31 March 2003, Volume 4, Number 11
NOTE TO READERS:
This issue covers events in the Baltic states from 15 to 21 March 2003.
ESTONIAGOVERNMENT APPROVES POSITION ON IRAQ WAR.
An emergency session of the Estonian cabinet on 20 March discussed the situation in Iraq and adopted a formal position on the war, BNS reported. It announced that the need to disarm Iraq is clear and stated: "It's a great pity that Iraq didn't take advantage of the opportunity to resolve the problem peacefully. We hope that only minimal and short-term use of force will be necessary." The government called for giving the United Nations the central role in the reconstruction of postwar Iraq and expressed Estonia's willingness to contribute to secure the postconflict situation and the reconstruction of Iraq.
COALITION ACCORD MIGHT BE SIGNED SHORTLY.
After another round of talks on 19 March, negotiators from Res Publica, the Reform Party, and People's Union predicted that their coalition agreement will be signed on 26 March, BNS reported. This date was named because it is expected that President Arnold Ruutel will convene the new parliament's first session on 27 March. Reform Party Deputy Chairman Meelis Atonen said that it appears realistic that the draft of the accord will be approved by the end of the week. Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts noted that consensus has been reached on matters of state administration, local governments, and foreign and defense policy. Res Publica board member Tonis Palts said the results of the negotiations on various topics will not be announced separately, but as a package after the means to finance them has been approved. He rejected criticisms that the negotiations are taking too long. "We are sending a signal to society that we are talking things over very profoundly," he said.
PARTIES AGREE ON GRADUAL INCOME-TAX REDUCTION.
In coalition formation talks on 21 March, representatives of Res Publica, the Reform Party, and the People's Union agreed that the income tax should be reduced in stages in 2004-06, BNS reported. The income-tax rate would be lowered from the current 26 percent to 24 percent in 2004, to 22 percent in 2005, and to 20 percent in 2006. The tax-free minimum income would be increased from the current 1,000 kroons ($67.50) to 1,400 kroons in 2004; 1,700 kroons in 2005; and 2,000 kroons in 2006. These proposed tax reductions still have to be approved by the boards of the three parties. Reform Party Deputy Chairman Atonen also said the so-called maternity allowance would be paid for 360 days instead of the current 140 days, beginning in 2004.
CENTER PARTY HINTS AT MORE UNITED OPPOSITION.
The extended board of the Center Party indirectly acknowledged on 15 March that the party will not be part of the ruling coalition despite winning the most votes in the 2 March parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003), BNS reported. Chairman Edgar Savisaar said the same day that he hopes recent televised comments by Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts, in which Parts pledged to take the opposition more into consideration than previous premiers, indicate that Parts will tone down the rhetoric and allow for improved relations. Savisaar expressed surprise that the Reform Party and the People's Union -- and not Res Publica, which won the most votes within the would-be coalition -- seemed to be deciding who should join the government. Savisaar also said Center Party cooperation with the Moderates and the People's Union in parliament should be possible, since those three parties' campaign platforms on economic and social policy were so similar. Working groups representing Res Publica, the Reform Party, and the People's Union were expected on 17 March to present proposals for a coalition policy on 13 priority issues.
CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT MORE THAN DOUBLED IN 2002.
The Bank of Estonia announced on 17 March that the current-account deficit in 2002 was 13.32 billion kroons ($890 million), or 12.5 percent of GDP, BNS reported. The current-account deficit in 2001 was 5.89 billion kroons, or 6.1 percent of GDP. The greater deficit was largely the result of a rise in the foreign-trade deficit from 13.78 billion kroons to 18.52 billion kroons due to a 1.5 percent decline in exports while imports rose by 5.3 percent. The surplus in the balance of services fell by 2.07 billion kroons to 8.09 billion kroons. Finance Ministry officials said the high current-account deficit indicates that Estonia's fast economic growth was largely based on foreign capital, which has created a greater foreign loan burden.
PREMIER SAYS PARTICIPATION POSSIBLE IN POSTWAR MISSIONS IN IRAQ.
Prime Minister Siim Kallas told reporters on 18 March that if necessary, Estonia could offer help in mine-clearing operations and assistance to refugees once a possible war in Iraq is over, BNS reported. He said Estonia could help refugees in the region by sending specialists to countries bordering Iraq. Kallas noted that the situation is complicated by the fact that the new parliament -- which would have to authorize any actions -- has not yet met. Government press bureau Director Daniel Vaarik said an emergency cabinet session will be called to evaluate the risk of terrorist attacks in Estonia if military hostilities begin in Iraq.
* In the daily "Eesti Paevaleht" on 21 March Prime Minister Kallas said that Estonia may need about 30 million kroons ($2.03 million) for peacekeeping operations in Iraq after the war, BNS reported. He stated that these funds were not foreseen in the budget, but would be found when needed. The paper also noted that politicians were unwilling to guess how long the war would last and when Estonia's contribution would become necessary.
* The National Election Commission officially approved the results of the 2 March parliament elections and issued the list of winning deputies on 20 March, BNS reported. Earlier that day the Supreme Court had removed the last obstacle for certification by turning down the complaint of a Voru County resident to nullify the elections because organized transportation to the polls for voters had not been provided. The commission's decision was published the following day in the Riigi Teataja official register, an action opening the process for the president to convene the new parliament within 10 days.
* Following the official certification of the results of the parliamentary elections, the government released from office on 21 March the six county governors, who were elected to the new parliament, and appointed acting governors, BNS reported. They are the governors of the counties of East Viru, West Viru, Tartu, Valga, Saare, and Viljandi. The government also dismissed State Conciliator Henn Parn.
* Estonian Ambassador to the UN Merle Pajula and his counterpart from Saudi Arabia, Fawzi A. Shobokshi, signed a protocol establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries in New York on 21 March, BNS reported the next day. They expressed the hope that this would become the basis for effective political, economic, and cultural cooperation between the two countries. The ambassadors also discussed the disarming of Iraq.
* In an interview in the daily "Postimees" of 20 March, Res Publica Chairman Parts said that Estonia would get a new government only in the first half of April, BNS reported. The length of the process is in part due to the requirement of the constitution that the president can propose a candidate to form the new government only after the first session of the newly elected parliament. The constitution also obligates the president to call the parliament session within 10 days of the publication of the final election results in the official register and gives him 14 days to name a candidate for prime minister.
* Even though the daily "Postimees" wrote on 17 March that Center Party Chairman Savisaar had decided not to take up the seat he won in the parliament, but to remain as Tallinn mayor to prevent a possible shift in power, he told reporters on 19 March that he had not yet made a final decision on the matter, BNS reported. If Savisaar does not take the parliament seat, it will pass to Tallinn's Lasnamae Borough Governor Olev Laanjarv. He is also reportedly not interested in joining the parliament so that the seat would be given to the head of the borough's council, Pavel Starostin.
* Andrus Saalik, the head of the Finance Ministry Economic Analysis Department, told reporters on 19 March that the forecasts for state budget revenues in 2003 had increased by 1 billion kroons ($67.5 million) to 39.44 billion kroons, BNS reported. They anticipate that value-added tax revenues would increase by 420 million kroons, corporate income tax by 243 million, excise taxes by 250 million, social tax by 87 million, and personal income tax by 63 million kroons.
* Concordia Academic Community, a nonprofit organization set up by the academic staff, students, and employees of the bankrupt Concordia University, submitted an application for state aid to the Education Ministry on 17 March, BNS reported. The organization and the ministry agreed on the university's new statutes according to which the school's new name will be Concordia Baltic University.
* Based on the findings of its mission which visited Estonia in December, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report criticizing the country's HIV/AIDS program, BNS reported on 19 March. Noting that Estonia had an HIV incidence rate of 1,071 per million population in 2001, the highest in the WHO European Region, the report pointed out that the epidemic was primarily concentrated in Russian-speaking drug users living in specific areas. It is estimated that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 HIV carriers in the country and between 10,000 to 30,000 drug addicts. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria agreed to give Estonia $10 million until 2006 to fight AIDS and drug addiction on the condition that the state did not reduce its funding for these programs.
* The Bank of Estonia announced that the sum total of direct investments into Estonia in 2002 was 5.16 billion kroons ($320 million) or significantly less that the 9.43 billion kroons in 2001, BNS reported on 17 March. The largest investors were from Finland and Sweden. Estonia's residents, in turn, invested 2.04 billion kroons in foreign countries in 2002 compared to 3.53 billion kroons in 2001.
LATVIAPARLIAMENT BACKS ACTION TO DISARM IRAQ.
Parliament approved a bill on the state's participation in the international operation to disarm Iraq by a vote of 73 to 24, at the end of an extraordinary session that ended shortly after midnight on 20 March, LETA reported. The leftist party For Human Rights in a United Latvia alliance and the National Harmony Party voted against the bill. The bill expresses support for UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and reaffirms the Latvian "parliament's decision of 19 February to support the UN Security Council's and other UN member states' efforts to implement resolutions on Iraq." It authorized the government to ensure funding to deploy Latvian military units in support of international peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Iraq. The government was also asked to make decisions concerning the provision of humanitarian aid to Iraq, as well as Latvia's participation in postwar reconstruction and democracy-promotion efforts. Prime Minister Einars Repse said that the first Latvian troops would be ready to leave for Iraq no earlier than in 1 1/2 to three months, while Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis said that between 20-130 soldiers would be involved in the effort, depending on what resources are requested by U.S. Central Command, "Diena" reported on 21 March.
RAU: GERMANY WANTS TO BE FIRST TO RATIFY LATVIA'S EU ACCESSION.
Estonian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga began a four-day working visit to Germany on 17 March in Berlin, LETA reported. German President Johannes Rau stressed the friendly relations between the two countries and said differences over the Iraq issue should not negatively affect them. He affirmed Germany's support for Latvia's membership of the European Union and NATO, even mentioning Germany's wish to be the first country to ratify Latvia's EU accession agreement. In subsequent talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Vike-Freiberga discussed perspectives for intensifying bilateral economic relations, as well as cooperation in the arts and sciences. They also spoke about the international political situation, stressing the tremendous role NATO plays in Europe's security and stability. On 18 March she met with Christian Democratic Union leader Angela Merkel, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, and Berlin parliament President Walter Momperand. The Berlin Free University awarded her a golden medal for "strengthening Latvia as a democratic state and aiding its integration into the united Europe." Vike-Freiberga flew to Munich where she held talks with Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber and Minister of Economic Affairs, Transport, and Technology Otto Wiesheu. The next day she traveled to Mecklenburg-West Pommerania for talks with Premier Harald Ringstorff and Landtag (state parliament) President Sylvia Bretschneider. On 20 March Vike-Freiberga toured Wismar and met its leaders before proceeding to Greifswald where she met with the rector of Greifswald University and the director of the university's Baltic Institute.
PREMIER, EU COMMISSIONER DISCUSS OIL TRANSIT.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen assured Latvia's Prime Minister Repse in Brussels on 21 March that the European Commission will discuss with Russia the issue of oil transit through the Latvian port of Ventspils, LETA reported. The Russian state-owned oil-pipeline operator Transneft halted all oil shipments to the port in the first quarter of the year, according to Interfax on 21 March, and will probably decide on 25 March not to send any oil to Ventspils in the second quarter as well. Verheugen expressed satisfaction with Latvia's preparation for EU membership and said he sees no reason why the accession agreement with the EU should not be signed on 14 April, LETA reported. He particularly praised the progress Latvia is making in fighting corruption. The officials also discussed the Iraq war.
PRIME MINISTER TALKS IRAQ DURING DENMARK TRIP.
Einars Repse's talks with his Danish counterpart Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Copenhagen on 14 March focused on the Iraq crisis, BNS reported. The two men reportedly agreed that Iraq should be disarmed but did not further characterize their positions. The premiers also discussed EU enlargement and NATO expansion. Rasmussen said Denmark wants to be among the first states to ratify Latvia's accession documents to those organizations. Repse thanked Confederation of Danish Industries Executive Director Jorgen Hansen for opening that group's Baltic regional office in Riga, LETA reported. Repse informed him about Latvia's tax system and the planned cutting of corporate income tax, and called for greater business contacts by facilitating mutual investment and exports.
HEALTH MINISTER FIRED.
After learning that the Corruption Prevention Bureau had decided to open a criminal case against Health Minister Aris Auders, Prime Minister Einars Repse on 20 March relieved him of his duties and assumed temporary responsibility for the ministry pending the approval of a replacement, LETA reported. The bureau charged that, while serving as director of the spinal surgery center at the Traumatology and Orthopedic Hospital in the fall of 2002, Auders demanded that a patient pay him directly for surgery he performed, even though it was to be paid for with state health-insurance funds. The parliament in January rejected a no-confidence vote against Auders relating to the allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2003). Leaders of both the ruling and opposition factions in the parliament approved of Auders' dismissal.
* Prime Minister Repse flew to Brussels on 20 March to take part in the luncheon of EU member and candidate countries' leaders, organized by the EU Council the next day, LETA reported. Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete and Economy Minister Juris Lujans accompanied him on the trip. Prior to the luncheon Repse held talks with EU Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen and later returned to Latvia in the evening.
* Environment Minister Raimonds Vejonis and German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin signed an agreement on implementing joint environmental-protection pilot projects in Latvia on 17 March, LETA reported. Germany will invest about 5 million lats ($8.6 million) for rehabilitating housing in order to save energy and reduce pollution. Vejonis was in the delegation accompanying President Vike-Freiberga to Germany.
* Russian Foreign Ministry official Boris Malahov told reporters in Moscow on 19 March that he is puzzled by announcements of Latvian officials that the country may not ratify the EU framework convention on the protection of national minorities, BNS reported. He noted that all other EU candidate countries had ratified the convention and stated that Latvia's failure to do so was indicative of a split in the country between citizens who are ethnic Latvians and noncitizens who are from various minorities. Malahov also charged that "the discriminatory legislation in effect means that gaining Latvian citizenship does not guarantee the Russian-speaking minority the right to use their native tongue and educate their children in the language." Latvia has ignored these Russian statements, noting that international organizations such as the OSCE and CEPA have confirmed that Latvia has no serious problems with the protection of minority rights.
* The domestic market-protection bureau ended its efforts to impose antidumping tariffs on butter imports from Lithuania, because only two of 12 dairy companies responded to a questionnaire it had sent out on the matter, BNS reported on 17 March. The bureau thus was unable to gather sufficient information about possible losses to local producers to justify the imposition of higher duties.
* During a visit to Latvia on 19 and 20 March, Universal Music International Vice President Thomas Hedstrom claimed that Latvia has the highest level of music piracy of the 10 EU candidate countries, BNS reported. Although official data show that pirated music comprises some 70 percent of the retail music market, Hedstrom said that the actual percentage may even reach 90 percent. He suggested that Latvia should follow Estonia's example and increase punishments for traders in pirated music as well as set punishments for buyers.
* The nongovernmental union Ridzinieki organized demonstrations in front of the Cabinet of Ministers and parliament buildings in Riga protesting against the limited ability of elderly people to live in their own homes and buy medicines on 18-20 March, LETA reported. During the protest in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building on 18 March, Welfare Minister Dagnija Stake went out to hear their demands. She noted that although Ridzinieki and the Latvian Pensioners' Federation (LPF) have identical demands, they have clear differences because the protesters asked her to fire LPF Chairman Janis Porietis -- a task she said was impossible since the LPF is a nongovernmental organization. She expressed the hope that the protests might help convince the government to back her proposals to set higher minimum pensions. There were about 70 protesters the first two days and about 50 the third day, when they moved to the parliament building.
* In talks with visiting Russian Minister of Antimonopoly Policy Ilya Yuzhanov on 20 March, Economy Minister Juris Lujans stressed the common interests of Latvian and Russian businessmen, LETA reported. He stressed the need to look for solutions in order to expand Latvian-Russian economic cooperation.
* Despite objections by Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, the government decided on 17 March that a 5 percent value-added tax (VAT) would be placed on the purchase of textbooks, science literature, children's books, and first editions of translations from foreign languages from 1 January 2004, LETA reported. These books are currently exempt from VAT, but there is an 18 percent VAT on the purchase of other books. Dombrovskis had backed the imposition of a 9 percent VAT.
* A new governing coalition was established on 21 March at the 60-member Riga City Council, BNS reported. The new coalition of 32 deputies is made up of representatives of the Social Democratic Welfare Party, the National Harmony Party (TSP), the Labor Party, the Russian Party, the Democratic Party, the Green Party, and the Latvian Farmers Union, as well as two independent deputies. The new coalition excludes representatives of the Equal Rights Movement, and Socialist Party, which were partners with the TSP in the For Human Rights in a United Latvia alliance.
* The Central Statistics Bureau announced on 20 March that in 2002 the country's gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.1 percent to 5.19 billion lats ($9 billion) or to 2,233 lats per capita, LETA reported. The GDP growth was achieved by a 12.7 percent hike in retail volume, a 7.2 percent increase in the processing industry, a 5.7 percent increase in the commercial services sector, and a 10.8 percent growth in the construction sector.
* The Citizenship and Migration Administration announced on 21 March that there were 2,331,467 residents registered in the country on 1 January, LETA reported. Of these 1,795,454 or 77.01 percent were citizens, 504,277 or 21.63 percent noncitizens, 31,605 residents or 1.36 percent foreigners, and 131 or 0.006 percent stateless persons. Of the total, 58.4 percent were Latvians, 29.0 percent Russians, 3.9 percent Belarusians, 2.6 percent Ukrainians, 2.5 percent Poles, 1.4 percent Lithuanians, and 2.2 percent other nationalities.
LITHUANIAPOLITICAL SUPPORT FOR U.S. ACTIONS AGAINST IRAQ DECLARED.
The first meeting of the National Defense Council chaired by President Rolandas Paksas on 17 March passed a resolution on the situation in Iraq, BNS reported. It expressed Lithuania's readiness to join in the actions of the international coalition in disarming Iraq. "We favor a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but in case of necessity, we would back the U.S. taking other measures," Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius said. He added that while another UN resolution on Iraq "would be politically preferable," there is no legal necessity for it as UN Security Council Resolution 1441 provides enough basis for other actions. Presidential foreign-policy adviser Alvydas Medalinskas said there are no plans to send "persons from Lithuania to participate in military actions," but the country could provide humanitarian assistance including food, logistics specialists, and medical personnel. The meeting also decided that the number of draftees would be cut in the coming several years, but the number of professional soldiers and senior officers would be increased so that there would be a sufficient number to work at NATO headquarters.
PRESIDENT'S WORKING VISIT IN BRUSSELS.
Rolandas Paksas began a three-day working visit to Brussels on 19 March with a meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The meeting lasted more than half an hour and focused on improving links between the EU and Lithuania and on the Kaliningrad transit issue. Prodi promised to do everything he could to help Lithuania become a full-fledged member of the Schengen agreement. In later talks with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, Paksas described his recent visit to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). In the evening he discussed the possibilities of Lithuania building another nuclear reactor with EU Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen. On 20 March Paksas held talks with European Parliament President Pat Cox on Lithuania's EU accession treaty and foreign policy. At a meeting with Gordon Adam, the chairman of the EU-Lithuanian joint parliamentary committee, he also raised the issue of building another nuclear-power plant and the need for Lithuania to connect with Western Europe's electric power grid. Along with leaders of the other EU candidate countries Paksas attended the luncheon, organized by the EU Council, with the leaders of EU member countries on 21 March. He had talks with Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla on bilateral relations and trans-Atlantic integration. The Lithuanian president also spoke with Maltese Prime Minister Edward Fenech Adami about the recently held EU membership referendum.
VISIT BY GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER.
Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told Lithuania's parliament on 18 March that the invitations the Baltic states have received to join NATO gives Georgia hope that it might also be admitted to the alliance some day, ELTA reported. Burdjanadze met with President Paksas and also held talks with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas during which they discussed expanding bilateral relations and the possibility of extending to Georgia the newly established freight-train route between Ukraine and Lithuania. She thanked Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius for Lithuania's support in military matters and called for further cooperation. On 17 March, Burdjanadze held separate meetings with parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas and his deputy Ceslovas Jursenas that primarily focused on Lithuania's experience in obtaining the withdrawal of Russian military bases from its territory and in joining Western international organizations.
BILL REGULATING FOREIGNERS' PURCHASE OF LAND PASSED.
By a vote of 90 to 17, with six abstentions, parliament on 20 March approved a bill regulating the implementation of the constitutional amendment granting foreigners the right to purchase agricultural land, BNS reported. The amendment will permit legal and physical entities from EU and NATO countries to purchase farmland in Lithuania after the seven-year transition period stipulated in the Lithuanian EU accession treaty. Deputies from the Homeland Union (Lithuania's Conservatives Party) and the recently formed United and Liberal faction voted against or abstained from voting. The bill previously received 78 votes in favor to 18 against, with seven abstentions, but a constitutional bill requires at least 85 votes to pass (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 10 February 2003)
TRANSIT RULES FOR RUSSIAN SCHOOLCHILDREN DURING SPRING BREAK EASED.
Lithuania has agreed to ease the rules of transit for Russian schoolchildren traveling by train between Russia and its Kaliningrad Oblast exclave from 21 to 31 March, BNS reported on 18 March. Children under the age of 16 traveling in organized groups with a teacher will be allowed to transit Lithuania bearing birth certificates, which are normally not accepted as valid travel documents, if the teacher has a list and photographs of the pupils that is stamped and confirmed by the Russian Interior Ministry, together with a letter of permission from their parents.
MOODY'S UPGRADES RATING OUTLOOK TO 'POSITIVE.'
Moody's international rating agency raised the outlook on Lithuania's foreign-currency rating from "stable" to "positive" on 14 March, ELTA reported. "The administration of public finances continues to improve and is being underpinned by steady reforms in the tax system, municipal finances, and health care," Moody's reasoned. Moody's also pointed out that Lithuania's budget deficits have been declining and the enhanced business environment has contributed to stronger-than-expected growth that is likely to be sustained in the medium term. The country's expected EU membership in 2004 will most likely promote the future growth of trade and production.
* Following the vote in the National Defense Council, President Paksas wrote a letter responding to U.S. President George W. Bush on 19 March that Lithuania was prepared to contribute to the American effort to disarm Iraq, BNS reported. He noted that the assistance would not be military but humanitarian to ease the suffering of the people by providing medical assistance and food. The previous day, Paksas had received a letter from Bush thanking Lithuania for its support in the fight against international terrorism.
* Ambassador to NATO Ginte Damusis presented Lithuania's position on the issue of Iraq to the ambassadors of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council countries in Brussels on 20 March, BNS reported. She said that Lithuania viewed military actions as the last resort in settling conflicts, but "Lithuania declares its readiness to contribute politically and with other limited means to the actions of the international coalition targeted at Iraqi disarmament."
* As part of the bilateral military cooperation plan between Lithuania and Germany for 2003, representatives of the German Defense Ministry visited Lithuania on 17-19 March, BNS reported. They held talks with Defense Ministry Resource and Program Director Rimas Jonaitis on the needs of the Lithuanian armed forces for the period of 2003-07 in the areas of armaments, transport, and other military equipment. The Germans also met with the commander of the Lithuanian armed forces, Major General Jonas Kronkaitis, and visited Lithuania's naval headquarters.
* As part of its project to strengthen stability in the South Caucasus by promoting regional cooperation between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, a Lithuanian Defense Ministry delegation visited Azerbaijan on 17-19 March, BNS reported. It discussed greater cooperation in bilateral relations and future regional projects on environment protection and crisis management.
* Interior Minister Juozas Bernatonis and British Ambassador to Lithuania Jeremy Hill signed a memorandum of cooperation between the Lithuanian and British interior ministries in the fields of justice and internal security in Vilnius on 19 March, BNS reported. The British will especially assist in improving Lithuanian police units combating organized crime. On 1-4 April they will also conduct training for Lithuanian officers who will later work in EU justice and interior affairs institutions in Brussels.
* The government authorized Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Darius Jurgelevicius on 19 March to sign agreements with Argentina and Costa Rica on abolishing visa requirements for travel between these countries, BNS reported.
* The no-confidence vote in the parliament against Education, Science, and Culture Committee Chairman Rolandas Pavilionis, proposed by the Homeland Union and United and Liberal factions, failed on 18 March, ELTA reported. The vote was 24 to six against Pavilionis -- far short of the 71 votes needed to remove him. The ruling Social Democrats and Social Liberals along with the Liberal Democrats and Union of Peasant and New Democracy Parties boycotted the vote.
* The two parliament deputies of the Lithuanian Polish Election Action, Valdemaras Tomasevskis and Janas Mincevicius, on 18 March joined the faction of the Liberal Democratic Party founded by President Paksas, ELTA reported. They had earlier formed a faction with deputies from the Center Union and Modern Christian Democrat Union, who earlier in the month together with deputies from the Liberal Union formed the temporarily named Joint and Liberal faction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003).
* Agreements for funding three new environmental projects worth 24.3 million euros ($24.5 million) in Mazeikiai, Kedainiai, and Radviliskis were signed at the Finance Ministry on 17 March, BNS reported. The European ISPA (Instrument for Structural Polices for Pre-Accession) agreed to provide 14.9 million euros (61.3 percent) for the projects which will construct or repair water cleaning facilities in the towns. The state budget will provide 4.86 million euros (20 percent) and local authorities the remaining 4.54 million euros.
* The City of Vilnius signed a 12-year loan with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on 18 March for 7 million euros ($7.2 million) to reconstruct and widen Konstitucijos Avenue, one of the main arteries on the right side of the Neris River, BNS reported. This first EBRD loan to Vilnius is expected to be followed by other investments by the EBRD.
* The public controversy over President Paksas's association with Lena Lolisvili, a self-proclaimed faith healer and psychic, continued, Reuters reported on 14 March, and Lithuanian dailies through 21 March. Paksas credits Lolisvili with curing him of a serious illness in 1995. Critics have charged that political appointees in the Paksas administration have been vetted by Lolisvili. Through his spokesman, Paksas has denied these charges and asserted that his relationship with Lolisvili is a private matter. Archbishop of Kaunas Sigitas Tamkevicius joined an earlier statement by Lithuanian Cardinal Audrys Backis in cautioning Lithuania's population, particularly the country's Catholics, from believing in "false prophets," the daily "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 13 March.
* The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has agreed to continue investigating the appeal by Danute Balsyte-Lideikiene for alleged violation of free speech, BNS reported on 19 March. Lideikiene claims that the Vilnius court decision which fined her 1,000 litas ($250) and ordered the confiscation of all copies of the 2000 Calendar of Lithuania, which she compiled and published, violated her rights of free speech. The court had ruled that comments and statements in the calendar reflected a radical national ideology and contained anti-Semitic phrases.