26 September 2003, Volume
NOTE TO READERS:
This issue covers events in the Baltic states from 15-21 September 2003.
FINANCE MINISTER RESIGNS.
Tonis Palts submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Juhan Parts on 19 September saying he wished to spare his family and political partners from "groundless and mostly anonymous" criticism related to his earlier activity as a businessman, BNS reported. At the end of August, the Tax Board launched a misdemeanor action against Pambos Holdings, a firm owned by Palts, to investigate whether it had violated the Tax Administration and Accounting Acts in 2001. Palts said he had told Parts about his wish to resign in June, but agreed to remain in the post until the 2004 budget was prepared. On 18 September, the government approved the budget he offered. Palts will resume his parliament deputy seat he suspended on becoming a minister. Parts said he will nominate Res Publica parliament faction head Taavi Veskimagi as finance minister. Veskimagi, 28, is a member of the parliament's Finance Committee. He worked in the Finance Ministry from 1996-2001.RUSSIAN INTERIOR MINISTER WELCOMES EU REFERENDUM DECISION.
Boris Gryzlov hailed the results of the recent EU membership referendum in Estonia at a press conference with his Estonian counterpart, Margus Leivo, in Tallinn on 16 September, BNS reported. Gryzlov and Leivo had discussed compliance with the agreement -- signed in September 2002 -- on cooperation in combating crime and international drug trafficking in 2003 and 2004. Gryzlov mentioned he had asked about easing visa procedures for certain categories of Estonian and Russian citizens, such as students, business people making frequent trips to the other country, and representatives of specified organizations and political parties. He also had talks with Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar about the upcoming visit to Tallinn of Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Aleksii II. Savisaar noted he will pay a visit to Moscow before the end of the year, during which the two capital cities should conclude a cooperation agreement.LAST ANNUAL NATIONAL PLAN FOR NATO APPROVED.
The ministerial commission for handling NATO-related matters approved Estonia's Annual National Plan (ANP) for NATO accession for the years 2003-2004 on 15 September, BNS reported. This is the fifth and final ANP, as Estonia will join the alliance in 2004. The commission is headed by Prime Minister Juhan Parts and also includes the defense, finance, foreign, interior, and justice ministers, as well as the commander of Estonia's defense forces. The government officially approved the plan on 18 September. Its contents will become partially public after it is submitted to NATO in October, but should not differ much from earlier ANPs.FREE TRADE TREATIES WITH SIX COUNTRIES TO BE CANCELED.
The government approved and submitted to the parliament on 18 September a bill which would end the free-trade agreements with Ukraine, Turkey, and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, BNS reported. The agreements have to be terminated to fulfill the obligation set in the EU accession treaty to terminate all free trade agreements before joining the EU. Upon becoming an EU member, Estonia is obliged to join all EU foreign agreements. This is to ensure a constant legal relationship with the six countries and avoid problems in trade that may result from its disruption.TRANSPORT TRADE UNIONS SIGN STRIKE AGREEMENT.
Representatives of the Estonian Seamen's Independent Trade Union, Estonian Railway Workers Trade Union, and Estonian Transport and Road Workers Trade Union signed a joint strike agreement in Tallinn on 17 September, BNS reported. The unions have nearly 8,000 members and a strike fund of 5 million kroons ($360,000). Through a joint strike, they would be able to halt all airplane, ship, railroad, bus, and truck traffic in the country. "We have made a very powerful weapon for the protection of our members that we hope we are never going to need," Transport and Road Workers Trade Union head Peep Peterson said of the agreement.
* Parliament Speaker Ene Ergma met with British House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin in London on 17 September, BNS reported. Their talks focused on the role of parliaments in preparing a country for EU membership and she officially extended an invitation to Martin to visit Estonia next year. Ergma also had a meeting with House of Commons European Affairs Committee Chairman Jimmy Hood. The next day she traveled to Scotland for meetings with members of the Scottish Cabinet and parliament.
*A 20-member delegation from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, led by Alice Mahon from Great Britain, one of its five committee heads, and chairman of the Subcommittee for Democratic Governance, Niki Bettendorf from Luxembourg, visited Estonia on 18 and 19 September to learn more about the situation of ethnic minorities, BNS reported. The first day, they talked about the political and human rights of the ethnic minorities with members of the Estonian parliament's National Defense, Foreign Affairs, and European Affairs committees. On 19 September they had talks with Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland, Population Minister Paul-Eerik Rummo, head of the Integration Foundation Mati Luik, Legal Chancellor Allar Joks and parliament Deputy Chairman Toomas Savi.
* Defense Minister Margus Hanson traveled to Finland on 16 September to attend the VIP day of the international military peacekeeping exercise Nordic Peace 2003, held in Sakyla, nearly 200 kilometers from Helsinki, LETA reported. About 3,000 persons, including soldiers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Great Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden, are taking part in the exercise which EU, NATO, and Russian representatives are also observing. Members of organizations such as the Red Cross and UN Refugees Committee are also participating because part of the exercise is dedicated to training coordination of work between military and civilian aid organizations.
*While visiting Stockholm to attend the memorial ceremony for the late Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland held talks with acting Swedish Foreign Minister Jan O. Karlsson on 19 September, BNS reported. They agreed that the Baltic Sea should be declared a particularly sensitive sea area and on the need to persuade Russia to adopt this position. They also noticed that they had similar views concerning the draft EU constitution.
* Estonian School of Diplomacy Director Ekke Nomm and the rector of the Ukrainian Academy of Diplomacy, Boris Gumenyuk, signed a memorandum in Kyiv on cooperation between the two schools on 18 September, BNS reported. The Estonian government has allocated 190,000 kroons ($13,600) for a course on EU and NATO matters, starting on 13 October in Tallinn, for 20 Ukrainian students and diplomats. This is intended to help improve Ukraine's prospects for membership in these organizations.
* Border Guard Board Chief of Staff Aare Evisalu said that the successful passage of the EU referendum now requires the reorganization of the border guard, LETA reported on 16 September, citing the daily "Eesti Paevaleht." Although the Estonian-Russian border will become an EU border only after Estonia officially joins the EU in May 2004, border guard staff will be gradually transferred from the Estonian-Latvian border to the border with Russia.
* The government approved a draft state budget for 2004 on 18 September and submitted it to the parliament, BNS reported. It provides for revenues of 46.5 billion kroons ($3.35 billion) and expenditures of 46.6 billion kroons. The anticipated revenues are 6.9 billion kroons or 17.2 percent greater than this year. The gap between revenues and expenditures is to be covered through financing deals in the amount of 51.3 million kroons, thus balancing the budget. The cabinet also endorsed the amendments necessary for the planned tax reform during which the income-tax rate will decrease from 26 to 20 percent and the tax-exempt monthly income will be raised from 1,000 kroons to 2,000 kroons by 2006.
* The government approved and sent to the parliament on 18 September a bill of amendments to the alcohol, tobacco, and fuel excise tax law which will raise the level of these excise taxes to be in line with EU excise directives, LETA reported. When Estonia joins the EU, the customs border with EU member states will disappear and no customs control or customs procedures will take place when goods move from Estonia to an EU member state or vice versa. The customs documents will be replaced with shipping documents of excise goods enforced with EU legislative acts.
* The Bank of Estonia announced on 15 September that the country's current account deficit in the second quarter of 2003 was 4.2 billion kroons ($300 million) or about 13.5 percent of GDP, BNS reported. While this is better than the deficit of 19.7 percent of GDP in the first quarter of the year, experts noted that there is little hope of decreasing it further without improving the level of the country's exports.
EU MEMBERSHIP APPROVED IN REFERENDUM.
Latvia, by a sizeable margin, approved membership in the EU on 20 September, with 72.53 percent of eligible voters participating, LETA reported the next day. Preliminary results indicated that of the 1 million votes, 67 percent backed accession. More than 32 percent of voters opposed membership while 7,097 ballots were deemed invalid. Among the nine EU candidate countries that have held membership referendums, only Malta had a higher turnout. The strongest "yes" vote (83 percent) came in the Valmiera District, while the greatest "no" vote (67.3 percent) came in the southeastern city of Daugavpils, which has a large Russian-speaking majority. The Central Election Commission is expected to announce the official tally in two weeks.PARLIAMENT REJECTS NOMINEE FOR ANTI-CORRUPTION CHIEF...
The parliament rejected the appointment of Security Police officer Juta Strike as the new chief of the Corruption Prevention Bureau by a secret vote of 41 yes votes and 48 against on 18 September, LETA reported. The vote was surprising, for Strike had been selected unanimously as the best of 58 candidates by a special commission earlier in the month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2003) and received the backing of the leaders of the four factions in the ruling coalition with 55 deputies, and the opposition National Harmony Party. At the request of the faction heads, a second vote was held and Strike's nomination was rejected 42-51. Aigars Kalvitis, the head of the opposition People's Party faction, which declared its opposition to Strike's candidacy, said the votes were a protest against Prime Minister Einars Repse. On 19 September Repse issued a decree making Strike the deputy head of the Corruption Prevention Bureau....AND COALITION PARTNER CHALLENGES PRIME MINISTER.
As Latvians were celebrating their EU referendum results, the country's ruling coalition seemed on the verge of collapse. Eriks Jekabsons, chairman of Latvia's First Party (LLP), a member of the ruling coalition, told LETA on 20 September that Prime Minister Einars Repse needs to be replaced as soon as possible. Jekabsons charged that, "Repse wants to seize power, control the security services, and introduce an authoritarian regime. We have information that Latvia is on the eve of dictatorship; JL [Respse's party] must continue working but the premier has to be replaced." According to LETA on 20 September, Repse commented on Jekabsons's charges saying, "I believe we might as well work in a minority government," and expressed regret that some coalition partners were defending "their own corrupt interests." Janis Straume, chairman of coalition member For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, told LETA the same day that its partner, the LLP, had created a "complicated situation."ANNUAL JUDAICA CONFERENCE OPENS...
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga opened the annual two-day conference "Jews in a Changing World" in Riga on 15 September, BNS reported. Israeli Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also attended the first day of the conference. More than 40 papers were presented at the conference by scholars from Latvia, Israel, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and other states on a wide variety of topics including the life of Jewish people in the Baltic states prior to 1918 and between the two World Wars, the Holocaust, as well as issues on Jewish philosophy, culture, and mysticism. The link between the Jews in the Baltic states and the state of Israel was also considered in the context of new situation in Europe. This is the fifth such conference, which was organized by the Judaic Studies Center at the University of Latvia, the Jewish community center Alef, and the Jewish University in Jerusalem....AGAINST BACKDROP OF VANDALISM AT JEWISH CEMETERY.
Unknown vandals overturned more than 20 gravestones in the Bikernieki Forest Cemetery in Riga and defaced others with Nazi slogans and swastikas on the night of 12-13 September, LETA reported. Israeli Ambassador to Latvia Gary Koren visited the cemetery and declared that its defilement is a crude form of anti-Semitic expression. Riga's Jewish community leaders linked the vandalism with two upcoming events: the visit to Latvia by Israeli Knesset Speaker Rivlin from 17-19 September, and Latvia's EU membership referendum on 20 September. The Latvian Jewish Community issued a statement noting that the vandalism at the cemetery indicates that there are forces in Latvia that want to disrupt the normal, friendly relations between the Jewish community and Latvia's leaders, and the vandalism is not only anti-Semitic but also antigovernment. The police arrested five youths, two Latvians and three Russians, for the crime and they admitted their guilt, BNS reported on 19 September.FINNISH PRESIDENT DISCUSSES EU DEVELOPMENTS.
Tarja Halonen began a one-day visit to Latvia on 15 September with a meeting in Riga with her Latvian counterpart, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, LETA reported. They expressed satisfaction that Estonia voted in a referendum the previous day to join the EU. After a press conference, the presidents traveled to the town of Sigulda, 50 kilometers northeast of Riga, to take part in a debate on the EU with local residents, organized by the newspaper "Lauku Avize." Vike-Freiberga urged people to vote in favor of EU membership in the 20 September referendum. Halonen said the EU supports the culture of small states and that Latvia will become better known in Europe if it joins the EU. She noted that Latvia's membership should increase the influence of small states in the EU and, upon membership, Latvian would become one of its official languages.CZECH PREMIER CALLS ON LATVIANS TO VOTE FOR EU ACCESSION.
Vladimir Spidla paid a two-day working visit to Latvia on 16-17 September during which EU issues were the primary focus, LETA reported. In talks with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Riga on 17 September, the two officials agreed that it is unacceptable to divide the EU into large and small countries or old and new members and that each EU country should have a commissioner. Spidla noted that the countries have similar cultures and share the common history of regaining independence and having the opportunity to rejoin European institutions at the same time. Similar topics were also discussed with Prime Minister Einars Repse. Spidla also traveled to the city of Dobele, central Latvia, to take part in a discussion on EU membership with Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks.
* Estonian Premier Juhan Parts, joined by his Latvian counterpart, Einars Repse, urged the people of the town of Cesis in northeast Latvia on 16 September to vote in favor of EU membership in the referendum on 20 September, BNS reported. Parts said Estonia had chosen "to correct one of the largest mistakes in history" and to return to Europe with its vote for EU membership on 14 September, and expressed the hope that Latvia would do the same. Cesis was evidently chosen for the premiers' meeting as it was the site of a joint victorious battle by Estonian and Latvian soldiers in their fight for independence in June 1919. The prime ministers also held talks with Cesis Mayor Gints Skenders and other district officials, and inspected part of the Riga-Adazi span of the Via Baltica highway, which is being constructed.
* Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas visited Latvia on 18 September to encourage people to vote in favor of joining the EU, BNS reported. He began the trip with a meeting with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga during which he said that he could not imagine Latvia voting against EU membership as this would destroy the unity of the Baltic states. Paksas then had a meeting with Prime Minister Repse with whom he later flew by helicopter to the town of Ikskile, some 20 kilometers from Riga. During the trip Repse piloted the helicopter, flying so low that some of the passengers decided to travel to the next stop in the town of Pinki by car instead of by helicopter, the Lithuanian daily "Lietuvos zinios" reported.
* Israeli Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin made an official visit to Latvia from 17-19 September, BNS reported. After participating in the international conference "The Jews in the Changing World," he visited the Jewish "Sonhut" agency in the Baltic countries. On 18 September he met with Parliament Speaker Ingrida Udre and in a speech at parliament he focused on the genocide of Jews in Latvia during World War II, criticizing the Latvians who served in the Nazi SS. He also placed flowers at the Freedom Monument, paid homage to victims of the holocaust in the Rumbula Forest, and visited two Jewish schools in Riga. On 19 September, Rivlin had a meeting with members of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, gave a short press conference with Udre before talks with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. During a visit to the Jewish cemetery, which was desecrated by vandals a few days earlier, Society Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks informed him that five youths had been arrested for the crime.
* Irish European Affairs Minister Dick Roche visited Riga from 15-17 September and had meetings with Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete, Society Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks, and parliament European Affairs Committee Chairman Guntars Krasts, LETA reported. The major topics of his discussions were the upcoming EU membership referendum in Latvia and the future EU constitution. Roche also visited the Occupation Museum and spoke with students at the Transport and Communications Institute.
* Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis visited Finland on 16 and 17 September, LETA and BNS reported. The visit was timed so that he could attend visitor day at the international military exercises Nordic Peace 2003, which were held from 8-19 September in Sakyla. Kristovskis held talks with his Finnish counterpart Seppo Kaariainen and Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja during which bilateral relations, Baltic-Nordic cooperation, European defense policy forces, and NATO enlargement were discussed.
* The international military exercise Baltic Eagle 2003 began on 17 September at the Adazi infantry training center with about 350 soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Great Britain, LETA reported. The exercise will last until 26 September. Baltic Eagle exercises have been conducted annually in the Baltic states since 2000. This will be the last one since the BALTBAT project under which they were conducted is to be closed down this year.
* Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars traveled to Rome for the conference "Global Leaders' Forum" from 16-18 September, LETA reported. Representatives of state, municipal, and international organizations from more than 20 countries discussed ways to improve public administration to meet the needs of information society. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, and Swedish ex-Prime Minister Carl Bildt were the most noted participants. Bojars spoke about Riga as a modern city that is not lagging behind other capitals and presented the city council's "e-Riga" project.
* Estonian Parliament Speaker Ene Ergma visited Latvia on 15 and 16 September, LETA reported. The first day she and her Latvian counterpart Ingrida Udre traveled to Ventspils to participate in a discussion at Ventspils College on EU issues and Estonia's integration into the EU. On 16 September, Ergma met with parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Inese Vaidere.
* Estonian and Latvian Interior Ministers Margus Leivo and Maris Gulbis discussed questions about security on their countries' borders after they join the EU in Riga on 19 September, LETA reported. They visited the Police Academy, Latvian Firefighters Museum, and got acquainted with the work of border guards at the Valka-Valga border checkpoint.
* The third Baltic region conference "Together Against AIDS!" ("Kopa pret AIDS!") was held in Riga from 11-13 September, LETA reported. It was attended by more than 350 participants from 11 countries who discussed issues such as the community and AIDS; HIV/AIDS and children; HIV/AIDS and drugs, crime, correctional institutions; treatment and preventive measures; future perspectives in the restriction and elimination of HIV/AIDS in the Baltic region. The conference was organized by the Latvian Immunologists Association and the Infectious Diseases Center of Riga's Stradins University with support from the Welfare Ministry, the Latvian Physicians Society, and the World Health Organization.
* The Latvian Students Association organized a protest on 15 September in front of the Education and Science Ministry in Riga with some 300 students demanding greater state support for students, BNS reported. Most of the protesters were from universities in Riga, but there were also about 70 students from Liepaja, as well as several students from the Czech Republic and a dozen students from Lithuania carrying their national flag.
* The State Treasury announced on 16 September that in the first eight months of the year the national consolidated total budget had a surplus of 10.7 million lats ($18.8 million), BNS reported. Finance Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said that the budget results were much better than planned as improved work by the State Revenue Service increased revenues and state institutions showed they could cut their costs.
PARLIAMENT RATIFIES EU ACCESSION TREATY.
The parliament ratified the European Union Accession Treaty on 16 September by a vote of 84-2, with one abstention, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The negative votes were cast by Julius Veselka, the leader of the leftist political party For Justice in Lithuania, and Stanislovas Buskevicius, the chairman of the rightist Young Lithuania. The result was expected as the EU membership referendum was approved in May by 91 percent of voters. The treaty will go into effect after it is ratified by the parliaments of the 15 EU members and 10 EU candidate countries. So far only the parliaments of EU members Denmark and Germany, and of EU candidates Cyprus, Malta, the Czech Republic, and Poland have done so. President Rolandas Paksas signed the law on the ratification of the country's European Union Accession Treaty on 19 September.GERMAN CHANCELLOR PRAISES LITHUANIA'S ECONOMIC GROWTH.
Gerhard Schroeder told Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas in a 20-minute meeting in Berlin on 15 September that Lithuania's economic development is proof of its readiness to join the EU, ELTA reported. Brazauskas asked Germany to support the recent call by the Baltic, Finnish, and Polish prime ministers to place the Rail Baltica and the Lithuania-Poland power bridge projects on the EU's list of priority projects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2003). Later talks with Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit focused on economic cooperation, with the mayor promising to visit Lithuania next year. In the evening Brazauskas traveled to Mainz where he held talks with Rheinland-Pfalz Premier Kurt Beck about cooperation in science and tourism. At the opening of the Business Contact Exchange in Mainz the next morning, he urged businessmen to visit and invest in Lithuania. Brazauskas also met with the chief envoy for UNESCO world cultural-heritage issues, Roland Hertel, before departing for Duesseldorf. On 17 September he discussed support to small and medium-sized enterprises with North Rhine-Westphalia Premier Peer Steinbrock and, after a visit to the headquarters of the insurance company ERGO, met with parliament Chairman Ulrich Schmidt. Brazauskas then traveled to Hanover where he had a meeting with Lower Saxony Premier Christian Wulf. He then returned to Berlin to conclude his trip by meeting with German President Johannes Rau, which primarily focused on the future EU constitution.EC VICE PRESIDENT WARNS ABOUT BRAIN DRAIN.
European Commission (EC) Vice President for Administrative Reform Neil Kinnock began a one-day official visit to Vilnius on 19 September, meeting with parliament Deputy Chairman Vytenis Andriukaitis, BNS reported. After talks with Interior Minister Virgilijus Bulovas, he told President Rolandas Paksas that Lithuania may lose about 250 of its best specialists who would be recruited to serve as permanent employees in EU institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. At a subsequent press conference Kinnock declared that he did not agree with the draft EU constitutional agreement, which would reduce the number of commissioners from 20 to 15, but favored raising their number so that the 15 current and 10 candidate EU member countries would have at least one. After a tour of Vilnius's Old Town, Kinnock had lunch with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas during which he expressed support for developing the Via Baltica highway and Rail Baltica railway. Kinnock also met with Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite and European Committee Director-General Petras Austrevicius.PARLIAMENT CHAIRMAN VISITING CHINA.
A parliamentary delegation headed by Chairman Arturas Paulauskas flew to Beijing on 15 September, ELTA and BNS reported. Chinese People's Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo told Paulauskas that Lithuania's membership in the EU would provide more stimuli for their countries to cooperate. The next day, in talks with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Paulauskas asked China to back Lithuania's candidacy for the UN Economic and Social Council for the term 2005-2007, and for a place on UNESCO's World Heritage Committee. On 18 September, the delegation visited the port city of Qingdao where Lithuanian Ambassador to China Arturas Zurauskas and city officials signed a draft cooperation memorandum between Qingdao and Lithuania's port of Klaipeda in the fields of business, culture, sports, and tourism. The delegation also toured the Shanghai region and returned to Lithuania on 20 September.PRESIDENT VISITS ARMENIA.
Rolandas Paksas met in Yerevan on 15 September with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian to discuss expanding cooperation and bilateral economic relations, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. As he had done several days earlier in Tbilisi, Paksas offered to share with Armenia Lithuania's experience of integration into NATO and the EU. Kocharian noted that Armenia does not currently aspire to EU membership, but nevertheless aspires to meet the EU's political and economic standards. In talks with both Kocharian and Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, Paksas advocated joint cooperation between the three Baltic and three South Caucasus states.DIPLOMATS DISSATISFIED WITH PROPOSED REPLACEMENT FOR FORMER EMBASSY IN ITALY.
Foreign Ministry Secretary Neris Germanas met with his Italian counterpart Paolo Pucci di Benisichi in Rome on 17 September in an effort to settle a dispute over Lithuania's former embassy in Italy, BNS reported. Lithuania purchased the building in Rome from an American family in the 1930s, but it was turned over by the Italian fascist government to the USSR in 1940. Russia, which still uses the building for diplomatic purposes, has rejected Lithuania's requests for its return. France resolved a similar situation in Paris by paying compensation with which a building suitable for use as a Lithuanian embassy was purchased. Italy has offered Lithuania another building, asking only a symbolic rent of 1 euro for a 99-year renewable lease. Germanas inspected the building and said it does not meet the embassy's requirements. It is reportedly located in an inappropriate area, lacks adequate parking, and requires extensive repairs.RUSSIAN NATIONAL BOLSHEVIKS PROTEST KALININGRAD TRANSIT.
State Border Service officials checking passengers on the Moscow-Kaliningrad train at the Kena border post on 14 September were confronted by 17 youths who refused to show any identification and began shouting "Freedom for Kaliningrad transit," "Lietuvos zinios" reported the next day. Some of the youths, who claim to be members of Russia's National Bolshevik Party, tore up their transit documents and bound themselves to their seats with handcuffs and chains. Firefighters had to be called to cut the chains so the protesters could be removed from the train, which departed about 90 minutes late. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement later that day condemning the protest as political hooliganism aimed at attracting attention before the 7 December Russian State Duma elections. On 16 September, a Vilnius court issued 14-day arrest warrants for 16 youths who will be charged with violating public order. It also imposed a fine on a film operator from Russia's television channel NTV film who did not heed requests to stop filming during the arrests, BNS reported.
* Transport Minister Zigmantas Balcytis and Polish Infrastructure Minister Marek Pol met in Warsaw on 19 September for talks on the Via Baltica and Rail Baltica projects, the possible opening of a Szczecin-Klaipeda ferry line, and other topical issues, ELTA reported. Although noting that substantial support from EU funds will not be available, Pol promised that sufficient funds would be found to finance the reconstruction of a 60-kilometer section of the railway in Poland. Balcytis said that a Szczecin-Klaipeda ferry line could help reduce the volume of road transport in Poland.
* A mission from the Netherlands, including Justice Ministry official Hens A. Wolf, joined by Dutch Ambassador to Lithuania Rim Richard Johan Dumore, held talks at the Interior Ministry about the human trafficking and prostitution prevention program in Lithuania, border control, and positions on political asylum seekers, ELTA reported on 17 September. Wolf also met with leaders of the State Border Protection Service and the Immigration Department to discuss immigration control, the granting of refugee status, repatriation of illegal immigrants to third countries, and readmission agreements. The meeting was intended to help the Netherlands prepare for its EU presidency in 2004.
* Colonel John Nye, the head of a visiting U.S. special forces' officers' delegation in Vilnius on 16 September, said: "The U.S. forces are exceptionally happy with the performance of Lithuanian special forces in Afghanistan," BNS reported. Major Rolando Ramirez noted that the troops have been engaged in direct combat activities during operations in small groups far away from their base camps. The delegation met with Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius and army commander Major General Jonas Kronkaitis.
* In an interview published in the Russian newspaper "Rossiiskaya Gazeta" on 19 September, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Razov said that Russia is preparing a proposal for a new agreement for military transit between the Kaliningrad Oblast and Russia via Lithuania, BNS reported. A high-ranking official from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told BNS: "Lithuania does not see sufficient grounds for the signing of such an agreement" and a bilateral military-transit agreement would need the approval of all NATO member-states. He noted that Lithuania was satisfied with the existing transit agreement and saw no reason to change it.
* Ambassador to the EU Oskaras Jusys said on 15 September that the new facilities in Brussels into which the Lithuanian mission has moved are better equipped to serve the needs of a diplomatic mission, BNS reported. The new headquarters consist of three buildings not far from EU institutions with a total area of 3,500 square meters located in four floors and a basement as well as a two-level underground garage.
* The parliament approved with a unanimous vote on 18 September the ratification of the Amendment to the Basel Convention, which bans shipments of hazardous waste and their disposal in other, particularly developing, countries, ELTA reported. Parliament Environment Protection Committee Chairman Alfonsas Macaitis said that this would help prevent developing countries from becoming hazardous-waste warehouses. Lithuania intends to send about 1,000 tons of chemicals to Germany which has suitable facilities for their destruction, because it is not able to send them to Russia or the Ukraine.
* The government approved amendments to a bilateral accord with the United States on investment promotion and protection on 19 September, ELTA reported. The cabinet also decided to ask President Rolandas Paksas to authorize Ambassador to the EU Oskaras Jusys to hold negotiations on and sign an additional protocol to the aforementioned agreement as this has been recommended by the European Commission.
* A survey conducted by the Statistics Department indicated that in the second quarter of 2003 the unemployment rate was 12.9 percent or 0.7 percentage points lower than in the first quarter, ELTA reported on 17 September. According to the survey, there were 1.479 million employed residents in the second quarter or 4 percent more than in same period last year, while the number of jobless persons was 219,000 or 2 percent greater.