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Baltic Report: April 3, 2000

3 April 2000, Volume 1, Number 11
Baltic Presidents Meet In Vilnius
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus hosted his Baltic counterparts Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia and Lennart Meri of Estonia on 30 March. The three confirmed their commitment to cooperation, stressing the importance of coordinated action. They also discussed various energy issues, including the construction of power links to Finland and Poland. And they discussed relations with Russia, adding that they hope the election of Vladimir Putin as president will improve ties with the Baltics.

Baltics Eliminate Summer Time
On the basis of an 18 February agreement, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania ended the practice of switching to summer time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2000). A survey by Latvia's SKDS shows that 59.2 percent of respondents favored the elimination. Lithuania's Vilmorus polling agency said that 73 percent of Lithuanians were against the shift to summer time, BNS and ELTA reported. ETA added that some 82 percent of Estonians also favor the end of summer time.
* The blue chip index of the Baltic stock exchanges will add as of 1 April two additional companies, both from Estonia: retailer Tallinna Kaubamaja (Tallinn Shopping Center) and real estate developer Pro Kapital. Seven of the fifteen companies on the index are from Estonia, and four each from Latvia and Lithuania.
* The three Baltic economics ministers met in Riga on 24 March to discuss preparations for a unified and open energy market by 2002.
* All EU aspirants -- including the three Baltic countries -- began negotiations on 27 March to join the European Environmental Agency. The European Commission suggested that frontrunners may be able to join the EEA as soon as 2001.

Government Reviews First Year Performance
On its first anniversary in office, the current Estonian government of Prime Minister Mart Laar on 27 March said that it will focus on administrative reform and integration with the EU and NATO, "Postimees" reported. Finance Minister Siim Kallas added that the previous year had been "unusually bad" budget-wise. Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves praised relations with the EU, saying, "it's not just that we're going to Europe, but Europe is coming to us."

Joint EU-Estonian Committee Discuss Integration Progress
The EU-Estonian inter-parliamentary committee, meeting in Tallinn on 28 March, examined Estonia's progress in its integration program with the EU. The committee's co-chairs, Per Stenmarck of the European Parliament and Tunne Kelam of the Estonian parliament, focused the speed of legal harmonization with the EU's acquis communautaire. Stenmarck suggested that the language law needs to be adjusted to fit EU norms to allow equal competition for all EU-origin businesses, but he added that the law is generally sound and that the EU understands fully that Estonian is the sole official language of the country. The committee also called for the EU to scrap agricultural subsidies for farm products exported to Estonia, but Stenmarck said "I am in a minority," BNS reported.
* Vello Vensel on 30 March unexpectedly won the election as the new governor of the Bank of Estonia. The bank's council supported Vensel, a professor of statistics at the Tallinn Technical University, instead of incumbent Vahur Kraft, who had been expected to remain.
* Finance Minister Siim Kallas and European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pedro Solbes on 28 March signed Estonia's economic development strategy for the years 1999-2003.
* The government on 29 March approved the automatic awarding of citizenship to graduates of Russian-language secondary schools who have successfully completed courses on Estonian language and citizenship.
* The Polish parliament authorized President Aleksander Kwasniewski to sign the international agreement on protecting the site of the ferry Estonia. Seven other regional countries have acceded to the document, which designates the site as a mass grave and protects it from intrusion.
* Regional power distributor Narva elektrivork (Narva Power Grid) began importing electricity from Lithuania on 20 March as part of a test of the developing opening energy market in the Baltics.
* The Statistical Department announced on 31 March that final 1998 GDP growth was 4.7 percent.
* Tallinn's workers earned the highest wages of employees in any region of Estonia during the fourth quarter of 1999, according to the Statistical Department on 30 March. The average wage in the capital was 6,054 kroons ($370) per month. The lowest average wage was in rural Voru county, where the average was 3,288 kroons per month.

Gas Company Shares Auctioned
More than a quarter of shares in Latvijas Gaze (Latvian Gas, LG) were auctioned off at the Riga Stock Exchange on 27 March, earning the government some 28.175 million lats ($48.16 million), LETA reported. About 10.7 million state-owned shares, or 26.85 percent of the company, were auctioned at an average 2.63 lats per share. Of the 23 bids received by the Latvian Privatization Agency (LPA), four were accepted but the names of successful bidders have not been announced. Current shareholders Itera and Ruhrgas have told BNS that they were among the winning bidders. LPA director Janis Naglis called the auction "phenomenal." The government retains about 10 percent of shares in LG.

Little Economic Growth In 1999
The Statistical Department on 29 March reported that Latvia's economy grew by 0.1 percent. The latter half of the year picked up after the recession from the first half that originated from the 1998 Russian economic crisis, BNS reported. Figures for the third quarter was revised by the Statistical Department; instead of no changes, GDP actually grew by 0.2 percent in the third quarter of 1999. In the fourth quarter, GDP rose by 2.8 percent.

Latvian Shipping Company Privatization Fails Once More
The recent attempt at privatizing Latvijas Kugnieciba (LK, Latvian Shipping Company) again failed, according to Latvian Privatization Agency (LPA) director Janis Naglis. Speaking to the press on 29 March, Naglis said the only bid received was not valid because the bidder had failed to pay a security deposit. The LPA failed to privatize LK several times in the past, the last being in mid December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 1999).
* NATO Secretary-General George Robertson visited Latvia on 29-30 March to assess the Baltic country's preparations for integration into NATO.
* The Latvian parliament on 30 March rejected the nomination of Ilgars Zigfrids Septeris for prosecutor-general. Only 44 members of parliament voted for Septeris, short of the majority needed in the 100-member chamber, while 36 voted against and 15 abstained.
* Members of the terrorist group Perkonkrusts on 27 March in Riga Regional Court plead guilty to some or all charges -- including possession of explosives, engaging in terrorism, and attempting to blow up the Soviet "liberation" monument in Pardaugava. Five plead guilty to all charges, four plead guilty to some of the charges, and one said he was not guilty of any of the charges.
* Prime Minister Andris Skele early this year sold his holdings in the New Technology and Business Development Corporation, formerly known as Ave Lat, BNS reported on 28 March. The sale of Skele's holding yielded the prime minister about $29 million in promissory notes.
* The Russian parliament on 29 March suspended for a week the debate on a resolution which could lead to economic sanctions against Latvia, BNS reported. The document under consideration called on Russia "taking all appropriate measures even up to the introduction of additional economic sanctions in relation to Latvia" in order to "secure full and unconditional observance of universally accepted principles and norms of the international law in Latvia."
* Those individuals holding old Soviet passports in Latvia raced to exchange them for Latvian-produced documents, as the passports became invalid on 31 March. However, officials estimate that 39,000 residents will remain without travel documents and ID as they fail to apply for new documents. Deadline for the old Soviet passports were extended once already in the past for one year.
* Latvia's current account deficit in 1999 was 372 million lats ($626 million), or 10.2 percent of the year's GDP, according to the Statistical Department on 30 March.
* About 5,000 of the 12,300 students in higher education will have to pay their own tuition fees beginning this fall.
* The Latvian National Opera is donating $3,400 to Moscow's Bolshoi Theater as a part of a UNESCO drive for the theater's restoration. The funds came as the box office receipt for a recent performance of Yevgeni Onegin.

Coalition Established In Vilnius City Council
On 26 March, a week after the local elections, the Liberal Union of Rolandas Paksas, formerly the prime minister and mayor of

Vilnius, linked its 18 seats with the 5 of the Polish Electoral Action and the 7 from the coalition of the Conservatives and the Union of Political Prisoners and Deportees to form a governing majority, ELTA reported.
* Parliamentary Speaker Vytautas Landsbergis met with President Ezer Weizman in Israel on 28 March to discuss trade and the restoration of the Vilnius ghetto. He also met with Knesset Speaker Abraham Burg and Prime Minister Ehud Barak to discuss the status of war crimes prosecutions in Lithuania.
* Belarus announced on 24 March that it will require transit visas for Lithuanians travelling to the Russian Federation as of 1 May. Minsk on 15 March had imposed transit visas on Lithuanians but suspended them on 16 March after complaints from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.
* Lithuania's ambassador to the Council of Europe, Rokas Bernotas, submitted the ratification of the European Convention on the Protection of Minorities on 24 March. The document goes into effect in Lithuania on 1 July.
* The parliament on 29 March passed a set of amendments to the law on registration of residency, which was vetoed by President Valdas Adamkus a week earlier. The new amendments scrap the Soviet-relic of registration stamps in passports. However, until the national database for residency is ready in late 2002, an interim measure still needs to be crafted.
* Germany plans to donate 67 M-113 armored personnel carriers to Lithuania.
* The Finance Ministry on 28 March reported that at the end of February, total state debt stood at 13.16 billion litas ($3.29 billion), some 29.5 percent of this year's estimated GDP. The Statistical Department added that Lithuania's foreign debt per capita as of the start of the year was $650, including a rise in the fourth quarter of 1999 alone of $135.30 per capita. Lithuania's total foreign debt is $2.351 billion.
* The State Electoral Commission on 27 March approved a petition drive by the New Alliance (Social Liberals) to initiate legislation to divert funding from defense to education. The petition contained over 87,000 signatures, more than the 50,000 needed for citizens to initiate legislation. The bill, which seeks to divert 148 million litas ($37 million) to education spending, will be included in the upcoming legislative session.
* The breakaway faction in the Christian Democratic Party, which formed the Modern Christian Democrat faction in the parliament, on 27 March announced the formation of a new political party. Leaders of the faction believe that about 40 of the seats won in the 19 March local elections out of the nearly 100 by the parent party will join the new grouping.
* MP Audrius Butkevièius, recently paroled from his sentence for bribery, on 24 March announced his intention to switch committee assignments, from the legal committee to the human rights committee, in order to "better influence" Lithuanian policies toward "provisions of European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms," ELTA reported.
* The so-called "sugar war" ended on 30 March when Agriculture Minister Edvardas Makelis signed a decree allowing sugar beet farmers to sell to the refinery of their choice. Upon the signing of the decree, farmers ended their blockade of several key roads, including a vital border post with Poland.
* The parliament on 30 March passed the law on the partial shutdown of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The bill deals with the actual shutdown of the first unit, as well as empowering the government to seek funding for the shutdown.