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Baltic Report: February 21, 2000

21 February 2000, Volume 1, Number 5
EC Supports Via Baltica
European Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen promised to support the Via Baltica transport project, which would create a solid transportation corridor from Helsinki to Warsaw. The subject was broached by Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was in Brussels for the meeting between the EU and its associate members. Earlier, officials from Poland suggested the Polish government would not fund such a project on Polish soil, as there was not enough potential traffic to warrant the spending.
* The European Union on 15 February officially began membership talks with Latvia and Lithuania, along with all other associate members not previously in negotiations with the EU. The foreign ministers of the three countries took part in the meeting of EU and associate members in Brussels.

Government Establishes Economic Priorities
Prime Minister Mart Laar initialed the annual memorandum with the IMF on 11 February, BNS reported. The plan allowed for a 1.25 percent budget deficit this year, which is a departure from the longstanding policy of no budget deficits. The government explained that carryovers from 1999 made such a deficit possible, but the 2000 budget itself is balanced. The statement also calls for the privatization this year of Estonian Railways and Narva Power Plants, with talks with U.S. company NRG Energy nearing completion over the latter.

But there was some disagreement concerning a transfer part of the income of the Central Bank to the national budget. The memorandum was initialed also by Central Bank President Vahur Kraft, but bank officials said that the lack of framework for such a transfer represented a challenge to the bank's independence.

Russia Protests Estonian Awards To War Veterans
The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement protesting Estonian President Lennart Meri's plans to decorate a group of World War II veterans who fought against the Soviets alongside Germans, Interfax reported on 15 February. Of the 168 individuals Meri plans to decorate on the occasion of Estonian Independence Day, 19 fought against the Soviets, BNS added. Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves blasted Moscow's statement, stressing that the decorations are for those who fought against the Soviet occupation, adding that "Estonia hands out medals, not do other countries," ETA added.
* The public relations chief of the Estonian Defense Forces, Marek Miil, was criticized for organizing a leaflet campaign concerning conscription that many people viewed as political. Defense Minister Juri Luik told "Eesti Paevaleht" that it was "totally unacceptable" that the military is "making political propaganda" and acting Defense Forces Commander Colonel Mart Tiru has launched an internal investigation.
* The trial of Finance Minister Siim Kallas for improprieties while he was president of the Central Bank began on 14 February. But the case was immediately adjourned until early March to allow time for a court-appointed accountant to research discrepancies.
* Russian consular official Aleksandr Trofimov was accused of smuggling after he was discovered with 30 liters of vodka and nearly 40,000 packs of cigarettes he claimed were for personal use.
* Russian Communist Party head Gennadii Zyuganov suggested to "Eesti Paevaleht" that there could be an Estonian-Russian union in 10-15 years.
* President Lennart Meri pardoned Jaanus Karm, the commander of the battalion involved in the "Kurkse tragedy" in which 14 soldiers died in a training session. His conviction was upheld late last year, but the sentence was at the time reduced to one year in prison.
* The government decided to give the Taxation Department the right to investigate tax crimes, thus creating a "tax police."
* President Lennart Meri traveled to Bremen to speak at the annual "Schaffermahlzeit," a gathering of prominent German businessmen, at which he sought to attract additional investments to Estonia.
* Unemployment in January rose 0.2 percent from the previous month to 5.4 percent.
* Estonia leads central and eastern Europe in Internet banking, with 10 percent of Estonians banking online, according to "The Wall Street Journal Europe."

Latvian Politics In Chaos, Justice Minister On Hunger Strike
Politicians reacted angrily to the statement in parliament on 17 February by deputy Janis Adamsons, linking Prime Minister Andris Skele, Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs and State Revenue Service head Andrejs Sonciks to a pedophilia scandal. Despite condemnations from across the political spectrum and even accusations by the National Human Rights Office of a severe rights violation in such a statement, Adamsons stood his ground on the issue, LETA reported. The harshest reaction came from an angry Birkavs, who has gone on a hunger strike until his name is cleared. Skele called the statement a "provocation" against the Latvian state, and Sonciks has filed a legal grievance against Adamsons. Birkavs also filed a request with the Office of the Prosecutor-General and a case against Adamsons for slander has since been launched. All three government figures strongly deny any links to the scandal.

Investigators Meet Over Kalejs Case
Investigators from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Israel, Australia, and Germany met their Latvian counterparts in Riga on 16-17 February to discuss the case against accused war criminal Konrads Kalejs, BNS reported. The investigators pooled information to examine how to move forward in the case. Latvian Prosecutor-General Janis Skrastins said "several important elements" were unearthed during the meeting. However, officials also stressed the importance of the meeting in establishing solid links for further cooperation in such cases. Russian investigators voiced dismay at not being invited to the multinational meeting.
* The Latvian Supreme Court said that an examination of the cases of those who had their Soviet-era convictions overturned showed that all of these revisions had been handled correctly. The Simon Wiesenthal Center had suggested that a number of the overturned cases were mistaken, and both the Supreme Court and the Office of the Prosecutor-General are examining the allegations.
* Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins said Latvia would ask for transition periods in talks with the EU over topics like agriculture, fisheries, regional development, and the environment.
* Two murders of senior civil servants shocked Latvia. On the same day, head of the Latvian Privatization Agency's Insolvency and Liquidation Department, Ilona Skadina, and Riga Veterinary Department head Arturs Fokins were found murdered in separate cases.
* The awarding committee decided to grant former Russian President Boris Yeltsin the "Order of the Three Stars" this year for his role in supporting the restoration of Latvia's independence. The order is the highest state award in Latvia.
* Latvia's industrial production in 1999 dropped by 8.8 percent.
* Latvian news agency LETA announced that it had acquired a minority stake in its Estonian counterpart, ETA.

War Crimes Trials To Proceed In Absentia
The Lithuanian parliament on 15 February adopted a law allowing for trials of those charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity to take place even if the defendant is considered too ill to attend the court sessions. The law, which passed by a 54 to six vote, would give the green light to proceed in several dozen cases of Nazi and Soviet crimes against humanity, BNS reported. A closed-circuit television would be set-up for those too ill to attend the sessions. But the law specifies that any sentence would be served only upon recovery.

Among the cases that may now proceed is that of Nazi war crimes suspect Aleksandras Lileikis. His trial had been delayed by his poor health, and that in turn had soured relations between Lithuanian prosecutors and U.S. Justice Department investigators. The head of the Justice Department's Office for Special Investigations (OSI), Eli Rosenbaum, sent a letter to Lithuanian appeals court judge Valdimaras Bavejanas saying that "the bitter experience of cooperation between U.S. and Lithuanian legal institutions showed that Lithuania cannot ensure confidentiality," explaining why the OSI has refused to provide proof on accusations that Lileikis is faking his illness, Reuters added.
* European Commission President Romano Prodi and Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen voiced support for Lithuania's integration into the EU during a two-day visit. Prodi urged the Lithuanian government to involve the public in the process, and he praised the decision to partially close the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant.
* The deadline for parties to register for the March local elections passed with the fringe Independence Party having been disqualified because of an incomplete application. That party, which has launched a legal challenge, gained notoriety when it announced that its slate of candidates in Siauliai would be led by Mindaugas Murza, the head of the Union of National Socialist Unity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2000). Murza also announced that the National Socialist Unity will fold and asked the Justice Ministry to cancel its registration application. The work of the group would be merged into the Lithuanian National Labor Union.
* A new opinion poll keeps former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas as the most popular politician in the land, but he is closely followed by President Valdas Adamkus and former President Algirdas Brazauskas. The leader of the radical Freedom Union, Vytautas Sustauskas, is in seventh on the poll (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2000).
* Trade in 1999 fell sharply compared to 1998, with exports dropping by 19.3 percent and imports by 17.3 percent. Germany remained the biggest trade partner, followed by Latvia and Russia. EU countries accounted for 50.1 percent of exports and 46.5 percent of imports.
* The parliament ratified the Council of Europe's Convention on Minorities.
* Only 38 people have requested to examine the agreements between Lithuania and U.S. company Williams International over the transfer of Mazeikiai Oil, despite the mass outrage expressed at the time of the transaction.

Overcoming The Stigma Of Military Service

By Mel Huang

The rebuilding of Estonia's military has proceeded quickly but the process has not been without problems, including the continuing public stigma attached to military service that the country inherited from Soviet times. Estonia's push for NATO membership, its involvement in peacekeeping missions, and its efforts to increase defense spending have forced the military to address these popular attitudes. Last week, in his 1999 Independence Day speech to the troops, Defense Forces Commander Lieutenant-General Johannes Kert warned of a leadership crisis in the military if the well-educated continue to shun the military.

The problem is serious. A recent report prepared by the Defense Ministry shows that last year, only one of all the conscripts had a university degree. Half of them had not finished 12 years of schooling, and 10 percent had not completed even nine. Many more educated young people openly boast about bribing doctors to get declarations allowing them to avoid service, a practice the military is now looking into.

On another front, the parliament's National Defense Committee sought to close one of the loopholes by making university students do their national service before matriculation. But that sparked protests among secondary students, as well as by the pro-business Reform Party, a member of the ruling coalition.

Even the Defense Force's public relations office entered the fray, much to the anger of politicians. (See news item above.) Last week, the committee agreed on a compromise: students matriculating at universities would be given the choice of when they would serve their compulsory duties within a three-year window.

The establishment of the Baltic Defense College is also helping to improve the image of the military, but it still has a long way to go. And those now dealing with Estonia's national defense are likely going to be forced to do even more in this area as they press for membership in NATO.