES OPPOSE LOCAL VOTING RIGHTS FOR NONCITIZENS.
The leaders of the four parties in the ruling coalition told BNS on 25 January that they oppose the recent proposal by the Union of Citizens and Non-Citizens civic group to grant noncitizens the right to vote in local elections. The union submitted a similar proposal four years ago and has argued that noncitizens pay taxes and thus should have a say in their distribution, at least at the local level. For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK faction Chairman Maris Grinblats said such a move would lessen the desire of noncitizens to acquire citizenship and hinder their integration, resulting in a divided society. New Era faction Chairman Krisjanis Karins noted, "Our country has no restrictions preventing people from getting citizenship, but passing such legislative amendments may put the brakes on the naturalization process."IMF COMMENTS ON LARGE 2002 BUDGET DEFICIT.
Johannes Mueller, the head of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation visiting Latvia, told BNS on 29 January that Latvia's 2002 budget deficit of more than 2.5 percent of GDP was caused by the late adoption of budget amendments, the city of Riga's large budget deficit, and the central government's failure to curb unnecessary spending. Mueller noted that the deficit after 11 months was 26.7 million lats ($45 million), but ballooned to 71.6 million lats in December. Spending was curbed prior to the parliamentary elections in October, but extra allocations were subsequently passed and spent. Many municipal governments, especially Riga, also increased their deficits in the last months of the year. Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis explained that most of the postelection expenses such as compensation to farmers for drought damage were spent in December. IMF resident representative in Latvia Adalbert Knobl expressed regret that the goal of limiting the budget deficit to 1.8 percent of GDP was not met.HEALTH MINISTER SURVIVES NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE.
Parliament on 30 January rejected by a 41 to 56 vote a no-confidence motion against Health Minister Aris Auders, LETA reported. The opposition People's Party had demanded his dismissal for allegedly receiving double payment for surgery (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2003). After the vote, Prime Minister Einars Repse noted that Auders has made a number of mistakes but is not a "hardened criminal" and can prove his worth with successful reforms in the health-care system.PARLIAMENT APPOINTS NEW ARMY COMMANDER.
In a vote of 78 to 19 with one abstention, lawmakers on 30 January appointed Rear Admiral Gaidis Andrejs Zeibots commander of the National Armed Forces, LETA reported. He was to begin a four-year term, replacing Brigadier General Raimonds Graube, on 1 February. The 57-year-old Zeibots was nominated by President Vike-Freiberga. He previously commanded the Latvian Navy, was the senior officer in Latvia's delegation to NATO membership negotiations, and has been armed-forces deputy commander since 2002.PROBE FINDS THAT TAX CHIEF ACTED IMPROPERLY.
The State Civil Service Administration on 27 January recommended the dismissal of Andrejs Sonciks, the director-general of the State Revenue Service, LETA reported. The recommendation was based on the findings of a probe begun after the cabinet suspended Sonciks for allegedly failing to recover debts owed by Dinaz Nafta oil company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November 2002). Investigators concluded that Sonciks had information about the tax debts of Dinaz Nafta but nevertheless allowed the customs department to provide the company with guarantees for the import of oil products. The dismissal must still be approved by the government.
* In talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov and other ministry officials in Moscow on 31 January, Foreign Ministry Deputy State Secretary Andris Teikmanis reproached Russia over its terms for transit of energy resources via Latvia, for not promoting economic cooperation between the countries, and rejecting free-market principles, BNS reported. He noted that Russian policy did not comply with EU and the World Trade Organization principles for free trade. The officials also discussed the need for ensuring fast border-crossing procedures for truckers over the Latvian-Russian border.
* A delegation from the U.S.-NATO Committee, headed by Sally Painter, discussed investments in Latvia with Prime Minister Repse in Riga on 27 January, LETA reported. Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, Economy Minister Juris Lujans, Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, Regional Development and Local Government Affairs Minister Ivars Gaters, Environment Minister Raimonds Vejonis, and Agriculture Minister Martins Roze also attended the meeting. The delegation, which arrived in Latvia on 24 January, also held talks with businessmen and other officials before departing on 29 January.
* Presidential press secretary Aiva Rozenberga announced on 28 January that U.S. President George W. Bush had invited Vike-Freiberga to participate in the Presidents' Day events in Washington on 17 February, LETA reported. Vike-Freiberga was invited to speak about the values of a democratic and civil society.
* Vladimirs Lindermans, chairman of the Latvian civic group Uzvara (Victory), which serves as a front for the Russian National Bolsheviks, told BNS on 28 January that the Russian Interior Ministry had accepted his application for political asylum. In December the Latvian prosecutor-general had asked for his extradition from Russia, charging him with illegal possession of explosives and preparing appeals calling for the overthrow of the Latvian authorities. Lindermans said that since it can take up to six months for the application to be considered, he now feels free to work for the release of his comrades.
* The Justice Ministry transferred 2.15 million lats ($3.2 million) to the Swedish firm SwemBalt AB as compensation for dismantling the firm's ship "Feederchif" in Riga in 1996, LETA reported. The payment was made in accordance with a ruling of the Copenhagen Maritime Affairs and Commercial Court earlier in the month, which Latvia decided not to appeal.
* The Supreme Court Senate ruled on 27 January that the imprisonment of former Banka Baltija board Chairman Aleksandrs Lavents and the bank's president, Talis Freimanis, should end and be replaced by police surveillance, LETA reported. The two will not be allowed to leave Latvia and will have to report to the police twice a week. The ruling had been prompted by the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the two had spent too much time in prison awaiting a verdict. The next day Freimanis was released from prison and guards were removed from Lavents who was in a hospital.
* State Minister for Social Integration Affairs Nils Muiznieks told a government committee meeting on 27 January that the situation in correctional institutions, especially prisons, is Latvia's most serious human rights problem, LETA reported. He mentioned the conditions for inmates awaiting trial, and the conditions of minors in prisons as major problems.
AMENDMENT ON LOCAL COUNCILS RADICALLY ALTERS MAYORS' DUTIES.
Parliament amended Lithuania's law on local administration on 28 January in response to a Constitutional Court ruling in December that banned local-council members from wielding executive powers, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The amendments radically change the role of mayors, who will retain their posts as heads of local councils but must transfer their executive powers to the newly created post of directors of administration. Such directors will be responsible for the implementation of laws, other legal acts, and decisions of local councils, as well as for administering city or county budgets. Mayors belonging to the Association of Lithuanian Local Governments strongly criticized the planned amendments and even left the session in protest once it became clear that the amendments would pass. They appealed to President Valdas Adamkus to veto the amendments and are considering launching a referendum drive, which would require 300,000 signatures to force a plebiscite.KALININGRAD TRANSIT RULES EASED.
After talks with Russian presidential envoy for Kaliningrad Dmitrii Rogozin, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas told reporters in Vilnius on 30 January that Lithuania has agreed to a Russian request not to stamp the internal passports of Russians entering the country to travel to Kaliningrad Oblast, BNS reported. Instead, a separate document will be placed in Russian passports on entering Lithuania and surrendered on departure. Lithuania also agreed not to demand identification documents from children traveling in groups with official confirmation of travel lists accompanied by adults with proper identification documents. Brazauskas said no final decision has been made on Rogozin's request that military identification cards be recognized as a valid travel document. Identification cards were not mentioned in the EU-Russian agreement on Kaliningrad transit, and Lithuania will allow their use only if the EU confirms the move will not hinder its efforts to join the Schengen zone.EXCLAVE LAWMAKERS CALL FOR CHANGES TO TREATY ON LITHUANIAN BORDER.
The Kaliningrad Oblast legislature on 31 January passed a nonbinding resolution asking the Russian State Duma to postpone consideration of the border treaty between Russia and Lithuania, ITAR-TASS reported. Deputies argued that the treaty does not take into account the needs of oblast residents after Lithuania's almost-certain accession to the European Union. The resolution states that the oblast legislature will submit its recommended modifications to the treaty to the Duma by 5 April. Deputies rejected a harsher resolution sponsored by the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia that would have called upon the Duma to reject the treaty altogether. The lack of a treaty could delay Lithuania's entry into the EU.U.S. ALLOWED TO USE AIRSPACE FOR OPERATIONS AGAINST IRAQ.
Foreign Ministry Secretary Giedrius Cekuolis noted on 29 January that Lithuania has extended until the end of 2003 permission for the United States and 10 other NATO countries to use its airspace and airports for possible operations against Iraq, ELTA reported. The permission was first given in September 2001 for antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan and was later extended to include Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Turkey. Earlier this month, Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius said that, if requested, the government would seek parliament's authorization to send doctors, engineers, and staff officers to participate in a mission in Iraq.PROGRESS REPORTED IN SALE OF LITHUANIAN GAS TO GAZPROM.
After talks in Vilnius on 31 January with Aleksandr Ryazanov, the deputy chairman of Gazprom's executive board, Prime Minister Brazauskas told reporters that all outstanding issues except for price have been resolved in the planned sale of a 34 percent stake in Lietuvos Dujos (Lithuanian Gas), ELTA reported. A separate 34 percent stake was sold in June to German energy companies Ruhrgas and E.ON Energie, which earned 116 million litas ($32.5 million) for the Lithuanian Privatization Fund and 34 million litas to an escrow account with Vereins-und Westbank AG (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 9 July 2002). Ruhrgas Vice President Eike Benke, who is also the chairman of the Lietuvos Dujos management board, took part in the most recent negotiations, BNS reported. Gazprom previously offered 80 million litas for the 34 percent stake, but apparently will agree to pay more in light of favorable economic results for the company in 2002. The deadline for Gazprom to submit its final bid for the shares is 28 February.
* Commenting on the State of the Union address of U.S. President George W. Bush, President Adamkus said on 30 January that while the country supports the attempts to achieve peace with Iraq, it will be ready to render support to the United States, BNS reported. He noted that Lithuania has granted the U.S. permission to use Lithuania's airspace and airports and could also contribute "doctors and haulage specialists for humanitarian activities in Iraq."
* A delegation, led by Foreign Ministry State Secretary Evaldas Ignatavicius, held political consultations in Beijing from 27 January to 2 February, BNS reported. Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Guchang, who visited Lithuania last April, headed the Chinese delegation. The talks focused on political, economic, and political cooperation and promotion of bilateral partnership as well as topical issues of international politics and relations with neighboring countries. The delegation also met with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, parliament Foreign Affairs Committee members, and Shanghai municipal leaders.
* Petras Austrevicius, the chief negotiator with the EU, signed the Protocol to the Europe Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (PECA), in Brussels on 30 January, ELTA reported the next day. This will ease conditions of trade with Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. A similar protocol with EU member states has been in effect since the fall of 2002.
* The parliament approved by a vote of 78 to 18 with seven abstentions on 28 January the so-called protective laws accompanying the amendment of the constitution's Article 47, which allows the purchase of agricultural land by foreigners, BNS reported. The parliament's Ethics and Procedures Committee pointed out that the vote was not sufficient because it was a constitutional law, requiring approval by at least three-fifths of the whole parliament or 85 votes. Therefore, a second vote is scheduled for 24 February.
* During an interview on Lithuanian Radio on 27 January, President Adamkus said that he "was shocked to see representatives of the ruling Social Democratic Party among the coordinators and participants of the conference," marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of former Lithuanian Communist Party leader Antanas Snieckus on 25 January, ELTA reported. He expressed surprise that "an official event was held in commemoration of Snieckus, an organizer of genocide against the Lithuanian nation." Some 300 persons protested in front of the Academy of Sciences building where the conference was held.
* The government intends to invite the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to acquire a 12 to 15 percent stake in Mazeikiai Oil, BNS reported on 28 January. The government now has a 40.66 percent share of the company and has to obtain the agreement of the other major shareholder, the Russian oil company Yukos, for the sale. Yukos Vice President Mikhail Brudno said that his company had no objections as long as EBRD signs the shareholder agreement that it signed with the government. Economy Minister Petras Cesna said that it was likely that the EBRD would acquire the stake by the end of the year.
* Some 30 people took part in a demonstration against a possible war in Iraq near the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius on 31 January, BNS reported. The action was organized by the public organization Lithuanian League of Light and parliamentary Committee on Education, Science, and Culture Chairman Rolandas Pavilionis, one of the most vocal critics of Lithuania joining NATO. The protesters handed a letter to U.S. President Bush to the embassy and later went to the president's office where they handed similar letters of protest to President Adamkus and President-elect Rolandas Paksas.
* The Statistics Department announced on 28 January that the country's gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 5.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2002 and by 5.9 percent for the whole year, ELTA reported. The GDP for the year totaled 50.7 billion litas ($15.8 billion) or 14,626 litas per capita.
* Preliminary data released by the Statistics Department on 28 January indicated that in 2002 the country's imports were worth 28.2 billion litas ($7 billion) and exports 20.3 billion litas, resulting in a trade deficit of 7.9 billion litas, BNS reported. Compared to 2001 imports grew by 11 percent and exports by 10.6 percent.
* The Statistics Department announced on 30 January that the number of foreign visitors to Lithuania in 2002 was slightly less than 4 million or 4.7 percent less than in 2001, ELTA reported. The visitors came mostly from the neighboring countries of Russia (29.3 percent), Latvia (28.7 percent), Belarus (16.2 percent), and Poland (7.6 percent). The number of foreign trips by Lithuanian residents increased by 5.7 percent over the last year to 3.58 million.