Accessibility links

Breaking News

Baltic Report: February 17, 2003

17 February 2003, Volume 4, Number 6

This issue covers events in the Baltic states from 1 to 7 February 2003.
The foreign ministers of the so-called Vilnius 10 issued a joint statement on 5 February, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance before the UN Security Council to make the case for enforcing Iraqi disarmament, BNS reported. The Vilnius 10 -- comprising Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- was established in 2000 by states seeking NATO membership. The ambassadors of Latvia, Romania, and Slovakia presented the statement to the U.S. State Department in Washington. It affirmed that Powell "presented compelling evidence to the United Nations Security Council detailing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, its active efforts to deceive UN inspectors, and its links to international terrorism." Asserting that Iraq has breached UN Security Council Resolution 1441, it declared: "The clear and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein's regime requires a united response from the community of democracies. We call upon the UN Security Council to take the necessary and appropriate action in response to Iraq's continuing threat to international peace and security."

Ain Seppik resigned as interior minister on 3 February after Prime Minister Siim Kallas urged him to step down amid intense criticism over actions Seppik took as a Soviet-era Supreme Court justice, BNS and Reuters reported. With just one month to go before parliamentary elections, Seppik said he wanted to avoid damage to his ruling Center Party by "this slander campaign." Opposition parties called for Seppik's resignation on 29 January after two newspapers reported that, as a judge in 1985, he participated in the sentencing of five youths as young as 15 years of age opposed to Soviet rule in what was later discovered to be a corrupt trial. A no-confidence motion failed on 30 January, gathering just 29 votes in the 101-seat parliament with the ruling coalition walking out of the proceedings. Seppik denied any guilt and asserted on 31 January that the accusations were not targeted against him alone, adding that his resignation would effectively write off a whole generation of individuals active in public life before Estonian independence in 1991. Former President Lennart Meri and noted writer Jaan Kross also called for Seppik's dismissal. Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar nominated Toomas Varek, head of the party's parliamentary caucus, to replace Seppik. President Arnold Ruutel immediately approved the appointment, partly allaying fears that Prime Minister Kallas's stand against Seppik might drive a wedge between the coalition partners.

After flying to Dublin on the evening of 4 February, Prime Minister Kallas held talks with Irish President Mary McAleese, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and Foreign Minister Brian Cowen on 5 February, BNS reported the next day. In discussing the future role of small countries in the EU, McAleese noted that her country's entry to the EU boosted the Irish ethnic and cultural identity and, having found partners on most issues, Ireland is active in molding the European future. The premiers discussed Ireland's experience in innovation and agreed that their countries could be allies on several economic questions. That evening, Kallas opened an exhibition of 23 Estonian graphic artists in Dublin's Lemon Street Gallery. On 6 February, Kallas had meetings with Senate (Seanad Eireann) Chairman Rory Kiely, House of Representatives (Dail Eireann) Chairman Rory O'Hanlon, and parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael Woods.

The ETA news agency closed its news operations on 1 February due to economic difficulties, ETA reported on 3 February. ETA board Chairman Tiit Lohmus told BNS on 1 February that the owners of ETA Interactive, the operator of ETA, will announce their intentions soon. According to unofficial sources, the agency's debts exceed 100,000 euros ($108,000) and employees have not been paid for January and half of December. The ETA news agency operated from 1918 as a state organization but was privatized in late 1999 and declared bankrupt in mid-2000. Starting in July 2000, the agency's operations and trademark were taken over by ETA Interactive, whose owners are unknown, but may be connected to the Latvian news agency LETA, according to ETA sources. Estonia has now been left with just one news agency, the pan-Baltic Baltic News Service (BNS), owned by Finnish Alma Media concern.

After talks with defense-forces commander Vice Admiral Tarmo Kouts, Chief of Staff Colonel Alar Laneman, and other top military personnel on 4 February, the commander of NATO's Joint Headquarters Northeast praised defense reforms undertaken by the Estonian armed forces, BNS reported. Lieutenant General Jan Scharling said the adoption of the joint-staff principle was another step toward NATO membership. Scharling also visited the Baltic Defense College in Tartu the same day and was scheduled to tour the Amari air base and airspace-monitoring center near Paldiski before departing on 5 February.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center on 6 February urged the Venezuelan government to expel or put on trial an ethnic Estonian suspected of crimes during the Nazi occupation of Estonia, BNS reported the next day. The U.S. Justice Department believes Harry Mannil was a high-ranking member of the Nazi political police in Estonia during World War II, a fact that prompted Costa Rica to expel him after he requested residency there, the news agency cited Costa Rican Security Minister Rogelio Ramos as saying. Mannil, 82, has spent much of his postwar life in Venezuela and was informed of his status as an "undesirable" by Costa Rican officials after he boarded a plane back to Venezuela on 5 February, BNS added. He has been barred from entering the United States since 1994.
* Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland participated in the opening of the country's honorary consulate in the Moroccan port of Casablanca on 6 February, BNS reported. The new honorary consul, Ali Benkirane, has business interests in farming and fisheries and is deputy chairman of the regional government. In talks earlier that day with Mustafa Oukacha, the president of the House of Councilors (the upper house of the Moroccan parliament), Ojuland expressed the hope that in the future the countries' ambassadors will reside in the respective capitals of Tallinn and Rabat and not in Copenhagen and Madrid as they now do.
* A court in London on 7 February turned down a lawsuit by the U.S. energy company NRG Energy seeking 100 million British pounds ($152 million) in damages from the state electrical utility Estonian Energy, BNS reported. NRG had filed the suit in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2002) charging that the utility had not cooperated sufficiently in its six-year efforts to privatize the oil-shale electricity-generating plants in Narva. The court also ruled that NRG Energy has to pay the utility's legal expenses.
* The navy officially hoisted the Estonian flag on a minesweeper, which was donated by Germany, in the port of Rendsburg on 4 February, BNS reported. The ship, built in 1968, will be rechristened "Vaindlo" after Estonia's northernmost island. After extensive repairs, including the renewal of the hull, engines, and weapons, it will sail to Estonia in the spring and replace the minesweeper "Kalev," which will be decommissioned.
* Disregarding the request by representatives of the Center Party, Reform Party, Pro Patria Union, and People's Union on 3 February not to hurry with the nomination of a candidate for the post of state auditor, President Ruutel nominated Deputy Legal Chancellor Mihkel Oviir as his choice, BNS reported. The post became vacant in August 2002 when Juhan Parts resigned so that he could become involved in politics and was subsequently elected chairman of the Res Publica party. Ruutel noted that the security police had checked Oviir's background and he saw no reason why the current parliament could not approve the appointment.
* Res Publica party Chairman Parts said in an interview in the weekly "Maaleht" that he did not see his party forming a coalition with the Center Party after the March parliamentary elections, BNS reported on 6 February. He noted, "I've always said our values differ the most from the Center's" and doubted that such a coalition could function for four years. Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar responded by declaring that his party would probably be in a position to decide whether to invite Res Publica to participate in the next government.
* Shortly after resigning from his post as interior minister, Ain Seppik filed lawsuits against the dailies "Eesti Paevaleht" and "Postimees" in the Tallinn City Court, BNS reported. He is demanding that the newspapers retract the false information they printed about him and pay damages of 10 million kroons ($690,000) plus legal expenses. The papers responded by asserting that they did not invent anything, but simply relied on facts in available documents.
* The Statistics Office announced on 5 February that in December the country's imports were worth 6.67 billion kroons ($450 million) and exports 4.48 billion kroons, resulting in a trade deficit of 2.19 billion kroons, BNS reported. The imports in December were 8 percent lower than in November, but 15.3 percent greater than in December 2001. Corresponding figures for exports were 16.3 percent lower and 7.6 percent higher.
* The Statistics Office announced on 7 February that in January the consumer price index (CPI) increased by 1.1 percent compared to December and by 2.6 percent compared to January 2002, BNS reported. In January the price of goods rose by 0.7 percent and of services by 2.0 percent.

Representatives from all 19 NATO members, chaired by NATO Deputy Secretary-General Guenter Altenburg, approved Latvia's draft military-reform plan at a meeting in Brussels on 4 February, BNS reported the next day. The representatives spoke approvingly of Latvian progress in implementing its NATO Membership Action Plan, noting stable economic growth and dynamic development accompanied by adequate funding for defense needs and planned reforms. The Latvian delegation head, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins, told reporters in Riga on 5 February that some NATO representatives also recommended that Latvia bolster its administrative capabilities in Brussels, within the Defense and Foreign ministries, and at "other institutions either directly or indirectly involved in ensuring our NATO membership."

The leftist coalition For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL) issued a statement on 6 February charging that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Einars Repse, and Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete acted unconstitutionally when they expressed support for the U.S. position on Iraq without first consulting parliament, LETA reported. Aleksandrs Kirsteins, a deputy of the right-of-center People's Party, told parliament the same day that statements by the president, foreign minister, and Ambassador to Washington Aivis Ronis were "unwarranted." Polls released the previous day by SKDS and "Latvijas fakti" indicated that 81 percent and 74 percent of respondents, respectively, do not support the U.S. waging war on Iraq to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Prime Minister Repse has decided to form a task force of ministers to prepare proposals for reforming national-security institutions, LETA reported on 3 February. In addition to Repse, it would include Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks, Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, Interior Minister Maris Gulbis, Foreign Minister Kalniete, and Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis. The task force will consult with officials and experts as well as the leaders of parliamentary commissions in preparing proposals for the government on why and how the structure of national-security organizations should be changed. Repse said he has received numerous proposals on how to improve national security by reforming such organizations. He invited any cabinet minister to sign up if they wish to work on the task force.

The cabinet voted unanimously to dismiss State Revenue Service Director-General Andrejs Sonciks without debate on 4 February, LETA reported. Ministers had temporarily dismissed Sonciks in November, citing his office's failure to recover tax debts owed by the Dinaz Nafta oil company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 November 2002). The State Civil Service Administration conducted a probe and also recommended his firing. Sonciks, who was appointed to the post in August 1996, said the case against him was investigated in a one-sided manner and pledged to appeal the dismissal through the courts. He said he was late providing investigators with his explanations because he was ill and is still undergoing treatment for "progressive stenocardia," or chest pains.

Juris Lujans released a statement on 6 February saying he had lost confidence in Karlis Mikelsons, who is chairman and president of the state-owned power utility Latvenergo, LETA reported the next day. Lujans criticized spending decisions at the company and said Mikelsons has insufficiently advanced national interests. He questioned Latvenergo's spending 12 million lats ($19 million) on a marketing campaign in 2002 when it is a monopoly provider. The minister faulted Mikelsons for allegedly not informing him about the salaries of board members, who he said also have lucrative golden parachutes included in their contracts. Lujans turned up in person at a Mikelsons press conference the following day to repeat those criticisms.

A congress of Latvia's Green Party (LZS), attended by 128 members, elected three co-chairmen on 1 February, LETA reported. In the competition among four candidates, LZS office head Viesturs Silenieks and parliamentary deputy Indulis Emsis were re-elected with 113 and 105 votes, respectively. Environment Minister Raimonds Vejonis garnered 86 votes to defeat Karlis Gundermanis, who won only 49 votes, for the third post.
* Foreign Minister Kalniete made a working visit to the United States on 2-5 February to strengthen support for the country's admission to NATO and discuss possible Latvian assistance in resolving the Iraq crisis, BNS reported. She informed Republican Senators Elizabeth Dole (North Carolina) and Jim Bunning (Kentucky) about Latvia's preparations for NATO membership and also met with representatives of the U.S.-NATO Committee board, and Jewish organizations on 3 February. The next day Kalniete held talks with First Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and officials of the National Security Council. She also gave an interview to the paper "USA Today."
* Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers discussed Latvian-British economic cooperation with British Ambassador to Latvia Andrew Tesoriere in Riga on 3 February, LETA reported. Slesers talked about the government's plans to attract greater foreign investments and the need to step up the work of embassies' commercial attaches and cooperation with investment agencies.
* Interior Minister Gulbis visited Finland on 5 and 6 February to become better acquainted with the work of Finnish police and border guards, BNS reported. He was accompanied by Interior Ministry State Secretary Juris Reksna and other ministry officials. During the trip Gulbis discussed cooperation between the interior ministries with his Finnish counterpart Villi Italu.
* After two hours of debate the parliament approved on 6 February by a vote of 70 to 23 the participation of Latvia's military medics in operations in Afghanistan, LETA reported. All the negative votes came from the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia. Latvia plans to send two military medic units, each consisting of a physician, two nurses, and a driver, to Afghanistan for six months as part of a Dutch contingent at the end of February.
* The government voiced unanimous support on 4 February for the Agriculture Ministry's proposal to introduce antidumping measures on Lithuanian milk imports, but decided to take action only after appropriate documents are made out in detail, BNS reported. Lithuania has denied any dumping and suggested that it might impose import duties of 50 percent on sausage imports from Latvia if duties on Lithuanian milk are imposed.
* The government discussed on 3 February whether Latvia should participate in the world EXPO 2005 fair which will be held in Japan on 25 March- 25 September 2005 and decided to get more public input before making a decision, BNS reported. The estimated costs of participation are some 1.18 million lats ($1.9 million) and it was questioned whether the funds could not be spent more wisely on other economic projects. Fair organizers predict that about 15 million people would visit the fair, of whom 90 percent would be from Japan, 5 percent from other Asian countries, and 5 percent from the rest of the world.
* Members of all the parties in the ruling coalition expressed support for placing restrictions on the sale of land to foreigners, LETA reported on 6 February. Although the current law on land privatization bans individuals who are not citizens of Latvia from purchasing land, it stipulates that any legal entity from a country that has concluded a free-trade agreement with Latvia can buy land, thus in effect allowing anyone to set up a company and buy land. New Era favors introducing a seven-year ban on the sale of land to foreigners. The other parties also support restrictions on sales of forest, farmland, and dune areas to foreigners.
* The government decided on 4 February to erect a PS-117 radar, manufactured by the U.S. company Lockheed Martin, at the Rezekne airfield in Audrini County, LETA reported. Similar radars have been set up in other NATO countries and the erection of the radar is one of the requirements for Latvia to join the alliance. The radar will be a part of the joint Baltic airspace-control system BALTNET.
* The Riga section of the National Harmony Party (TSP) discussed on 1 February the upcoming congress of the alliance called For Human Rights in a United Latvia of which the party is one of three members, BNS reported. It took no position on the proposal by TSP Chairman Janis Jurkans that the party should be liquidated and replaced by a new social-democratic party at the congress. Riga City Council Deputy Chairman Sergejs Dolgopolovs spoke against the proposal and the plan to withdraw from the alliance.
* The Religious Affairs Administration announced that on 1 February there were 1,098 parishes of various religious denominations in Latvia, BNS reported on 3 February. The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church had the most parishes, 307, followed by the Roman Catholic Church with 252, the Latvian Orthodox Church with 117, Baptists with 90, Old-believers with 67, Pentecostals with 57, Seventh-Day Adventists with 47, and Evangelical Christians with 43.

Algirdas Brazauskas told reporters in Washington on 5 February that the situation in Iraq was among the topics of his meeting with Vice President Richard Cheney, BNS and ELTA reported. Brazauskas said the evidence supplied by U.S. Secretary of State Powell to the UN that day convinced him that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. He noted that Lithuania supports the U.S. campaign against international terrorism, has granted U.S. planes permission to use its airspace and airports in this action, and has sent army representatives to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida, which would coordinate any operations in Iraq. Brazauskas said that the election of former Prime Minister and Liberal Democratic leader Rolandas Paksas to succeed Valdas Adamkus as Lithuanian president will not change the country's foreign policy. Earlier that day he also held talks with Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), and Republican Congressman Joseph Pitts. Later, First Deputy Secretary of State Armitage met with Brazauskas at the Lithuanian Embassy and expressed thanks for Lithuania's participation in antiterrorist operations and for signing the Vilnius 10 statement. On 6 February he attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast; later meeting with Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and leaders of U.S. based Lithuanian organizations. In the talks with various officials Brazauskas raised his state's dissatisfaction with the U.S. government's failure to recognize Lithuania as a market economy and the lack of simple visa regulations. Brazauskas departed the next day for a vacation in the Bermudas at the home of U.S. businessman Juozas Kazickas and will to return to Lithuania on 15 February.

More stringent Lithuanian regulations for Russian transit to the exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast were first felt at 3 a.m. local time on 1 February, when 400 passengers aboard a Moscow-Kaliningrad train were checked at the Kena border post and nine were not allowed to continue the trip, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 3 February. Five of those passengers had only military IDs, which are no longer recognized as legitimate travel documents, while one had a Soviet passport without any stamp showing Russian citizenship and three were citizens of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan without Lithuanian transit visas.

EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen told parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas and Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis in Brussels on 6 February that he supports Lithuania's position on the issue of Russian transit to the exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, ELTA reported. He said EU regulations on simplified travel documents for Kaliningrad, which have already been agreed with Russia, will probably be adopted by April. Verheugen expressed the hope that turnout for the EU membership referendum in Lithuania on 11 May will be high and indicated his willingness to meet personally and explain EU principles to different groups within Lithuanian society. In another meeting that day, European Parliament speaker Patrick Cox told Paulauskas that he will visit Lithuania before the referendum and take part in the government's information campaign by explaining the benefits of EU membership.

Official disclosures on campaign spending presented to the Chief Election Commission on 4 February contradict reports that Rolandas Paksas's presidential victory over Valdas Adamkus was fueled by much higher spending, "Lietuvos zinios" reported the next day. According to those reports, Paksas collected 3.29 million litas ($960,000) and spent all but 120 litas ($35), while Adamkus collected just 1.86 million litas and spent 3.07 million litas. The 1.2 million-litas debt is to be covered by the Valdas Adamkus Foundation. Paksas's main campaign backer was the Avia Baltika helicopter-repair company, which donated 1.2 million litas. The Adamkus campaign received almost 850,000 litas from ethnic Lithuanians living in the United States. Paksas aired many more television commercials than his rival, pushing his media expenditures (television, radio, and press) some 700,000 litas higher than those of Adamkus.

In addition to his meeting with EU officials in Brussels on 6 February, Arturas Paulauskas held talks with Belgian Senate Deputy Chairman Sabine de Bethun and House of Representatives Chairman Herman de Croo, BNS reported on 7 February. The talks primarily focused on the prompt ratification of Lithuania's accession treaties with the European Union and NATO this year or in spring of 2004. Paulauskas also met with the parliamentary chairman of Belgium's French-speaking region of Wallonia, Francoise Schepmans, and talked about the need to ratify the cooperation agreement signed in October between Lithuania and Wallonia (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 16 October 2002).

After a meeting with Foreign Minister Valionis, Archbishop of Vilnius Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis told reporters on 3 February that his church will urge people to vote in favor of membership in the European Union, BNS reported. Backis said it is still unclear how the Catholic Church will express its opinion on the matter but emphasized that there "will be no canvassing during the services in the churches." The most likely method might be a public statement issued by the Council of Bishops.
* Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite in her capacity as acting prime minister sent a letter to Polish Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko on 6 February calling for the revocation of his decree of 25 January which limited the amount of gasoline with which Lithuanian trucks could enter Poland, ELTA reported the next day. The decree provided that excise taxes had to be paid on any gasoline in excess of 200 liters crossing into Poland. She noted that this violated the Lithuanian-Polish agreement on international road haulage, which states that fuel carried in standard tanks of motor vehicles is not subject to customs duties and any other restrictions.
* The outgoing head of the European Commission (EC) Directorate Lithuanian division, Anders Henriksson, told Prime Minister Brazauskas during his farewell visit on 3 February that the EC would hold aloof from the EU referendum campaign in Lithuania, but would provide information on all issues concerned, ELTA reported. He hinted that Lithuania might be able to obtain a low-interest loan from Euroatom for building a new nuclear-power plant. On 4 February Henriksson met with members of the parliament's European Affairs Committee and Foreign Minister Valionis.
* Ambassador to UNESCO Ina Marciulionyte held talks on 7 February with UNESCO's World Heritage Center (WHC) Director Francesco Bandarinas on the great dangers to the Curonian Spit from oil pollution, BNS reported. LUKoil, the Russian oil company, is planning to begin extracting oil at the end of this year from deposit D-6 located 22 kilometers off the spit even though the WHC in 2001 placed it on the list of objects in need to protection.
* Homeland Union (Conservatives of Lithuania) Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis told a news conference on 3 February that Lithuania should introduce "a normal visa regime" for Russian nationals traveling in transit via Lithuania to and from Kaliningrad Oblast from 1 July 2003 if the Russian Duma has not ratified the state border treaty with Lithuania, BNS reported.
* The international rating agency Fitch announced on 6 February that it was maintaining the long-term foreign-currency rating of Ukio Bankas at B+, but was lowering its outlook rating from stable to negative, BNS reported. The agency expressed concern over the bank's ability to generate sufficient revenues and internal capital, as well as some remaining doubts on whether it had effectively withdrawn from risky overseas investments.
* Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas urged President-elect Rolandas Paksas on 6 February not to include jet flights over the city as part of his inauguration-day program, BNS reported. He sent a statement to the Presidential Inauguration Commission declaring, "Demonstration of military force nowadays should not be tolerated; taking into consideration the tense situation in the world facing threats of war." Zuokas also noted that the noise made by the fighter planes will annoy Vilnius residents and the vibration will negatively impact the buildings of the Old Town.
* Reacting to complaints that its previously produced diesel fuel would not start cars on exceptionally cold days this winter, the Mazeikiai Oil refinery began to produce high quality Arctic diesel fuel which should function properly up to minus 32 degrees Celsius, BNS reported on 6 February. Its regular diesel functions only to minus 26 degrees.
* The national railway company Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai signed a financial memorandum with the European Commission (EC) on 6 February to finance a major railway development project in Lithuania, BNS reported. The project will cost 126.5 million euros ($138 million) of which Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai will supply 80.93 million euros and the EC 45.5 million euros in grants under the ISPA program. The project is to be completed by late 2006.
* The Labor Exchange announced on 6 February that there were 197,200 officially registered unemployed people at the beginning of the month, BNS reported. The unemployment rate in January compared to December 2002 increased from 10.9 percent to 11.3 percent. It also noted that if one calculated the unemployment rate using the new workforce indicator provided by the Statistics Department based on the latest population census, the unemployment rate would be 0.8 percent higher or 12.1 percent.