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Baltic Report: March 4, 2003

4 March 2003, Volume 4, Number 8

This issue covers events in the Baltic states from 15 to 21 February 2003.
Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas told reporters on 18 February in response to French President Jacques Chirac's comments regarding EU candidate countries that "everyone has the right to his own opinion. We have stated our position and I don't regret it," BNS reported. Lithuanian Foreign Ministry Secretary Rytis Martikonis, who is in charge of his country's EU integration efforts, described Chirac's statement as "part of family relations" that Martikonis believes will "not have any influence over the admission of new members into the EU." Lithuanian parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gediminas Kirkilas described Chirac's statement as "a little nervous and rather undiplomatic," while also noting that other EU states such as Great Britain, Spain, and Italy support the U.S. position on Iraq. Latvian President Vaira Vike Freiberga told CNN on 17 February that Latvia supports the disarming of Iraq, stating that "Latvia, because of its past, is particularly aware of the price of not containing tyranny since we paid for it with half a century of totalitarian rule."

Meeting in Brussels on 18 February on the sidelines of an informal meeting of EU heads of state on the Iraq issue, Foreign Ministers Antanas Valionis (Lithuania), Sandra Kalniete (Latvia), and Kristiina Ojuland (Estonia) agreed that equality, balance between institutions, and effectiveness should be the key principles to be followed in discussing the future reforms of the EU, BNS reported. The three foreign ministers stressed that the EU candidate countries should have equal status with that of member countries during the negotiations on the EU's European Convention on the future so that all members would have equal possibilities to influence its final document, which they said should be approved only after the candidates become full-fledged EU members in May 2004. The ministers expressed support for the current practice of a six-month rotating EU Presidency and highlighted the need to strive for closer cooperation on the basis of the convention among small and like-minded countries that are members or striving for membership in the EU.

On the initiative of Hungary, six European Union candidate states on 21 February proposed delaying the adoption of the new EU constitution until after the organization expands next year, thus allowing new members to participate in its drafting, AFP reported. Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic signed a "contribution" to the EU Convention on the future of Europe, which is tasked with drafting a constitution by June. Peter Balazs, Hungary's representative at the 105-member convention, said, "It is essential to have an appropriate reflection period" once the convention finishes its work. The draft constitution proposed by the convention will then be considered by an intergovernmental conference. Italy, which will hold the rotating EU Presidency in the second half of 2003, is keen for the constitution to be adopted in time for a summit in Rome in December.
* The Joint Committee of the Free Trade Agreement between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at a meeting in Vilnius on 18 February failed to reach an agreement on Latvia's plans to impose antidumping duties on Lithuanian milk products, BNS reported. Latvia's State Market Protection Bureau has recommended applying antidumping duties on imports from the Panevezio Pienas, Zemaitijos Pienas, and Pieno Zvaigzdes dairies. Lithuanian officials do not consider the antidumping penalties as legitimate and have threatened to impose such duties on Latvian meat imports.
* According to the "Global Information Technology Report 2002-2003," Estonia ranked 24th out of 82 countries in the Network Readiness Index, BNS reported on 21 February. Finland was in first place, followed by the U.S., and Singapore. Among other Central and Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic ranked 28th, Hungary 30th, Slovenia 33rd, Latvia 38th, Poland 39th, Slovakia 40th, and Lithuania 46th.

Thirty-nine representatives of civic associations, organizations, and political parties signed a so-called memorandum of national accord at the presidential palace on 20 February, BNS reported. In addition to all the major political parties, signatories include trade-union and employers associations, journalists and doctors unions, the Estonian Business Association, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Chamber of Agriculture and Trade, the president's academic council, the Academy of Sciences, universities, and the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. In it, the signatories declare that they intend to create a national agreement that is aimed at developing a state and a civic society centered around the principles of social environment, culture, education, research and development, economic environment, and rule of law in Estonia.

The Political Committee chaired by NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General Daniel Speckhard on 20 February called a report on plans for reforming Estonia's defense forces presented by Ambassador Juri Luik in Brussels realistic, BNS reported the next day. Luik said the meeting was positive and "the questions posed to us were those to an ally, not a candidate." He affirmed that Estonia will continue to allocate 2 percent of gross domestic product for defense and expects to fulfill its pledge to put the ESTBAT infantry battalion, one mine-hunting ship, and one staff ship at the disposal of the alliance by the end of 2005, while also taking part in international peacekeeping operations with military-police and mine-clearing units. Several member countries recommended that Estonia pay more attention to increased military readiness and capability for receiving military assistance than to territorial-defense units.

The Estonian Baltic Reconnaissance Squadron BALTSQN-7 peacekeeping unit on 20 February began its six-month mission in Kosova, replacing a Latvian unit that served there since September 2002, BNS reported. The 98-member Estonian unit, led by Lieutenant Tarmo Safronov, is serving as part of a NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) battalion stationed near Mitrovica. The unit underwent pre-mission training by Estonian and Danish instructors in October and completed it with a month of training in Denmark. In addition to the unit, 22 Estonian peacekeepers are also serving with the multipurpose military-police platoon ESTPATROL-7 in Prishtina, Kosova.

The dailies "Postimees" and "Eesti Paevaleht" and the rural weekly "Maaleht" have refused to publish advertisements by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the U.S.-based Targum Shlishi Foundation offering rewards up to $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of Nazi war criminals in Estonia, BNS reported on 17 February. The newspapers said the ad would violate the law and good journalistic practice. In late January, the Media House advertising agency and leaders of some Jewish organizations protested an earlier version of the ad, charging that it instigates ethnic hatred and "accuses Estonians as a nation of murdering Jews" (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 10 February 2003). The newer version sent by the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office director, Efraim Zuroff, no longer says Estonians as a nation collaborated with Nazis but that some Nazi henchmen did. It also no longer includes the telephone number of the security police.
* Estonian Border Guard Board Director Harry Hein, Finnish Border Guard chief Hannu Ahonen, and Finnish Civil Aviation Administration head Mikko Talvitie signed an agreement on rescue operations in the Gulf of Finland after maritime and aviation accidents in Helsinki on 20 February, BNS reported. The agreement, which replaces a similar accord from 1994, identifies the international waters where each of the countries is responsible for rescue work.
* Some 40-50 mainly Estonian-speaking young people staged a demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn on 15 February opposing military action against Iraq, BNS reported. The orderly protest lasted about 20 minutes.
* The Tallinn city government on 20 February gave the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate the right to build a church in the Lasnamae housing estate, BNS reported. It granted the church a 99-year lease on a plot of land of 7,819 square meters on which in addition to the church a residence can be built. The construction has to be completed within four years.
* Vladimir Velman, an ethnic Russian parliament deputy of the Estonian Center Party, said on a broadcast of the Russian-language Radio 4 channel on 20 February that if his party won the March parliamentary elections, it would initiate a referendum on NATO membership, BNS reported. Center Party spokeswoman Evelyn Sepp noted that the party stood by its position stated in November that there was no legal need to hold a referendum and Velman was only expressing his personal opinion. Party Deputy Chairman and Defense Minister Sven Mikser called Velman's statement regrettable and asserted that the party will not back a NATO referendum.
* The Estonian United Russian People's Party has launched a campaign to collect signatures in support of preserving Russian-language education after 2007, BNS reported on 15 February. Once finished, the petition with signatures will be sent to President Arnold Ruutel and Prime Minister Siim Kallas.
* The board of the Pro Patria Union on 17 February in Tartu approved a statement to President Ruutel and the leading political parties calling for an agreement not to change the country's language and citizenship policy, BNS reported. The statement reads, "As the first thing, a joint public promise by parties is necessary that the basic principles of the current language and citizenship policy won't be sacrificed for temporary political gains during the pre-election struggle or while being in power later." Deputy Chairman Peeter Tulviste said that a joint agreement would show Russia that exerting pressure for changes to the law would be in vain.
* The Tallinn City Council approved on 20 February a drugs and AIDS prevention program for 2003-07 under which 8-10 million kroons ($500,000-$625,000) will be spent every year, BNS reported. The program has four main aims -- to reduce demand for drugs, to make availability of drugs as difficult as possible, to ensure treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts, and to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. It calls for the establishment of three 24-hour detox clinics in Tallinn, two for adults and one for children.
* The Statistics Office announced on 20 February that the average monthly gross pay of employees in Estonia was 6,512 kroons ($407) in the fourth quarter of 2002, BNS reported. The average hourly wage was 37.18 kroons. Compared to the same period in 2001 when the average monthly wage was 5,879 kroons it rose 10.8 percent.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga met with U.S. President George W. Bush on 17 February despite the cancellation of a Presidents Day event at which he had invited her to speak, LETA reported. The conference was canceled due to the snowstorms that battered Washington, D.C. Bush thanked Latvia for supporting his stance on the need to disarm Iraq and confirmed that Latvia can rely on U.S. support and cooperation in the future. He said he is sure the U.S. Congress will ratify the NATO accession agreements of the 10 new members in the spring. Vike-Freiberga arrived in Washington on 15 February and met with U.S.-NATO Committee member Randy Scheunemann the next day. She held talks on 18 February with former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who is now the president of the Brookings Institution. Vike-Freiberga ended her four-day visit to Washington on 19 February with three meetings. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell thanked her for Latvia's support regarding the Iraq conflict and expressed the hope that the rift within NATO over the issue will not weaken trans-Atlantic relations. Vike-Freiberga discussed Iraq as well as U.S.-Russian relations with John Hamre, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic International Studies. Vike-Freiberga also met with Council of Women World Leaders Secretary-General Laura Liswood, who informed her of a global meeting of female government ministers that is scheduled to take place in Europe later this year. The two women spoke about the role of women in developing political and economic solutions to global issues.

The 211 delegates of the 9th Congress of the National Harmony Party (TSP) decided in Riga on 15 February by a vote of 157 to 18 with 10 abstentions to withdraw from the alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL), LETA reported. The party will form a new TSP parliamentary faction, which will include all 13 TSP deputies, most of the seven Equal Rights deputies, and one of the five Socialist Party deputies. The congress re-elected Janis Jurkans as party chairman, with current TSP board Chairman Janis Urbanovics as his deputy. It tasked the party council with drawing up a new TSP charter and platform by June, to be approved by a party congress in August. The congress also passed three resolutions, the first of which criticized the government for not canceling a decision that will make Latvian the language of instruction in all secondary schools from 2004. The second called for giving noncitizen residents the right to vote in local elections and for ratifying the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The third expressed support for Latvia's membership in the EU.

The Foreign Ministry submitted a note on 20 February to the Russian Embassy in Riga asserting that Russia is not fulfilling the Latvian-Russian government agreement of June 1993 on joint utilization and operation of crude-oil and oil-product pipelines located in Latvia, LETA reported. The note stated that while Latvia has invested significant funds in modernizing the pipeline, which is owned by the jointly established operator LatRosTrans, the Russian state-owned oil exporter Transneft has decided unilaterally, and without consultations, to halt all oil shipments to the port of Ventspils in the first quarter of 2003. The Foreign Ministry has already informed the European Commission about the pipeline blockade. Latvian President Vike-Freiberga told reporters on 20 February after returning from Washington that U.S. President Bush inquired about the blockade and pledged to help Latvia end it, BNS reported. More than 250 employees of LatRosTrans signed a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev asking that the government make a decision on resuming or halting the oil transit, adding that even a negative decision is better than the current uncertainty. The letter noted that Russia owns 34 percent of LatRosTrans, and 95 percent of its employees are Russian-speaking residents of Latvia.
* Prime Minister Einars Repse received a letter from British Prime Minister Tony Blair on 19 February which outlines reasons why Iraq should be disarmed and praises the Latvian government's stand on the issue, BNS reported. Blair stresses the need for the international community, especially Europe and the U.S., to be united on the Iraq issue and expressed the hope for close further cooperation.
* NATO Regional Northern Headquarters commander Lieutenant General Jan Scharling made an informal visit to Latvia on 17-19 February to become familiar with the country's defense system, BNS reported. He held meetings with Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis, National Armed Forces commander Rear Admiral Gaidis Zeibots, Defense Ministry NATO Integration Executive Director Brigadier General Raimonds Graube, and the parliament's Defense and Interior Affairs Committee Chairman Arnolds Laksa. Scharling also visited the airspace-surveillance facilities and BALTBAT headquarters.
* In Kaliningrad, Foreign Ministry Consular Department Director Hardijs Baumanis and Kaliningrad Oblast First Deputy Governor Mikhail Tsikel discussed the establishment of a Latvian consulate in the city on 19 February, BNS reported. The office is necessary since the Latvian Embassy in Vilnius will stop issuing visas, except transit visas and visas for international truckers, for residents of Kaliningrad Oblast from 1 March. Tsikel pledged his assistance for finding suitable premises for the consulate in Kaliningrad and asked that the Embassy in Vilnius be allowed to continue issuing visas until the consulate begins operations.
* Several hundred people staged a noisy picket in front of the U.S. Embassy in Riga in the early afternoon of 15 February protesting a possible military attack on Iraq, LETA reported. The protest was organized by the Movement for Neutrality NGO, but also included participants of an earlier unauthorized demonstration in the morning which included members of the radical National Bolsheviks. Latvian Socialist Party Chairman Alfreds Rubiks and Equal Rights leader Tatjana Zdanoka delivered speeches at the protest which lasted about an hour.
* Leaders of the four factions in the ruling coalition dismissed as "groundless rumors" the report in the British daily "The Observer" on 16 February that the U.S. is planning to move its military bases in Germany eastward, BNS reported on 18 February. The paper wrote that U.S. bases might be established in Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states. For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK faction head Maris Grinblats doubted the report's accuracy, noting that in current circumstances the deployment of army units in Turkey would be much more credible than in northern countries.
* Mikhail Farbtukh, an 85-year-old former Soviet official convicted of genocide charges, is continuing his case against Latvia at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, charging inhuman conditions of imprisonment, BNS reported on 20 February. He had been sentenced to a seven-year prison term in 1999 for the deportation of 31 Latvian families to Siberia in 1941. His sentence was later reduced to five years and he was released because of poor health in March 2002.
* The parliament approved by a vote of 54 to 42 the first reading of the draft 2003 national budget on 20 February, LETA reported the following day. It provides for revenues of 1.67 billion lats ($2.88 billion) and expenditures of 1.83 billion lats, resulting in a deficit of 177.5 million lats. The government has worked on the budget for three months and expects the president to promulgate it in early March.
* Accepting the recommendation of Defense Minister Kristovskis, the cabinet appointed Indulis Krekis as chief of the country's military counterintelligence service on 18 February, BNS reported. The 43-year-old Krekis had been serving as the head of a department at the Constitutional Protection Office, Latvia's intelligence agency. The service's previous chief, Valdis Trubacs, resigned in September after Kristovskis ordered an investigation of "poor-quality implementation of ministerial orders."
* The Statistics Office announced on 17 February that in 2002 the country's imports grew by 13.4 percent over 2001 or 296 million lats ($475 million) to 2.5 billion lats, BNS reported. As exports increased by only 12.1 percent or 152 million lats to 1.4 billion lats, the foreign-trade deficit rose to 1.1 billion lats. In 2002 trade with the EU accounted for 60.4 and 53 percent of total exports and imports, respectively.

After a meeting with President-elect Rolandas Paksas on 14 February, Bruce Jackson, the head of the nongovernmental U.S.-NATO Committee (U.S. Committee on NATO), said he has no doubts about the continuity of Lithuania's foreign policy, ELTA reported. Paksas expressed support for the so-called Vilnius-10 statement backing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's allegations regarding Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2003). On 17 February, President Valdas Adamkus told Jackson he will remain active in foreign policy after ending his term and maintain close contact with Jackson's committee. Jackson's talks with parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas primarily dealt with the future role of the Vilnius-10.

David O'Sullivan arrived in Vilnius on 20 February and held talks the next day with Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis and Foreign Ministry Secretary Rytis Martikonis, who is in charge of European integration, ELTA reported on 21 February. They reportedly discussed Lithuania's participation in the work of European institutions and proposals for EU institutional reform being discussed by the EU Convention on the future of Europe. In talks with Interior Minister Juozas Bernatonis, O'Sullivan discussed the opportunities for Lithuanians to find employment in EU institutions in Brussels, noting that there are no requirements for national experts to have a record of diplomatic or public service. They also talked about the development of the civil-servant training system in Lithuania and the provisions of the national anticorruption program.

Polish armed forces General Staff Chief General Czeslaw Piatas paid an official visit to Lithuania on 19 February, BNS reported. He held meetings with Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius, Army Commander Major General Jonas Kronkaitis, and members of the parliament's National Security and Defense Committee. Linkevicius said the joint Lithuanian-Polish battalion LITPOLBAT, Lithuania's only joint military unit with a NATO member state, "serves as a good example in the context of regional partnership." Piatas said Poland is considering the possibility of renaming the joint Polish, German, and Danish corps based in Szczecin, Poland, from the Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast to the Baltic Corps, and inviting Lithuanian soldiers to join. In Piatas's talks with Kronkaitis it was noted that after Lithuania's NATO-accession treaty is ratified, its Regional Air Space Observation and Control Center will be incorporated into NATO structures through the system of the Polish Air Force.

Standard & Poor's (S&P) has upgraded Lithuania's currency ratings, BNS and ELTA reported on 18 February. The country's long-term foreign-currency rating was increased from BBB to BBB+, the short-term foreign-currency rating from A3 to A2, and the long-term local-currency rating from BBB+ to A-. The outlook for both local- and foreign-currency ratings is stable. "The upgrade reflects Lithuania's progress in consolidating public finances and its very healthy economic growth, while successfully containing external imbalances," S&P credit analyst Moritz Kraemer said. Among the favorable statistics mentioned were economic-growth rates of 5.9 percent in both 2001 and 2002 despite the global economic downturn, as well as Lithuania's good prospects for keeping its national debt at about 23 percent of GDP.

The government on 20 February successfully issued 10-year Eurobonds worth 400 million euros ($430 million) on the international markets at a yield of 4.5 percent, BNS reported. Although the yield is the lowest since Lithuania started borrowing on foreign capital markets, bids for the bonds totaled 800 million euros. The biggest purchasers of the bonds were from Germany and Austria (45 percent), Great Britain (12 percent), and France (12 percent). Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite said the successful issue indicates investors' confidence in Lithuania's "consistent fiscal policy, the steadily improving reliability of its economy, and, of course, a well-chosen borrowing strategy and tactics." The interest rate was 5.875 percent on a similar 10-year bond issue in April and 6.625 percent on seven-year bonds issued in 2001.
* Delegations headed by Lithuanian Interior Ministry International Relations Department Director Oleg Skinderskis and Russian Foreign Ministry Consular Department Deputy Director Fedor Khorokhordin held talks in Vilnius on 20 and 21 February, ELTA reported. The talks focused primarily on a bilateral readmission agreement, which would define the admission and readmission procedures for persons illegally present in the territory of either country. The next round of consultations will be held in Moscow in the first half of March.
* In a meeting with Andrzej Majkowski, an advisor to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, on 17 February, President-elect Paksas said that Poland would be among the first countries that he intended to visit, BNS reported. Paksas noted that it would be a working visit during which he would meet with Kwasniewski, Prime Minister Leszek Miller, parliament Chairman Marek Borowski, and representatives of the Catholic Church.
* Acting head of the Justice Ministry Department of Prisons Ramunas Kalendra and visiting head of the Swedish Prison and Probation Service Bo Johansson signed a bilateral cooperation agreement in Vilnius on 20 February, ELTA reported. It is a follow-up of earlier agreements on cooperation between prisons and training centers. The primary focus of the new agreement is recruitment and staff training for correctional institutions, as well as the introduction of hygiene standards, tuberculosis control, and HIV/AIDS prevention.
* Foreign Ministry Secretary Giedrius Cekuolis and Defense Ministry Secretary Jurate Raguckiene headed a delegation which held talks in Prague on 18 and 19 February on bilateral relations with the Czech Republic and ratification of Lithuania's Accession Treaty with NATO, ELTA reported on 20 February. The delegation held meetings with members of the Czech parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security committees and visited the Czech armed forces base in Liberec where the unit for defense against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is stationed.
* EU Director-General for Employment and Social Policy Odile Quintin held meetings in Vilnius on 17 February discussing Lithuania's readiness to administer funds from the European Union, BNS reported. She held talks with Social Security and Labor Minister Vilija Blinkeviciute and representatives of other ministries addressing the capacity of Lithuanian institutions to accumulate and use money received from EU structural funds.
* Accompanied by a delegation of businessmen, Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister Ansgar Gabrielsen began a two day visit to Lithuania on 18 February by visiting the northern city of Panevezys where they met with executives of Norwegian capital enterprises, the Norwegian Industry Development Corporation, and city officials, ELTA reported. The next day the Norwegians attended the seminar "Lithuanian-Norwegian Business Cooperation," organized by Lithuania's Economy Ministry.
* The State Food and Veterinary Service and the Belarusian Agriculture and Food Ministry signed a cooperation agreement on food control at the Medininkai border post on 21 February, ELTA reported. The agreement provides for the exchange of operative information on the transit of food products and the control of veterinary sanitary conditions. The two countries plan to form a joint veterinary working team to harmonize the procedure for the import, export, and transit of animals and animal products via their territories in conformity with national laws and obligations to international institutions.
* A Lithuanian Consul-General Office was officially opened in the Belarusian city of Hrodno on 18 February, BNS reported. It had operated only as a visa office from the beginning of the year, but will now also work in the fields of political, economic and cultural cooperation. The consulate became necessary this year because Lithuania has canceled previous visa privileges for some Belarusians as part of its efforts to gain EU membership.
* President-elect Paksas officially presented his main presidential advisors on 21 February, ELTA reported. Parliament deputies Alvydas Medalinskas and Dalia Kutraitiene-Giedraitiene resigned from the Seimas to become advisors for foreign affairs and social matters, respectively. Other members of the presidential team include close associate and professional pilot Gintaras Surkus; a businessman from Raseiniai, Remigijus Acas, will serve as the national security advisor; Lithuanian Law Academy professor Ona Buisiene will advise the president on legal issues; and former Secretary of the State Gambling Supervision Commission Jonas Ragauskaswill be the advisor on economic issues. Paksas also named a large number of public consultants.