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Baltic Report: July 3, 2003

3 July 2003, Volume 4, Number 21
The European Council approved a resolution on 20 June at the Thessaloniki summit welcoming the draft European constitution presented by European Convention President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, calling the draft "a historic step in the direction of furthering the objectives of European integration," international agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 June 2003). "The text of the Draft Constitutional Treaty is a good basis for starting the Intergovernmental Conference," the council said. That conference is slated to begin in October and is expected to agree on a final document before the expected accession of 10 new members in May 2004. Giscard d'Estaing warned members of the European Convention not to lobby for wholesale changes in what he said is a document that strikes a delicate balance. However, Britain, Poland, and Spain voiced fears on the envisaged new voting system and at the loss of the national veto right. Under the compromise formula, the current six-month EU Presidency would be replaced by a permanent president elected by the European Parliament for a 30-month term. The EU president would preside over summit meetings and represent the EU abroad. The EU would also have a permanent foreign minister under the draft's provisions -- a newly created post whose duties would include chairing monthly meetings of EU foreign ministers. The European Commission would also have 15 voting commissioners from 2009 -- doing away with the current system in which each member state is represented by a commissioner. Those countries not represented on the commission would have nonvoting "associate" commissioners. A principle of "equal rotation" on the commission would apply for all members. The unanimity principle would also be abandoned on some issues, among them taxation and foreign policy, with voting taking population figures into account.

The European Council on 20 June received an initiative proposed by the Baltic and Nordic countries at the Thessaloniki summit to ban single-hull oil tankers from entering the Baltic Sea, BNS reported the next day. Questions remain over when the ban might take effect, however. The proposal set a date of 2010, while Russia has mentioned 2015 as a possible deadline. Estonian government spokeswoman Hanna Hinrikus said the council made no decision on when the ban should begin, but stressed the need to involve Russia in the process.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers began a brief visit to Vilnius on 18 June with talks with Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius and armed forces commander Major General Jonas Kronkaitis, BNS reported. Myers told reporters after meeting with President Rolandas Paksas that the Lithuanian troops serving in Afghanistan "are carrying out their mission perfectly. The coalition forces serving in Afghanistan admire their work." He praised Lithuania's preparations for NATO membership and said the country's military cooperation with the United States will become closer. Myers then flew to Riga, where President Vaira Vike-Freiberga expressed gratitude for the United States' rapid ratification of the NATO Protocols of Accession. They discussed the development of Latvia's armed forces and its participation in the reconstruction of Iraq. Myers also met with Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis and army commander Rear Admiral Gaidis Andrejs Zeibots before traveling to Tallinn. Myers told Estonia's armed forces commander Vice Admiral Tarmo Kouts in Tallinn on 19 June that the development of the country's military has been impressive. He said he is sure that Estonia will be able to make a strong contribution to NATO when it becomes a member of the alliance. Defense Minister Margus Hanson thanked Myers for the assistance the United States has provided to strengthen Estonia's military capabilities. Myers was expected to see off an Estonian military unit departing for peacekeeping operations in Iraq, but their flight was postponed.

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski proposed at a conference in Berlin on 24 June that troops from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia join the German-Polish-Danish NATO corps headquartered in the Polish port of Szczecin, dpa reported. The 49,000-strong corps consists of one division each from Germany, Poland, and Denmark. In peacetime, the three divisions are based in their home countries and remain under their respective national commands.

Istanbul will host a summit of NATO leaders in May 2004 to welcome the seven new members of the alliance, AFP and AP reported on 25 June. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and NATO officials said the summit will mark the formal accession to the North Atlantic alliance of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia, which were invited into NATO at the organization's November 2002 summit in Prague. The exact date of the summit is yet to be established. The event will mark the first time since 1957 that a NATO summit has taken place in Turkey.
* The prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden sent a letter to European Council President Costis Simitis ahead of the EU summit in Thessaloniki urging the EU to launch a new "Partnership for Progress and Reform" in the Middle East and North Africa and cooperate closely with the United States to achieve progress in democracy in the Arab world, Reuters reported on 18 June. It calls on the EU to draw up a plan by October based on proposals made in a confidential EU report, which said the bloc should adapt its strategy toward Islamic states to combat violent fundamentalism.
* Interior Ministers Margus Leivo (Estonia), Maris Gulbis (Latvia), and Virgilijus Bulovas (Lithuania) held their annual working meeting on the western Estonian island of Saaremaa on 19-20 June, BNS reported. The ministers discussed cooperation related to the work of the police, border guards, and the citizenship and migration authorities along with the possibility of introducing ID cards as travel documents in the Baltic states. They also talked about a trilateral agreement on information exchange, coordination of the three countries' work within the European Union, institutional reform of the Baltic Council of Ministers, and other issues.
* The first joint conference of the Commission for the Protection of Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) and the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM) met in Bremen, Germany on 25 and 26 June, BNS reported. Due to the objections of Russia, the conference did not advance the date of a ban on the use of single-hull oil tankers in the Baltic Sea or designate the sea as a "Particularly Sensitive Sea Area." Latvia is currently presiding over HELCOM with former Environment Minister Inese Vaidere serving as chairwoman. Lithuanian Environment Ministry State Secretary Arvydas Dragunas expressed concern about the plans of the Russia oil company LUKoil to extract oil near the coast of the Curonian Spit without providing requested safety information.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told visiting President Arnold Ruutel in Berlin on 18 June that Estonia serves as an example for other countries on how to integrate ethnic minorities into their societies, BNS reported. He said Germany wholeheartedly backs Estonia's membership in the EU and that relations between the two countries could not be better. Ruutel said environmental issues -- including a ban of single-hull oil tankers, the construction of the Via Baltica highway, and the integration of Baltic Sea energy systems -- will be priorities when Estonia takes over the presidency of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in July. The leaders also discussed the work of the EU Convention on the Future of Europe and agreed that it serves as a good basis for the work of an intergovernmental EU conference scheduled for this fall. Ruutel had begun his visit to Germany two days earlier. He told the annual conference of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes in Berlin on 16 June that cooperation with both the United States and Russia is necessary to ensure Estonia's security. He said that, as a small country, Estonia is well aware of the need for collective and cooperative security and realizes that terrorism is a global problem. In later talks with Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, Ruutel stressed the need for more joint projects to promote cooperation in science, the economy, culture, and other areas. Wowereit pledged to take a large business delegation along when he visits Tallinn in September. Ruutel met with German President Johannes Rau on 17 June

Defense Forces Commander Vice Admiral Tarmo Kouts told reporters on 20 June that the 32-member infantry unit Estpla-7 and an 11-member cargo-handling team departed earlier that day for the Persian Gulf aboard a U.S. C-17 troop-transport aircraft, BNS reported. After undergoing a few days of training in Kuwait, Estpla-7 will be transported to a location north of Baghdad where they will carry out searches and patrol assignments and man observation posts and checkpoints. The cargo handlers will be deployed at the Al-Jaber airfield 30 kilometers south of the Kuwaiti capital. The three naval divers who were to be based in Bahrain to defuse underwater explosives did not depart, because it has yet to be determined whether their services will be needed.

Defense Ministry spokesman Madis Mikko told BNS on 20 June that unlike Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius, who recently expressed his country's readiness to host NATO bases to visiting U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, Estonia has no plans to host NATO bases on its territory. "The question about a desire to deploy bases on the territory of foreign countries should be addressed to the U.S. or NATO," Mikko told Interfax the next day. "Estonia does not have such plans and it is not holding such negotiations." He also noted that when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were joining NATO, the alliance pledged not to deploy nuclear weapons nor create permanent military bases on their territory and that the same promise is contained in the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

President Arnold Ruutel, parliament speaker Ene Ergma, and Prime Minister Juhan Parts launched the information campaign for the 14 September EU-membership referendum on 25 June by issuing a joint statement in which they declared their support for the EU and urged all Estonian citizens to do likewise, BNS reported. The State Chancellery's EU Information Bureau head Hannes Rumm said the information campaign, which will cost 2.5 million kroons ($185,000), will be impartial, with the principal aim being to publicize the date of the referendum so that as many people as possible will take part. The government hopes the turnout will be at least as high as it was for the March parliamentary elections -- 58 percent.

Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda informed Prime Minister Juhan Parts in Tallinn on 26 June about the Czech Republic's successful passage of its EU-membership referendum, BNS reported. Svoboda said the Czech government used special television programs and Internet websites prior to the referendum to inform the public about the benefits of EU membership. Svoboda's talks the same day with Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland also dealt with Estonia's EU-membership referendum in September and the further development of bilateral relations when both countries are members of the EU and NATO. In both meetings the postwar reconstruction of Iraq was discussed.

Polish Interior Minister Krzysztof Janik and his Estonian counterpart Margus Leivo signed an agreement in Warsaw on 26 June on combating organized crime, PAP reported. The two countries committed themselves to cooperating to prevent auto theft, combating drug trafficking, and exchanging information on economic crimes as well as criminals and gangs operating in the two states.

The daily "Eesti Paevaleht" reported on 17 June that Estonian travel agencies are giving up on booking package tours to the United States because too many applicants are being refused visas, BNS reported. The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn has issued a press release refuting the article's claims, stating that 89 percent of Estonian applicants received U.S. visas this year, compared to approximately 82 percent in 2001 and 2002. The embassy admitted that after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, the checking of visa applications became more stringent and expressed regret for any inconvenience this might have caused.
* Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland attended the regular monthly session of the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Luxembourg on 16 and 17 June which was preparing for the meeting of the European Council in Thessaloniki later in the week, BNS reported. At a working meeting on 19 June she called for a ban of single-hull oil tankers in the Baltic Sea no later than 2010.
* The Citizenship and Migration Board has begun to expel retired Russian military who had received aid from an international program to purchase housing in Russia, but still want to live in Estonia, BNS reported on 16 June. The action is prompted by a recent Supreme Court decision which stated that Estonia does not have to furnish residence permits to retired Russian military who have received aid to purchase housing in Russia. Some of the retired military as well as the Russian foreign minister and Duma speaker have protested the planned expulsions.
* Environment Ministry Water Department specialist Argo Sakkool said that about 2 percent of the country's territory still has hazardous pollution left behind by the Soviet army and industrial companies, BNS reported on 18 June. A total of 250 pollution sites have been registered, of which 23 are considered particularly dangerous. Unfortunately Estonia lack the funds to clean up the sites, but the ministry is planning to apply for 10 million euros ($11.7 million) from the EU Cohesion Fund although funds would arrive in 2005 or in 2006 at the earliest.
* Swedish Health Care Minister Morgan Johansson visited Tallinn on 18 June and expressed worry about the rising number of HIV infections in his country, BNS reported. The problem is more severe in Estonia, where there are 3,200 people infected with HIV. In Sweden 3,500 are infected but the population is six times as large.
* The Bank of Estonia announced on 16 June that the current account deficit in the first three months of the year was 5.8 billion kroons ($420 million) or 14.4 percent of the average GDP of the last four quarters, BNS reported. The deficit amounts to 22.2 percent of the anticipated GDP of the first quarter and is considered excessive. The deficit was primarily caused by a foreign trade deficit of 5.7 billion kroons, which was offset by a smaller than usual balance of services surplus which was only 789 million kroons. The service surplus was low because of decreased shipping due to icy conditions in the Baltic Sea.
* Bank of Estonia President Vahur Kraft advised the state to cut spending and borrowing and not to pass any supplementary budgets as the current account deficit is already too large, LETA reported on 18 June. He called for the abolishment of the provision allowing residents to reduce income tax payments by subtracting the interest paid on housing loans.
* Deputy Head of the Finance Ministry Analysis Department Andrus Saalik said that the planned tax reforms for 2004-2006, which would reduce the income tax rate from 26 percent to 20 percent and increase the annual tax-exempt income level from 12,000 to 24,000 kroons ($880-$1760), will reduce budget revenue by 4.5 billion kroons in 2007, LETA reported on 16 June. He noted that the reforms will increase the real income of private individuals, particularly those in the low-income bracket, and boost demand and consumption, as well as saving, while reducing tax fraud.
* Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher, accompanied by the ministry's Chancellor Priidu Parna and other ministry officials, visited Finland on 17 and 18 June, LETA reported. He met with his Finnish counterpart Johannes Koskinen and visited the Vantaa prison and the Justice Policy Institute.
* An 11-member delegation from the Tallinn city government, including Mayor Edgar Savisaar and five deputy mayors, traveled to Brussels on 14 June to hold a cabinet session on Euro-integration issues and meetings for five days with representatives of EU institutions, LETA reported on 14 June. The delegation discussed the possibilities of local and regional governments in the EU with the EU Regions Committee and several European Commission directorates.
* Deputy heads of the Russian Culture Ministry Department of Cinematography Denis Tumanov and Yelena Gromova held talks with Culture Minister Urmas Paet in Tallinn on 18 June, BNS reported. They reached a preliminary agreement on cinematographic cooperation that should help filmmakers from the two countries to launch common projects more easily. The accord will probably be signed in the summer.
* The new director general of the Police Board, Robert Antropov, announced on 16 June major administrative reforms inside the police force, which would result in merging the 17 police prefectures to four regional centers in Tallinn, Tartu, Parnu, and Johvi by 1 January 2004, LETA reported the next day. The fierce opposition of the county governors to the abolishment of the prefects forced Antropov to modify his reforms so that a police chief would remain in each county, but the personnel, information, accounting, and economic units of the current small prefectures will be consolidated into the four centers, LETA reported on 27 June.
* The Kohtla-Jarve City Council elected Valeri Korb of the Center Party as its chairman with 27 of the 35 votes in the council on 25 June, BNS reported the next day. The council had elected Korb as the city's mayor in the fall, but this had been repealed by both an administrative court and a higher-level circuit court because he is currently on trial for criminal charges. Former council chairman Hants Hint had been elected as the mayor the previous week.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga was re-elected to a second four-year term as president during a special parliamentary session on 20 June by a vote of 88-6, LETA reported. Her re-election was expected because she had been nominated by the ruling coalition of New Era, For the Fatherland, and Freedom/LNNK, Union of Greens and Farmers, and Latvia's First Party, as well as the opposition People's Party. The opposition National Harmony Party also supported her candidacy. Only the leftist Socialist Party and some independent deputies opposed her re-election. No other candidate was nominated to run. Vike-Freiberga, after living in Canada for almost 50 years, was elected president in 1999 with only 53 votes in parliament. She has succeeded in becoming the country's most popular political figure, despite not being affiliated with any political party. Her new term of office will begin on 8 July.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told the World Economic Forum in Jordan on 22 June during a discussion on Europe's role in the Middle East that Latvia is prepared to share with other countries its experience in initiating and implementing democratic reforms, LETA reported. She noted that Latvian troops are participating in peacekeeping operations in Iraq and that a Latvian company will help restore Baghdad's Internet connections. Vike-Freiberga also spoke about the work of the Latvian Historians Commission and expressed the country's willingness to share its experience of overcoming totalitarianism. On 21 June, she held meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah II, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski. On 22 June, she participated in a discussion of the role of opinion makers and intellectuals in the Middle Eastern peace process and in a charity event to benefit Iraqi children that was hosted by Jordanian Queen Rania.

The cabinet approved on 17 June a proposal to send an infantry unit of some 100 soldiers to serve in peacekeeping operations in Iraq, BNS reported. The unit would serve in the Polish multinational division, which is to comprise troops from 21 countries. The troops are expected to arrive in Iraq by 11 August at the latest. Their main task will be to ensure public order and security in the area in which they are stationed. Another Latvian unit of 39 officers and soldiers, including six mine-clearing experts, is currently serving with Danish troops in the northeastern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

After nearly a year of deliberation, Latvia has decided not to sign a bilateral agreement with the United States under which each country would pledge not to surrender the other's citizens to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the daily "Diena" reported on 26 June. Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins told the newspaper that Latvia informed the United States about the decision last week. He noted that Latvia did not say it will never sign such an agreement, but could not do so now because of the EU's unified position against the immunity-exemption agreements. Riekstins suggested that the United States and the EU should hold negotiations on the issue. The Greek EU Presidency on 24 June published a statement under which the 10 EU candidate countries as well as Bulgaria, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Romania, and Switzerland promised that their "national stance will be consistent with the general EU position."

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga expressed her dissatisfaction with the results of a recent U.S. State Department report on human trafficking that lists Latvia among 74 countries it said have made insufficient efforts to eliminate this problem, BNS reported on 16 June. According to the report, Latvia is a source and transit country for an increasing number of women and girls trafficked to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Germany, and Portugal for sexual exploitation. The report notes that the Latvian government is making efforts to tackle the problem, but says the roles and responsibilities of different ministries and law enforcement agencies are still undefined and cites a lack of central coordination. Vike-Freiberga asked law enforcement agencies to provide her with specific information about their work in this sphere. She also said the state must provide the necessary funds to stop human trafficking.

A Swedish delegation headed by Foreign Minister Anna Lindh paid a visit to Latvia on 27 June, BNS reported. The group visited the Rundale Palace, famous for its Baroque architecture, in southern Latvia and proceeded to the nearby city of Jelgava for talks with Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete, Jelgava Mayor Andris Ravins, and local residents. The foreign ministers later discussed the results of the European Council's summit in Thessaloniki, the expansion of the EU to the Balkans, the need for better EU relations with Russia, as well as developments in Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. The delegation also toured the Riga Open-Air Ethnographic Museum.

Some 50 politicians from various states attended a conference in Riga on 14 June on EU enlargement and Latvia's role in the process, BNS and LETA reported. The conference was organized by the European Movement in Latvia (EML) and the Paris-based association of European capitals, Eurocapitales. EML leader Ainars Dimants opened the conference by asking for a minute of silence to honor the approximately 15,000 people who were deported from Latvia to Siberia by the Soviet authorities on 14 June 1941. Eurocapitales President Joachim Mueller-Borle pointed out the significance of boosting cooperation among Europe's capitals in developing peaceful, lawful, and associated relations in a united Europe. Riga City Council Deputy Chairman Aivars Kreituss noted that Riga has already established ties with numerous European cities and expressed his confidence that Latvia's 20 September referendum on EU membership will pass.

The Stockholm International Court of Arbitration ruled on 25 June that Latvia must pay the shareholders of the joint-stock company Latvijas gaze (Latvian Gas) 6.9 million lats ($12.2 million) in compensation for damages it caused by regulating gas prices, LETA reported. Latvijas gaze had filed a claim of more than 10.3 million lats, arguing that Latvia could regulate only gas prices to households and not to industrial firms. The court rules that the state has the right to regulate gas tariffs for all customers, but that the methodology it used was improper. It gave Latvijas gaze only two-thirds of the damages it sought. An appeal against the court ruling can be filed within three months, and it is not yet clear whether the government will do so.
* The meeting of the EU-Latvian Association Committee in Riga on 18 June concluded that Latvia needs to pay more attention to judicial reform, develop stable public administration structures, and strengthen administrative capacity to improve its integration into the EU, BNS reported. The EU delegates noted Latvia's successful macroeconomic development and praised its progress in building a legal and institutional framework for fighting corruption, money laundering, and organized crime, in reforming the judicial system, and integrating noncitizens into Latvia's society.
* Former Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs traveled to Moscow to attend the annual session of the Advisory Council, comprising 35 former presidents and premiers of world countries including former U.S presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, BNS reported on 25 June. In talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on 23 June, Birkavs discussed improving the relations between their countries. He also suggested that a meeting of the leaders of the world's main eight religions be held in Moscow in 2006 at the same time as the G-8 summit. Birkavs also met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
* World Bank (WB) Vice President for Europe and Central Asia Johannes Linn visited Latvia on 18 and 19 June, LETA reported. The first day he had meetings with Prime Minister Repse and Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in Riga and attended the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the bank's opening an office in Latvia. On 19 June, Linn traveled to review the implementation of an eco-tourism project in Jurkane and of a waste disposal management project in Liepaja which have received WB funding. After talks with Liepaja Mayor Uldis Sesks, he departed to Klaipeda, Lithuania before visiting Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.
* An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission, headed by IMF Baltic Department Deputy Chairman Johannes Mueller, visited Latvia on 16-20 June to evaluate the macroeconomic situation in the state and become better acquainted with its draft budget for 2004, LETA reported. Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis met with the mission the first day.
* IMF Europe II Directorate head John Odling-Smee arrived in Riga on 18 June and urged Prime Minister Einars Repse not to allow Latvia's 2004 budget deficit to be greater than 2 percent of the GDP. The mission in its closing report opposed the plan to lower the corporate tax rate from 19 percent to 15 percent next year
* The European Commission (EC) sent its second warning letter to Latvia this year pointing out that the harmonization of laws and regulations on taxes, transport, customs, and financial control has not been carried out and also criticized its failure to observe commitments concerning court reform and combating corruption, LETA reported on 18 June. Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins told BNS that the government has developed a plan to eliminate these deficiencies by the fall before the next EC report which describes whether EU candidate countries are fulfilling their promises. He said that it was important to follow the plan and inform EC officials about the progress made.
* The wireless Internet solutions company Mikrotikls has accepted an offer by the U.S. company Crisis Communications to set up the infrastructure of a planned wireless communications network Tigris Net in Baghdad, LETA reported on 19 June. The company will first offer its services free of charge to aid organizations, libraries, and educational establishments in the Iraqi capital and gradually commercialize the operation. It has completed a similar operation in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in 1999.
* The patriotic youth organization Visu Latvijai! (All for Latvia!) organized a picket of about 50 people in front of the Russian Embassy in Riga on 17 June, demanding that Russia recognize the fact that the USSR occupied Latvia on that day in 1940, LETA reported. The protesters carried Latvian national flags with black ribbons and signs in Latvian and Russian such as "Occupants -- Get Out of Latvia and Chechnya!" and "Alien Language = Jail." They sang patriotic songs, discussed the latest political developments in Latvia, and distributed leaflets urging people to join Visu Latvijai!.
* The Riga City Council has appealed to the Constitutional Court to rule that several points in the law on the preservation and protection of the historic center of Riga passed by the parliament on 29 May contradict the European Charter of Local Self-Government, LETA reported on 26 June. The law provides for the establishment of a special council with the right to make binding decisions for the city council thus violating the European Charter's article stating: "Public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen."
* The parliament approved amendments to the 2003 national budget which allocate an additional 32.4 million lats ($58 million) by a vote of 60 to 20 with three abstentions on 20 June, LETA reported. The new funds are to be distributed to a wide range of areas, with the largest sums going to the health-care system (12.6 million lats), local government (4.9 million lats), the state highway fund (4.6 million lats), agriculture (4.4 million lats), and higher salaries for teachers (3.5 million lats).
* Naturalization Board (NB) head Eizenija Aldermane told a conference on the importance of regional aspects in solving citizenship matters in Riga on 8 June that even though there are almost a half million noncitizens living in Latvia the number of naturalization applications has been falling since 1999, LETA reported. In 1999, NB received 15,183 naturalization applications, 8,672 in 2001, and 8,370 in 2002. A survey conducted in February and March indicated that people did not apply because they did not think they would succeed and hoped that the process would be made easier.
* About 300 people marched from Riga's Gunpowder Tower to the Education and Science Ministry building in front of which they held a rally on 18 June protesting the plans to make Latvian the main language of instruction in all schools from September 2004, LETA reported. They demanded that Education and Science Minister Karlis Sadurskis resign and urged people to vote against joining the EU. The protesters also proposed making Russian the second state language.
* Prime Minister Einars Repse signed a decree on 16 June establishing a commission to evaluate the candidates for the new head of the Corruption Prevention Bureau, LETA reported on 16 June. Repse will head the commission whose members also include the finance, interior, and justice ministers, the parliament speaker, prosecutor-general, state controller, and the state chancellery director. The commission plans to evaluate candidates in July so that the parliament could approve the choice in September.
* Opposition Peoples Party deputy Vineta Muizniece called on Prosecutor-General Juris Maizitis and interim Corruption Prevention Bureau head Alvis Vilks to open a formal investigation into accusations that Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks (New Era) tried to influence the course of the privatization of Latvijas krajbanka (Latvian Savings Bank -- LKB), "LETA" reported on 17 June. Aksenoks is accused of calling the chairperson of the Court of Ventspils, Mara Cara, at home after business hours to discuss the privatization of LKB, thus allegedly exploiting his status in an effort to influence the court. The Latvian Association of Judges has also sharply criticized Aksenoks' actions, according to a 16 June LETA report, stating that they were incompatible with his functions as set out in the Law on the Judiciary. A 25.1 percent state share in LKB, Latvia's oldest and largest commercial bank, was privatized to an unknown, British Virgin Islands-registered company, Doxa Fund Ltd, in an uncontested, yet controversial, sale in mid-May.
* About 400 people -- among them President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Einars Repse, and state and municipal officials -- gathered at the Freedom Monument in Riga on 14 June to commemorate the deportation of more than 15,000 people from Latvia to Siberia on 14 June 1941, LETA reported. Vike-Freiberga noted that the deportation was genocide against the people of Latvia because among the deported were also Jews, Poles, Germans, and people of other nationalities. This was "an act of terror with a purpose to ram into the people the conviction of the invincibility of Stalinism," said the president.
* Socialist Party Chairman Alfreds Rubiks told BNS on 27 June that its experts are preparing documents to contest in court the decision made by the Supreme Council in the fall of 1991 which banned all persons who had been members of the Communist Party after 13 January 1991 from being candidates in parliament or local elections. He said that if Latvian courts did not revoke this ban, the party would appeal.

The Vilnius City Council elected Liberal and Center Union (LCS) Chairman Arturas Zuokas the new mayor of Vilnius on 25 June, ELTA reported. Zuokas narrowly defeated Social Democrat Gediminas Pavirzis by a vote of 26 to 24, with one invalid ballot. This was the third vote by the council in two months to chose a mayor since the Constitutional Court declared Pavirzis's initial victory in April invalid, and two subsequent rounds of voting ended in ties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April and 12 June 2003). Representatives of the leftist New Union (Social Liberals), the rightist Homeland Union (Conservatives of Lithuania), and the Liberal and Center Union signed an agreement on 18 June to form a broad coalition in the Vilnius City Council, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The coalition would have at least 28 of the 51 seats in the City Council. Social Democratic Party Chairman and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said he was surprised by the decision of his party's coalition partner, the New Union, but after meeting with its Chairman Arturas Paulauskas he said, "I would not call it a betrayal."

Members of the Lithuanian Green Movement staged a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Vilnius on 23 June to protest plans by Russian oil giant LUKoil to begin extracting oil from the D-6 deposit in the Baltic Sea later this year, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The D-6 field is located 22 kilometers off the Curonian Spit and 7 kilometers from the Lithuanian-Russian maritime border. The spit is a narrow strip of land in Lithuania and Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast with unique dunes and other natural features that was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas told reporters on 23 June that he is sending another letter to his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kasyanov reminding him that a pledge to provide an international experts' report on the safety of extraction from the D-6 field has not been fulfilled.

German President Johannes Rau began a brief visit to Vilnius on 16 June with talks with his Lithuanian counterpart Rolandas Paksas, ELTA reported. In a subsequent press conference he declared Germany's determination to cooperate with Lithuania in building an undivided Europe and to support Lithuania's return to the community of European states. The presidents stressed the need to build more railways, highways, and electrical lines in the Baltic Sea region. Rau said the Vilnius-10's declaration supporting U.S. policy toward Iraq will not have any effect on German-Lithuanian relations. Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas spoke about increasing interparliamentary cooperation as well as Lithuania's integration into the EU. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas expressed his thanks for Germany's ratification of Lithuania's NATO accession protocol and noted the need to maintain good relations with Russia.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh told a press conference in Vilnius on 26 June that she hopes her own country will follow the example Lithuania set in overwhelmingly passing its EU-membership referendum when Sweden holds its referendum on 14 September on whether to adopt the euro as its currency, BNS reported. During her one-day visit Lindh had meetings with President Rolandas Paksas, Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, and the chairmen of the parliament's Foreign and European Affairs committees, Gediminas Kirkilas and Vytenis Andriukaitis. The main topics of discussion were bilateral relations, regional cooperation among the Nordic and Baltic countries, EU enlargement, and relations with neighboring countries. Lindh also told Paksas that the Swedish royal couple King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia will attend the celebrations in Vilnius in July marking the 750th anniversary of the coronation of King Mindaugas.

Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda began a one-day visit to Vilnius on 25 June with a meeting with Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, BNS reported. The two men discussed bilateral relations and possible Czech advice on the closing of the Ignalina nuclear-power plant. Svoboda told President Rolandas Paksas that the Czech parliament will ratify the NATO Accession Protocols for the seven candidate countries on 27 June. Paksas called for greater bilateral economic cooperation and expressed regret that former Czech President Vaclav Klaus will not attend the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of the coronation of King Mindaugas in July. After talks with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, Svoboda departed for Tallinn.

The parliament on 17 June approved a bill on the structure of the Lithuanian armed forces that calls for the reduction of the number of soldiers from the current 22,000 to 17,000 by 2008, ELTA and BNS reported. The bill passed by a vote of 53 to six with 13 abstentions. The reduction will be achieved by cutting the annual number of conscripts from 4,500 to 2,000 people and the active reserve from 9,000 to 6,500 servicemen. However, the number of senior officers will increase, as otherwise it would be difficult to delegate suitably ranked representatives to work on NATO staffs. The number of generals and admirals will be increased from four to seven, colonels and sea captains from 30 to 40, and lieutenant colonels and commanders from 105 to 120. Liberal parliament deputy Algirdas Gricius criticized the bill, saying the country should follow the examples of other Western European countries and give up conscription completely.

Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite and Michael Graham, head of the European Commission's delegation in Lithuania, signed a financial memorandum in Vilnius on 19 June granting Lithuania 52 million euros ($61 million) in aid for 2003 under the PHARE program, ELTA reported. This will be the final PHARE program for Lithuania, as it is expected to become an EU member next year and receive aid under the EU's Transition Facility program. The funds must be used up by 30 November 2006 and will push the total amount Lithuania has received from the PHARE program since 1993 to 550 million euros. The assistance for 2003 is slated for 22 projects in various sectors, especially agriculture. Four projects for the judicial and domestic spheres will receive around 12 million euros, which will finance the implementation of the Schengen Acquis requirements for external-border control, the strengthening of the network of prosecutors' offices, building up the national SIRENE bureau, and combating corruption. Some 8.8 million euros will go to projects for economic and social programs such as the opening of 300 locations for public Internet access and the renovation of a spa in Druskininkai.

In an effort to facilitate travel between Kaliningrad Oblast and the rest of Russia, Lithuania will open a second consulate in the Kaliningrad Oblast city of Sovetsk on 24 June, ELTA reported on 23 June. Lithuanian Consul General to Kaliningrad Vytautas Zalys noted that the current policy of allowing Kaliningrad Oblast residents to enter Lithuania without visas will end on 1 July. He said the consulate in Kaliningrad has already issued almost 15,000 free-transit visas to Kaliningrad residents, with another 400 applications being processed. Not a single visa application has been rejected. The main consulate in Kaliningrad will be capable of dealing with about 500 visa applications every day, while the new consulate in Sovetsk will primarily deal with people living in the eastern part of Kaliningrad Oblast.

Rolandas Paksas called for "the maximum restoration of social justice" after a 24 June meeting with Prosecutor-General Antanas Klimavicius, Special Investigation Service (STT) head Valentinas Junokas, State Controller Jonas Liaucius, and Interior Ministry Secretary Algirdas Astrauskas, "Kauno diena" reported on 25 June. Paksas gave the officials one week to make recommendations on improving current laws in order to prevent the illegal acquisition of land by state officials and to punish those who have done so. His statement was prompted by recent revelations that more than 700 officials acquired valuable plots of land in 2000-02 using insider information and political connections acquired through their government positions. Presidential spokesman Rosvaldas Gorbaciovas said Paksas intends to present amendments that would make it easier to dismiss officials who violate the law and to bar them from serving in public office for five years.

Arturas Skardzius and Tomasz Nalecz, who are deputy chairmen of the Lithuanian and Polish parliaments, respectively, signed a resolution on 21 June that concluded the work of the 11th session of the Lithuanian-Polish interparliamentary assembly in Palanga, "Lietuvos zinios" reported on 23 June. The resolution calls for further close cooperation between the two countries once they become members of the EU and after Lithuania joins NATO. Unlike previous sessions in which there were sharp disputes on the questions of national minorities and education, this session was very peaceful and ended on schedule. Skardzius said problems that are frequently encountered at the countries' mutual border posts will disappear with EU membership, thereby boosting bilateral trade. The session also discussed the need for the EU to increase cooperation with its eastern neighbors.

Four medics who were scheduled to participate in an international humanitarian operation in Iraq for up to six months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2003) returned to Lithuania on 23 June after just 2 1/2 months of service, ELTA reported on 24 June. The four spent most of their mission aboard the Spanish hospital ship "Galicia," which was moored near the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, and treating Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war at a local civilian hospital. Taking into account its plans to send a large contingent of troops to serve in the Polish-controlled area of Iraq, Spain decided to recall the "Galicia." Lithuania also decided not to extend the mission of these medics, as it also plans to send another platoon in August to serve in the Polish-controlled area and has other medics serving in international missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo.

The election on 15 June for the four vacant seats in the 141-member Lithuanian parliament failed due to low voter turnout, Lithuanian radio reported the next day. There were 27 candidates from 12 political parties competing for three seats in Vilnius and one in Panevezys. President Rolandas Paksas and his advisers Dalia Kutraite and Alvydas Medalinskas gave up their parliament seats representing districts in Vilnius following the presidential elections, as did Conservative Vitas Matuzas before being elected mayor of Panevezys. According to Lithuanian election law, a voter turnout of at least 40 percent is required for elections to be considered valid. Only slightly more than 11 percent of eligible voters participated in the 15 June elections. Another round of elections for these seats will not be held; thus, parliament will continue to have 137 members until the next elections in the fall of 2004. Nonetheless, the top vote getters in the failed elections were former Liberal Union Chairman Eugenijus Gentvilas, Social Security and Labor Minister Vilija Blinkeviciute of the New Union (Social Liberals), and Conservatives Vilija Aleknaite-Abramikiene and Julius Dautartas.