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Baltic Report: January 31, 2000

31 January 2000, Volume 1, Number 2
Meeting in Riga on 25 January, the Baltic defense ministers reached an agreement on the creation of a command center of BALTNET, the joint Baltic airspace-surveillance system. The Regional Air Space Coordination Center (RASCC) will be established near the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. The three also discussed other ongoing cooperation projects and praised the support shown for Baltic integration into NATO by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during his speech in Tallinn (see below).

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott made a three-day visit to Estonia on 22-24 January in part to deliver the Robert C. Frasure memorial lecture. In the speech on 24 January titled "A Baltic Homecoming," Talbott emphasized that "the fate of the Baltic states is nothing less than a litmus test of this entire continent," adding that the passing of the test will come when "Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are secure, stable prosperous democracies integrated into all the structures of the Euro-Atlantic community." During a meeting with Prime Minister Mart Laar, Talbott commended Estonia's commitment to raise defense spending to two percent of GDP.

The Estonian government on 25 January eased the procedure for non-citizens to renew their residence permits. Population Minister Katrin Saks told BNS that applicants now will need to submit a completed application and copies of relevant pages within their passports. Other documents, such as proof of residence and income, will no longer be required. The changes come as the government faces up to 200,000 residence permit renewals this year.
* Estonia's population dropped by an estimated 126,068 in the last decade, as the population at the start of 2000 is believed to be only 1,439,000.
* As of the end of 1999, the government has received only 222 applications for citizenship for children born in Estonia of non-citizen parents, despite earlier suggestions that this procedure would generate a flood of new citizens without knowledge of the Estonian language.
* Prime Minister Mart Laar's suggestion that Estonia should shift to the euro even before joining the European Union has sparked criticism. Laar said that EC President Romano Prodi had found the idea "interesting," but later Prodi confirmed it was "not possible." The idea also has been slammed by Estonian leaders across the political spectrum as well as by officials of the Central Bank. Despite this, the government is also forming a committee to examine the pros and cons of the single currency in Estonia.
* European Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen reassured Prime Minister Laar that the pace of negotiations will not slow down for the six countries--including Estonia--which began talks with the EU in 1998.
* The parliament's National Defense Committee plans to introduce a bill establishing conditions for university students to serve in the military. This was prompted after 1999 records showed among conscripts only one university graduate.
* Outgoing U.S. military attache Peter Hendrikson told "Postimees" that Estonia has failed to take advantage of all the military assistance it has been offered and may not get additional aid if that continues.
* The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Jaanus Karm for negligence in the deaths of 14 soldiers under his command during a training session at Kurkse. Karm now faces one year in jail; his original sentence of 4.5 years was reduced.
* British firm GIBB won the tender to advise the Estonian government on the first part of the privatization of Eesti Raudtee (Estonian Railways). The first part, which consists of the formation of privatization conditions, should be complete in April.

The Riga District Court on 21 January found Vasili Kononov guilty of war crimes stemming from a partisan raid during World War II. Kononov led a unit of Soviet partisans in an attack on the village of Mazie Bati on 27 May 1944, during which many civilians were killed. The court found Kononov personally responsible for nine deaths, although the convicted war criminal defended his actions as proper under wartime rules. His conviction, which carries a six-year prison sentence, is being appealed. The verdict sparked protests within the courtroom, while the vandalism at the Latvian consulate in St. Petersburg was also attributed to the verdict. The Russian Foreign Ministry also heavily criticized the verdict. Latvian officials reasserted that the Latvian justice system does not differentiate among criminals on an ideological basis (see "End Note" below).

Alongside growing criticism from the government and parliament, Economics Minister Vladimirs Makarovs reiterated that he will not extend the contract of Latvian Privatization Agency (LPA) head Janis Naglis when it expires in March. An ad hoc parliamentary committee investigating privatization reprimanded Naglis on 24 January for making statements detrimental to the privatization of Latvijas Kugnieciba (Latvian Shipping Company, LASCO). The committee called the statements by Naglis "destructive" to the privatization of LASCO, as during the time bids were being accepted on LASCO, Naglis publicly said the price per share was too high. No proper bids were received for LASCO, resulting in another failed attempt to privatize the country's shipping fleet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December
* Ex-Premier Vilis Kristopans has resigned his seat in parliament, citing disagreements with government policy. Though his party, Latvia's Way, is a member of the ruling coalition, Kristopans himself has been a vocal opponent of Prime Minister Andris Skele. Kristopans will be replaced by Mariss Andersons.
* Social Democrat parliament member Leonards Stass suffered a fatal heart attack while at work in the parliament building.
* Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins visited London to meet with officials, including his British counterpart Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Berzins said that Cook supports a Latvian plan to organize a conference on the Holocaust in autumn.
* Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs made a week-long trip to the United States to meet with various law enforcement officials, NGO representatives, and leaders of the Jewish community. Birkavs also discussed war crimes prosecution with the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations.
* Latvia's honorary consul to Venezuela, Irene Sadde, presented a check for $20,000 to Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel to aid in the country's flood relief.
* There were 30,614 accidents involving motor vehicles in Latvia during 1999, resulting in 604 fatalities and 5,244 injuries.
* The Latvian government accepted a settlement with Slovak arms maker Katrim Stella over a contested weapons purchase. The government agreed to pay no more than 190,000 lats ($324,120) for the lot, which includes many defective weapons. The purchase price for the consignment was originally about $3.9 million.
* Russian oil giant LUKoil said it was not interested in acquiring shares of Ventspils Nafta (Ventspils Oil). The government plans to sell off shares in the oil company in the third quarter.

Under pressure from the radical Lithuanian Freedom League (LLL), Austria's ambassador to Lithuania, Dr. Florian Haug, on 21 January canceled the second annual charity Vienna Ball at the Vilnius City Hall. Haug said in a statement that "Most of the likely guests had been frightened by threats to their lives and their dignity and decided not to come to the ball and give money to a boarding school for handicapped children," BNS reported. The proceeds of the charity event were to be donated to a school for handicapped children in Ukmerge. In response, LLL leader Vytautas Sustauskas said that the "'fat cats' have realized that they cannot ridicule the nation."
* The Statistical Department reported that preliminary figures show Lithuania's GDP dropped by 3 percent in 1999. During the fourth quarter, however, the economy rebounded 1.2 percent over the same period a year ago.
* Russia's LUKoil and Lithuania's Mazeikiai Oil have signed a one-year agreement on crude oil processing for LUKoil's own use in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg. But the two sides have yet to reach an agreement for a long-term crude oil supply for Mazeikiai's oil refinery, being divided over the price for crude deliveries.
* Finance Minister Vytautas Dudenas, upon returning from Washington, said the International Finance Corporation is interested in taking a 10 percent stake in Mazeikiai Oil. The state still owns more than half the shares in the company, though minority owner Williams International operates the company fully.
* The Confederation of Lithuanian Industrialists, led by Bronislovas Lubys, announced it will not support any single political party for the coming local elections but will keep its options open regarding the general elections later in 2000. The support of the group to the Conservatives in 1996 helped the party to victory, but accusations of undue influence, especially in energy projects, has cast a shadow over the support. The confederation is also angry at a draft law which would require registration of lobbyists.
* Lithuanian Greens launched a protest against the expansion of military training grounds. The Defense Ministry plans to acquire 20,000 hectares of forest land (about 2 percent of the forests in Lithuania) to convert to training grounds. The Greens plan to protest NATO-member country embassies in Vilnius as well.
* Border officials detained yet another consignment of bad meat from EU member countries. A total of 22 tons of inedible chicken from Denmark and 1 ton of salmonella-tainted pork from France were seized at the border from Poland.
* An attempt to stage a referendum that might have changed the voting system failed when supporters were able to collect only 175,000 of the 300,000 signatures needed to put an issue on the ballot. Kazimieras Uoka organized the petition drive to amend the constitution to eliminate proportional representation allocation of parliamentary mandates. Currently 70 of the 141 mandates are allocated proportionally.


By Mel Huang

At an international conference on the Holocaust held in Stockholm last week, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga reaffirmed Latvia's commitment to punishing all war criminals. She noted that Latvia's criminal code "condemns genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, regardless of the ideology in whose name such crimes were perpetrated, be it Nazism or Communism." But two recent high-profile war crimes cases have forced Latvia to defend that universalistic approach to such crimes.

Vasili Kononov was convicted by a Riga court last week for his role during a Soviet partisan raid on the Latvian village of Mazie Bati in 1944. Kononov argued that his actions were within the norms of wartime. But the court held him personally responsible for the unjustified deaths of nine civilians and sentenced him to six years in prison. That verdict generated a storm of protest, ranging from outbursts in the courtroom to the suspected vandalism of the Latvian consulate in St. Petersburg. The harshest reaction came from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which called the verdict "unprecedented" and said it showed "a total lack of respect for the spirit and principles of the Nuremberg trials." Vike-Freiberga responded by saying that Moscow's statement represented "a cynical sneer at the millions of victims of Soviet totalitarian rule."

At the same time, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Latvia of showing less vigor in prosecuting Nazi war criminals, noting that "this obviously political trial is a profanation with the backdrop of Latvia's passivity towards collaborators who are linked to Nazi war crimes." The statement alluded to the other current high-profile war crimes case connected with Latvia, that of Konrads Kalejs, who is accused of having been a leading member of the Arajs Commando, widely held to be responsible for killing at least 30,000 people. Despite the public outcry and pressure on British Home Secretary Jack Straw to deport Kalejs to Latvia or to initiate war crimes proceedings in a British court as British law allows, Kalejs managed to flee to Australia, where an earlier case against him had collapsed due to insufficient evidence.

The Kalejs case has clearly damaged Latvia's public image, but because Kalejs is an Australian citizen, there is little Riga can do unless Canberra decides to extradite him. As Vike-Freiberga suggests, "We are in the difficult situation of trying to convict someone that three countries have failed to do."

Latvia is organizing a meeting of investigators and prosecutors in mid February in Riga to pool information on the Kalejs case. Officials from the United States, Australia, Israel, Canada, Great Britain, and Germany will meet with their Latvian counterparts to see what can be done in this complicated legal situation. At the same time, Latvian and Australian officials are trying to put a pending extradition agreement on the fast track. But at present, few in Riga appear convinced that Latvia can avoid more criticism regardless of what it does.