18 May 2001, Volume 2, Number 11
REGIONAL'VILNIUS 9' HAIL U.S. SENATORS' DEDICATION TO NATO EXPANSION.
The ambassadors from nine Central, Eastern, and Southern European states -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, and Albania -- sent a joint letter expressing their "sincere gratitude" to 17 U.S. senators who on 5 April asked President George W. Bush to make NATO expansion the highest priority of his administration, BNS reported on 17 April. The nine countries are NATO membership candidates who after a conference in Vilnius in May 2000 are frequently called the "Vilnius 9." The senators wrote to Bush: "We agree that the United States must work to ensure that NATO invites qualified European democracies to begin accession negotiations at the 2002 Summit in Prague." The "Vilnius 9" met as well in Bratislava, Slovakia on 10-11 May.
ESTONIAGOVERNMENT APPROVES PROGRAM FOR EU INTEGRATION.
The government on 24 April approved a pre-European Union accession economic program which outlines the country's major economic policy goals for the next five years, ETA reported. The document drawn up by the Finance Ministry predicts that about 42 billion kroons ($2.4 billion) will have to be spent on major reforms, with environmental needs accounting for about half of the total expenditures. The adoption of a European tax policy will result in higher prices for electricity, water, urban transport, and mail, as well as greater excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco. The program foresees that Estonia's economy should expand by 5-6 percent annually and per capita GDP should reach 50 percent of the EU average by 2010.
PRO PATRIA UNION ELECTS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE.
The congress of the Pro Patria Union on 14 April in Tallinn elected Tartu City Council Chairman Peeter Tulviste as its presidential candidate, BNS reported. Tulviste took 264 votes while parliament Deputy Chairman Tunne Kelam received 249 votes. The 55-year-old Tulviste is a psychologist who was the Rector of Tartu University from 1993 to 1998. While Kelam has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate for several years, Tulviste expressed his willingness to run only in March. Sociologist Andrus Saar explains Tulviste's sudden rise, in part, as a sign of internal dissatisfaction with the party's present politics and that he is likely to gain support outside the party. The congress also re-elected Prime Minister Mart Laar as the union's chairman.
EU COMMISSIONER VERHEUGEN VISITS.
During his three-day visit to Estonia on 18-20 April, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen met with all the country's top officials, BNS reported. He discussed with President Lennart Meri the free movement of labor and its possible restriction for EU candidate countries. Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves complained that the proposed restrictions, which ban workers from new EU member countries from seeking employment in current member countries during a seven-year transition period, could be interpreted as classifying the citizens of new EU countries as second-rate. He said the Estonian workforce would pose no threat to any country. On a more optimistic note, Verheugen informed parliament Chairman Toomas Savi that there is no reason to doubt that Estonia will be admitted in the first round of EU expansion. In a speech at Tartu University, he declared that EU expansion offers great benefits for the neighbors of its new members, including Russia. On 20 April, Prime Minister Mart Laar told Verheugen that Estonia will defend its proportional and liberal tax system during entry talks with the EU, ETA reported.
IMF MISSION SATISFIED WITH ECONOMY.
Completing a nine-day IMF mission to Estonia on 25 April, mission head Peter Keller declared that the republic's economy is in excellent condition but will be unable to attain 10 percent economic growth mainly because of the low natural increase of the population, ETA reported. He said that the Estonian currency board system has justified itself, the economy has overcome the consequences of the Russian crisis, and the economy will grow about 6 percent a year. Keller claimed that Estonia's geographical position, its ability to attract investments, and transparent economic policy raise its competitiveness and that membership in the European Union would guarantee economic stability. During a meeting with Prime Minister Mart Laar the previous day, it was decided that Estonia would continue cooperation with the fund after the expiration of the latest economic policy memorandum in the summer.
PARLIAMENT RATIFIES SAPARD AGREEMENT.
By a vote of 70 to zero with one abstention, the parliament ratified a multiyear financial agreement on 18 April with the European Commission regarding the SAPARD (Special Accession Program for Agriculture and Rural Development) program, ETA and BNS reported. The SAPARD program finances investments in agricultural enterprises, the improvement of food processing and marketing, the development and diversification of business activities, and improvement of infrastructure in rural areas. The agreement for 2000-2006 calls for granting Estonia 190 million kroons ($11 million) annually. The Finance Ministry will be responsible for the use and supervision of the SAPARD funds and the Agriculture Ministry for the implementation and monitoring of the aid program.
HANSAPANK PURCHASES LITHUANIAN SAVINGS BANK.
Officials of Hansapank signed an agreement with the Lithuanian State Property Fund in Vilnius on 23 April by which it purchased more than 90 percent of the shares of Lithuanian Savings Bank (LTB) for 150 million litas ($37.5 million), ETA reported. Hansapank has also pledged to invest another 150 million litas within 18 months. The bank plans to merge LTB with its Lithuanian subsidiary Hansabankas, which could control more than one-third of the Lithuanian banking market. Hansapank has also agreed to buy the remaining shares of LTB from small shareholders at the same price as that offered to the government -- 9.88 litas per share.
MORE IMMIGRANTS THAN EMIGRANTS FROM CIS COUNTRIES IN 2000.
Merike Jurilo of the Citizenship and Migration Department announced that in 2000, for the first time in the past 10 years, the number of arrivals from CIS countries who came to live in Estonia exceeded the number of departures, ETA reported on 26 April. She noted, however, that the more than 1,700 residency permits given last year to persons from Russia -- more than double the number in 1999 -- do not mean that the country is threatened by major immigration from the East, as many of the permits were issued to local illegal residents who registered only recently. In addition, quotas for family migration were lifted in 2000, and as a result, many people who could not come earlier to live with their spouses were able to do so.
EX-SPYMASTER RESIGNS AS PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER.
Former intelligence coordinator Eerik-Niiles Kross tendered his resignation as an adviser to President Lennart Meri on 17 April, BNS reported. He has been accused of helping the controversial businessman Antonio Angotti, who was involved in the scandal-ridden privatization of Estonian Railways, to enter Estonia in November 1999. It was later revealed that Angotti was wanted in the U.S. for money laundering and financial fraud. Kross said he resigned because he could not allow the accusations leveled against him to harm the president. However, he said he did not resign from the supervisory council of Estonian Railways, since such a step could be interpreted as an indirect admission of guilt. Meri sent a letter to Prime Minister Mart Laar the same day asking him -- in his capacity as the head of the governmental commission for analyzing and evaluating state security -- to report to him on what the cabinet or government institutions have done thus far to cover security risks in the privatization.
PLEDGE TO EXPAND TIES WITH ARMENIA.
Visiting Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves held talks in Yerevan on 12-13 April with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Kocharian called for "a more practical relationship" between the two countries, while Oskanian stressed Yerevan's interest in learning from Estonia's experience in the transition to democracy and a market economy. He also commented that the close cooperation between the three Baltic states should serve as an example to the countries of the South Caucasus. Ilves and Oskanian signed an agreement on avoiding dual taxation that is intended to bolster the present modest commercial ties between the two countries.
* Twenty-six leading social scientists made a strongly-worded public statement expressing concern for the country's development and criticizing politicians, BNS reported on 23 April. They declared that two in three Estonian children live in poverty, people lack elementary security, and many young people want to leave the country. Noting that satisfaction with democracy is lower than at any time since 1990, the group avows "the central institutions of the Estonian state do not fulfill their function" and "the people can no longer take their country seriously."
* Priit Vilba of the Reform Party resigned as Tallinn's deputy mayor on 24 April and also demanded the resignation of Mayor Juri Mois of the Pro Patria Union, BNS reported. The Reform Party, Pro Patria, and the Moderates form the ruling coalition in Tallinn and the national parliament. Vilba accused Mois of allowing his friend Meelis Lao to interfere too much in city affairs.
* British Deputy Defense Minister Lewis Moonie on 25 April met with Defense Minister Juri Luik, defense forces commander Rear Admiral Tarmo Kouts, Foreign Ministry Deputy Chancellor Harri Tiido, and the deputy chairman of the parliamentary state defense committee, Trivimi Velliste, BNS reported. He discussed NATO enlargement and the development of Estonian defense forces, as well as issues of bilateral defense cooperation.
* Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek told visiting Estonian parliament Speaker Toomas Savi in Warsaw on 24 April that the Polish parliament had ratified the free trade agreement between Poland and Estonia the previous day, BNS reported. Buzek also declared that Poland supports the admission of the three Baltic states to NATO.
* Defense Minister Juri Luik signed a defense cooperation agreement in Tbilisi on 18 April with his Georgian counterpart David Tevzadze, Caucasus Press reported. Luik stressed his willingness to share with Tbilisi Estonia's experience in negotiating the withdrawal of Russian bases from its territory. Luik also discussed the Russian troop withdrawal with Revaz Adamia, the former chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee who now chairs the Union of Citizens of Georgia parliament faction.
* The supervisory council of the Narva Power Plants decided on 18 April to sign a contract with Finland's Foster Wheeler Energia OY for the renovation of two 200-megawatt power blocks of the Eesti and Balti power plants, ETA reported. According to Aripaev Online, the cost of the renovation will be 3.7 billion kroons ($220 million).
* The parliament on 18 April ratified an agreement on the transfer of sentenced persons with Thailand, which will allow four Estonian drug traffickers to spend their remaining jail sentences in Estonia, ETA reported. The four were arrested in 1995 at Bangkok Airport with 5.8 kilograms of heroin and sentenced to long prison terms which were later reduced to 15 years. The agreement goes into effect after the exchange of the ratification letters.
* Yielding to pressure from victims' families and some politicians, the Swedish government decided on 18 April to launch a new investigation into the 1994 sinking of the ferry "Estonia," during which 852 persons perished, BNS reported. The investigation was entrusted to the psychological protection board, the Swedish body for crisis analysis and prevention.
LATVIAPRESIDENT VISITING WASHINGTON.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga began her week-long official visit to Washington on 23 April with scheduled meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. President George W. Bush unexpectedly joined the meeting with Cheney. Over the course of their half-hour discussion, Vike-Freiberga thanked Bush for U.S. support and urged him to increase the American presence in Europe. In a later meeting, Powell assured her: "Russia will never be given a veto over who is or is not part of NATO," Reuters reported. The next day, at a discussion organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, she explained to representatives from the U.S. Department of State, diplomatic corps, academic circles, and media why all three of the Baltic states should be admitted to NATO at the same time, BNS reported. In subsequent days Vike-Freiberga had meetings with more than 20 senators and congressmen during which she urged them to support Latvia's efforts to join NATO. She awarded Latvia's Tri-Star symbol to senators Jesse Helms and Richard Durbin as well as congressman Tom Lantos. On 26 April, Vike-Freiberga also had an unexpected meeting with Germany's Christian Democratic Union head, Angela Merkel, who gave a news conference at a hotel.
GOVERNMENT SACKS AIR FORCE COMMANDER.
The government dismissed Ojars Ivanovs from his position as air force commander of the national armed forces on 17 April and appointed air force Chief of Staff Vitalijs Viesins as acting commander, BNS reported. Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis complained that Ivanovs had failed on several occasions to provide the Defense Ministry with requested information and submitted reports only after repeated inquiries. Kristovskis said that Ivanovs had not been able to improve the air force's situation as quickly as was expected. An investigative commission established in March had proposed that Ivanovs be censured. Ivanovs, who became air force commander in 1997, is the second defense official to be dismissed recently; Kristovskis dismissed Ilmars Viksna as National Defense Academy rector on 26 March.
TB/LNNK CHANGES POSITION ON COOPERATION WITH SOCIAL DEMOCRATS.
The board of For Fatherland And Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK) party decided on 19 April that it could not support the signing of a coalition agreement with the Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) in Riga, BNS reported. This reversed the position it had taken 10 days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). TB/LNNK Chairman Maris Grinblats said that a coalition with the LSDSP will be possible only after it ends cooperation with the leftist union For Human Rights in a United Latvia, but that the board would not ask the two TB/LNNK members to resign from their positions as City Council committee chairmen.
LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT CHAIRMAN URGES SEA-BORDER TREATY RATIFICATION.
Arturas Paulauskas expressed disappointment to his Latvian counterpart Janis Straume in Riga on 20 April that the Latvian parliament has not yet ratified the sea-border treaty between the two states signed in 1999, BNS reported. The officials also agreed that existing frontier barriers between the Baltic states should be abolished to speed up cargo movement and mentioned that the building of a high-speed railway line through the area could create a better communication climate.
PUTIN SAYS RUSSIAN-LATVIAN TIES NEED 'SERIOUS IMPROVEMENT.'
In a letter to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President Putin said that relations between Moscow and Riga "need serious improvement," AP reported on 19 April. Putin called on Latvia to improve the situation of what he called "our compatriots in Latvia" and said moves in that direction would "become a powerful signal to start developing and deepening our relations."
FOREIGN MINISTER NOTES RUSSIA'S FAILURE TO RETURN BALTIC EMBASSIES.
Indulis Berzins told the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on 26 April that Russia has yet to return to the Baltic states the embassy buildings that were taken over by the Soviet Union during World War II, BNS reported. Russia had promised to give back the embassy buildings in Paris and Rome to their former owners -- Lithuania and Latvia -- in 1996 when it was applying for membership in the Council of Europe. However, the buildings have not been returned and are still being used by Russian diplomatic and consular services. The buildings legally belong to Latvia and Lithuania, but cannot be recovered because they are occupied by persons with diplomatic immunity.
MOSCOW CRITICISM FOR 'ANTI-RUSSIA' ACTIONS.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on 20 April issued a statement criticizing the Latvian government for failing to rein in Latvian nationalists of the kind who have sponsored a writing contest among schoolchildren on such topics as "Why is the Russian press a disseminator of the ideas of Great Russian chauvinism," Interfax reported. "It is evident to all healthy minded people that conducting such 'competitions' damages the already complex interethnic relations in Latvia and feeds extremist forces who dream of bringing up children in the spirit of national chauvinism," the statement said.
NURSES DECIDE TO GO ON STRIKE.
The council of the Latvian Health and Social Care Employees Union voted on 24 April to organize a nurses' strike, LETA reported. The date and length of the strike has not been announced. The union's head, Ruta Viksna, told reporters that the nurses demanded 4 million lats ($6.3 million) from the government for salary raises, but have been granted only 2 million lats. Prime Minister Andris Berzins has said that the government lacks the money to fulfill all the nurses' demands and has urged the union to be more active and follow the practice in EU countries of signing bilateral agreements with hospitals to set wage levels.
PRESIDENT SAYS LANGUAGE REQUIREMENTS FOR MEDIA MAY CHANGE.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga told a press and business club meeting organized by the magazine "Karjera" (Career) that current provisions requiring media to use Latvian for at least 75 percent of their broadcasts are aimed at strengthening the position of the state language, but that "laws governing the language use in media are not everlasting and it is quite possible that the provisions will change in a couple of years," BNS reported on 14 April. Latvian National Radio and Television Council (NRTC) Chairman Ojars Rubenis said that more lenient state language-use requirements could be introduced for radio companies, but he regards the requirements for television companies as optimum. The NRTC, however, has filed a court claim to stop "Bizness and Baltija" radio from simply retransmitting Russkoye Radio's broadcasts from Moscow.
* Finnish Minister for Nordic Cooperation Jan-Erik Enestam told Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins on 18 April in Riga that Finland fully respects Latvia's choice to join NATO, but has no influence on the question since it is not a member of the organization. Finland, however, supports Latvia's candidacy to join the European Union. Enestam, who had come to Latvia for a conference organized to mark the 10th anniversary of the Nordic Council of Ministers Information Office in Riga, devoted most of his talks with Berzins on cooperation between Baltic and Nordic states.
* Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique Camps held talks with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Andris Berzins, Parliament Chairman Janis Straume, and Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins during his one-day visit to Riga on 18 April, LETA reported. Camps expressed his county's full support for Latvia's aims to join the European Union and NATO as soon as possible. He also declared that Spain does not support the proposals of Germany and Austria that would bar citizens of the EU candidate countries from working in other EU countries for a seven-year transitional period after they join the EU. The Latvian officials stressed the need to increase bilateral relations between the two countries and expressed the hope that Spain will open an embassy in Riga.
* During a visit to London, one of whose primary aims was participation at the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Economy Minister Aigars Kalvitis on 25 April discussed with British Minister for Trade Richard Caborn the obstacles that are hampering the development of commercial relations between their countries and ways to overcome them, LETA reported. Great Britain, which is Latvia's fourth largest foreign trade partner, received 17.4 percent of Latvia's total exports last year. Kalvitis also met with the deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, John Cridland, and discussed Latvia's efforts to gain EU membership as well as commercial and investment opportunities.
* The conference of the radical left Equal Rights Party on 21 April elected Tatyana Zhdanoka as the party's new chairman, replacing Sergejs Dimanis, BNS reported. The party -- together with the People's Harmony Party and the Latvian Socialist Party -- form the alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia. Dimanis was discouraged that he had not succeeded in uniting his party with the People's Harmony Party. Zhdanoka had opposed the union of the parties. She also declared: "the European Union has raped Latvia's economy, and now our country is like a dishonored maiden, who has nothing else to do but beg the EU to marry her."
* Central Election Commission Chairman Arnis Cimdars announced on 24 April that repeat local elections would be held in the eastern town of Ilukste on 22 July, LETA reported. A Daugavpils court had ruled that the 11 March elections in the town were not valid since the winning candidate, Social Democrat Andris Ancans, did not fulfill the necessary residence or work requirements.
* An official from the Latvian Marine Environment Administration announced that Latvia wants the owners of Butinge oil terminal in Lithuania to pay 62,200 lats ($99,000) in environmental damages resulting from the oil spillage in March, BNS reported on 25 April.
* An emergency situation was declared in Aluksne District's Maliena county on 18 April when it was suspected that there was a case of foot-and-mouth disease. The emergency was called off the next day when repeated tests indicated that the suspected cow was not afflicted with the disease, LETA reported.
* An expert from the PHARE international anticorruption project, German Britta Bannenberg, told a news conference in Riga on 24 April that corruption was widespread in Latvia and the country lacked the political will to fight it, BNS reported. She called for increased preventive control and institutions which would constantly control actions by officials. Bannenberg also emphasized the importance of having a single anti-corruption agency "uniting all forces and experience."
LITHUANIAPRESIDENT MAKES STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS.
In his third state of the nation address to the parliament on 19 April, Valdas Adamkus presented a critical view of the current situation in the country, ELTA reported. He noted that the parties in the ruling coalition are not strong and obviously lack experience in governing the state, but expressed support for the policies they are pursuing. Adamkus mentioned with regret that many people still live in an unreal world based on populist imaginings "believing that the authorities are required to solve all their problems." The president specifically mentioned numerous unresolved problems, such as growing unemployment and the huge deficits of the social security system, and declared that clear principles are needed to resolve them. However, he praised the continued foreign policy position of stressing the importance of Lithuania's integration into Euro-Atlantic organizations while maintaining good ties with its neighbors, including Russia.
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PRAISES RELATIONS.
Leonid Kuchma and his Lithuanian counterpart Valdas Adamkus declared in Vilnius on 23 April that bilateral relations between their countries can serve as an example for other European states to follow, BNS reported. The presidents attended the signing by the countries' respective social and labor ministers of an agreement ensuring pension payments to native retirees residing in the other country. Kuchma repeated that Ukraine has no objections to Lithuania's joining NATO and, like Lithuania, wants to become a member of the European Union. President Kuchma also had lunch with Lithuanian Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas and a meeting with Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas during which the advantages of greater economic relations were discussed.
PARLIAMENT RATIFIES AGREEMENTS WITH WTO.
By a vote of 71 to 12 with 16 abstentions, the parliament closed the ratification process for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 24 April, ELTA reported. Lithuania began negotiations for WTO membership in 1995, completed them in December 2000, and will become the 141st WTO member 30 days after notification of the ratification. The parliament also rejected by a vote of 55 to 57, with 2 abstentions, a resolution by the Social Democrats which would have temporarily halted the privatization of the Lithuanian Shipping Company that was signed the previous day.
POLISH, LITHUANIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS SAY VISA-FREE TRAVEL FOR KALININGRAD TO END.
Poland's Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Lithuania's Antanas Valionis discussed bilateral relations as well as EU and NATO membership on 20 April in Vilnius, ELTA reported. Bartoszewski mentioned that Poland intends to end its policy of allowing residents of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave to enter its territory without visas by the end of the year, while Valionis said his country is involved in similar talks with Russia and that visas for Kaliningrad residents entering Lithuania may be required by 2003. The previous day, Bartoszewski, in separate meetings with President Valdas Adamkus, Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, and Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, stressed that Poland will actively support Lithuania's entry into NATO and that cooperation between the two countries should increase as both strive to become members of the European Union.
IMPASSE OVER HEALTH MINISTER NOMINEE.
Presidential advisor Darius Kuolys announced on 25 April that President Valdas Adamkus was not going to appoint Deputy Health Minister Eduardas Bartkevicius as the new health minister, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. On 2 April, Vinsas Janusonis resigned as health minister and the Social Liberals, who according to the ruling coalition agreement are responsible for the ministry, suggested Bartkevicius as his replacement. Although Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas is reported to have suggested that the Social Liberals offer another candidate, their faction in parliament reaffirmed its support for Bartusevicius on 24 April. Bartusevicius held a special press conference on 25 April during which he affirmed that if he were appointed minister he would continue the reforms begun by Janusonis. According to the constitution the president appoints and dismisses ministers on the recommendations of the prime minister.
GOVERNMENT APPROVES LISCO PRIVATIZATION.
At a special cabinet meeting on 17 April, the government approved the draft agreement on the sale of a 76.36 percent share of the Lithuanian Shipping Company (LISCO) to the Danish shipping firm DFDS Tor Line, ELTA reported. The Danish firm will pay $47.6 million for the share and has agreed to invest another $60 million in the entity over the next three years. It also agreed to pay private shareholders the same price as offered to the government. The parliament also devoted considerable time the same day to the issue of LISCO's privatization, and finally decided to discuss two proposals on suspending privatization at its 24 April session. However, legal experts explained that the parliament's decisions on LISCO are only recommendations and are not obligatory for the government. The privatization has received approval from the only relevant institutions -- the State Property Fund and the Privatization Commission.
LITHUANIAN SHIPPING CO. TO END FERRY TO STOCKHOLM.
The Lithuanian Shipping Company (LISCO) will discontinue running its Klaipeda-Stockholm ferry line beginning on 19 April, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 17 April. Although trips to Stockholm are popular for passengers, cargo volumes on the route are too small to cover operating expenses. LISCO will use the "Palanga" ferry for a new route to the southern Swedish city of Karlshamn. The company expects that about 60 percent of the passengers who traveled to Stockholm will use the ferry and that freight cargoes will double. The ferry will make the trip in 14 hours three times a week. The price of passenger tickets will be the same as they were to Stockholm, while freight rates will be the same as those to Ahus, LISCO's other ferry route to Sweden, which also travels three times a week.
FIRST OF MAY RE-ESTABLISHED AS PUBLIC HOLIDAY.
The parliament, by a vote of 63 to 24 with 10 abstentions, approved on 26 April a proposal by the Social Democrats to make 1 May (International Labor Day) a public holiday, ELTA reported. At the previous two parliament sessions, the vote on the proposal had been postponed at the requests of the Liberal Union and the Conservatives. Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, however, presented it again as a matter of special urgency. After regaining independence in 1990, Lithuania removed 1 May from the its list of state holidays. It was restored as a holiday in 1996 by the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party, but again removed by the Conservatives in 1997. It remains unclear whether the holiday will be celebrated this year, for the law establishing the holiday will come into effect only after it is signed by President Valdas Adamkus and published in "Valstybes zinios" (News of the State).
POPULATION DECREASES BY 5 PERCENT IN 12 YEARS.
The initial data collected during the recent census indicates that the population of Lithuania is 3.496 million, BNS reported on 20 April. This is 179,000 people, or about 5 percent, lower than the 3,674,802 people who were counted as permanent residents in Lithuania in the 1989 census. The populations of Kaunas and Siauliai decreased by 9 percent, while those of Vilnius, Klaipeda, and Panevezys declined by 4 percent.
SOCIAL DEMOCRATS GIVE LOW MARKS TO RULING COALITION.
The Social Democrat faction issued a statement on 18 April criticizing the performance of the ruling coalition on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the current parliament's first session, ELTA reported. It asserted that the coalition, the government of Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, and President Valdas Adamkus, are responsible for the "continued impoverishment of Lithuanian people." The statement declared that the current parliament clearly shows its support only for the interests of the wealthy by lifting personal income taxes on revenue from sales or transfer of securities, and by introducing an excise duty on propane gas. The statement argued that the situation of the poor has also been worsened by amendments made to the labor law that made it easier for organizations to dismiss workers and scrapped some social benefits. Moreover, the Social Democrats claim the coalition attempted to rescue the social insurance fund not by adopting policies to revive businesses, but by reducing payments to working pensioners.
* Transport Ministers Dailis Barakauskas and Isabelle Durant signed in Brussels on 24 April an agreement between Lithuania and Belgium on air communication and a sea transport treaty among Lithuania, Belgium, and Luxembourg, BNS reported. The ministers discussed Lithuania's integration into the EU, whose presidency Belgium will take over in the second half of this year. Barakauskas also met European Commission officials to discuss issues in the transportation policy chapter, sea and aviation safety matters, as well as relations with Russia's Kaliningrad exclave following Lithuania's accession into the EU.
* UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, and Valdas Adamkus were the co-sponsors of the "Dialogue Among Civilizations" conference held in Vilnius from 24 -26 April, BNS reported. Politicians, intellectuals, scientists, and artists from over 25 different countries exchanged opinions on the current condition of intercultural communication and on the ways to enhance understanding among different civilizations. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali also addressed the conference.
* For the first time since the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1993, a high-ranking Russian military delegation made an official visit to Lithuania from 25-26 April. It was led by Colonel General Valentin Bogdanchikov, the deputy director of the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Directorate for International Relations, who had served in the Soviet army in Lithuania for 17 years, ELTA reported. Bogdanchikov held talks with Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius on current issues in European security policy while technical experts discussed military transit to the Kaliningrad Region through Lithuania.
* British Deputy Defense Minister Lewis Moonie told Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius in Vilnius on 24 April that defense plans must be realistic, and supported by resources, BNS reported. Moonie also met with President Valdas Adamkus and Armed Forces Commander Brigadier-General Jonas Kronkaitis. Moonie commented favorably on the progress of the Lithuanian military.
* Lithuania's Armed Forces commander, Brigadier-General Jonas Kronkaitis, discussed plans for military cooperation with the head of the Czech military's general staff, the Czech defense minister, and the chairmen of the Czech parliament's foreign affairs, defense, and security committees during an official three-day visit to the Czech Republic from 17-19 April, BNS reported. Kronkaitis also inspected a Czech Air Force battalion and certain military-industrial manufacturing facilities.
* By a vote of 60-34 with 15 abstentions, the parliament on 17 April passed a gambling tax law under which half of the revenue raised from taxes on gambling establishments would be allocated for school computerization programs, BNS reported. The Finance Ministry estimates that about 25 million litas ($6.25 million) would be collected annually from gambling taxes.
* Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told President Valdas Adamkus on 23 April in Vilnius that Lithuania should belong to the EU and NATO, BNS reported. He expressed the hope that Lithuania could complete the EU pre-accession talks by the end of 2002. Juncker also met that day with Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas and Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas. He announced that Luxembourg had pledged one million euros ($890,000) for the closure of the Ignalina atomic power plant. Several days earlier, France announced that it was donating 1.5 million euros for the plant's closing.
* Prosecutor-General Antanas Klimavicius signed a cooperation agreement with his Swedish counterpart Klas Bergenstrand in Stockholm on 24 April, ELTA reported. The agreement calls for regular exchange visits by officials of both countries, seminars in Vilnius led by Swedish prosecutors, and specialist training.
* Poland's newly appointed ambassador to Vilnius, Jerzy Bahr, officially presented his credentials to President Valdas Adamkus on 17 April, BNS reported. Bahr is a career diplomat who, after service in the Polish embassies in Bucharest and Moscow, was the consul-general to Kaliningrad Oblast and ambassador to Ukraine. He replaced Eufemija Teichmann, whose duties as ambassador expired last fall.