Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 3
24 January 2000

C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for Latvia
All the important news from Latvia
since 15 January 2000

Mel Huang

Political and foreign affairs

The Saeima finally passed a resolution concerning the Russian campaign in Chechnya. By a 70 to 14 vote, the parliament called on both sides to stop fighting and to negotiate with the help of international organisations. A leading advocate of the resolution, Social Democrat Rišards Labanovskis, exclaimed upon passage, "Uh, finally, thank you!"

The Latvian Foreign Ministry, alongside counterparts in Estonia and Lithuania, filed protests with their Czech counterpart for the latter's violation of the visa-free agreement. The new visa regulations passed by Prague force Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Australians and others to provide extra documentation at the border - such as proof of funds and accommodations reservations. However, Czech authorities told their Lithuanian colleagues that the border guards have been taking the regulations "too straightforwardly" and it is not a violation of the visa-free travel agreement.

The heads of the three Baltic militaries - Brigadier General Jonas Kronkaitis (Lithuania), Colonel Raimonds Graube (Latvia) and Colonel Märt Tiru (Estonia, acting) - met with their Nordic counterparts in Denmark to discuss co-operation. After the meeting, the three, along with Danish commander General Christian Hvidt, travelled to Bosnia to inspect the joint peacekeeping force BALTBAT.

Swedish Justice Minister Leila Freivalde defended Swedish policies against Nazi hunters, saying that the statutes of limitations prevented any prosecution of suspected war criminals back in the last few decades. Freivalde, commenting on criticism issued by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, hoped that her Latvian origins are not playing a role in the criticism.

Latvian authorities are holding Konstantin Nikitin, a former OMON trooper, for the murder of prominent Russian politician Galina Starovoitova. Starovoitova was gunned down in St Petersburg, in a crime that shocked Russia and the world. Law enforcement officials from Latvia and Russia have confirmed the alleged links and are investigating the case.

The Ventspils regional director of the State Revenue Service, Voldemārs Strazdiņš, resigned alleging regional discrimination by Prime Minister Andris Šķēle. The resignation added to the ongoing feud between the two most powerful politicians in the country - PM Šķēle and Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs. Lembergs has been using the "anti-Ventspils" argument for some time now against Šķēle. However, head of the national State Revenue Service Andrejs Sončiks said that the resignation was mostly due to the inability of Strazdiņš to handle his workload.

Prime Minister Andris Šķēle received a verbal rebuke from the Russian Foreign Ministry for his statements about Russia's "genocide" in Chechnya. The Russian Foreign Ministry was livid over the remarks, but Šķēle said there was no other term he could use thinking of the situation, especially noting Russian policy towards Chechen boys as young as ten years old.

MP Jānis Ādamsons again managed to collect enough signatures to ask for an investigation into the activities of Prosecutor General Jānis Skrastiņš. The first such request was turned down by Supreme Court Chairman Andris Guļāns a few weeks ago.

Both sides finished their final statements in the war crimes trial of Vasili Kononov, a former Soviet partisan charged with the extermination of the village of Mazie Bati. The highly-charged case is now up to the judge, while protests by former Soviet partisans continue. Kononov maintained his innocence, saying the actions of his contingent at Mazie Bati were within the norms of wartime defence. Moscow has been angry over this case, as it is the first against a former partisan.

While attending an agricultural exposition, European Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler told Agriculture Minister Aigars Kalvītis that Latvia will probably have to lift its pork tariffs. The Latvian policy has come under heavy criticism by Estonia, Lithuania and the European Commission with claims of violating trade agreements.

However, Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš said during his weekly radio address that he hopes Latvia can begin talks on 15 chapters of negotiations with the EU already - and that slower countries should not hold Latvia back.

A Calcutta court has delayed the verdict of five arms smugglers from Latvia until the end of January. The five are alleged to be involved in smuggling arms to an armed rebel group in India. However, as the five took up Russian citizenship late last year, Latvian officials say they can do little for the individuals at this point.

Economy and business

Nomura Securities and Hansabanka won the tender to organise the sell-off of state shares in Latvijas Gaze (Latvian Gas). Officials believe the sale of the ten million shares could easily rake in LVL (Latvian lats) 18-20 million. The offering should hit the Riga Bourse in the near future. The funds will be used to cover some budget gaps, such as the exhibit at Expo 2000 and others.

The PPI in 1999 fell by 1.1 per cent, based on December figures.

Stockholders of power utility Latvenergo approved a major restructuring scheme that would enable privatisation to commence. The plan foresees the retention of Latvenergo as a state-owned holding company, while parts are broken off. For example, regional distribution networks would be up for sale, and the CHP plants in Riga would be partially sold off - though majority ownership will remain in state hands. The national transmission grid and the series of hydroelectric dams on the Daugava River, which provides most of the nation's energy, will remain totally state-owned. The plan goes to the Latvian Privatisation Agency next.

For some reason, the Economics Ministry announced that GDP growth in 1999 was about 0.5 per cent. The Statistical Department, responsible for such issues, fired back calling that a "wish."

The privatisation conditions for Latvijas Nafta (Latvian Oil) has been set. The share price in the state holding will be sold at LVL one per share, though 90 per cent of any purchase must be made with privatisation vouchers. The state owns 222,500 shares, or 75 per cent of the company.

Economics Minister Vladimirs Makarovs announced he would not support extending the contract of Janis Naglis, the head of the Latvian Privatisation Agency. Naglis's term ends in March. It is likely that his deputy, Viktors Šadinovs, will take the helm in the final period of the Agency's existance.

At the end of the year, the national budget deficit was LVL 147.038 million lats, or 3.5 per cent of GDP.

Social and local interest

A report showed that, since February 1995, there have been 23,859 new citizens in Latvia. However, currently there are still 619,886 non-citizens in Latvia, according to a local newspaper.

Welfare Minister Roberts Jurdžs, alongside Estonian Social Minister Eiki Nestor and Lithuanian Health Minister Raimundas Alekna, signed in Copenhagen a co-operation agreement with their Nordic counterparts against the spread of tuberculosis in the Baltics. A total of NOK (Norwegian Krone) 15 million will be granted to the three countries in their fight against TB (especially drug-resistant variants).

Former head of the Economic Police and current Interior Ministry advisor Mikhail Belkin has been accused of threatening and blackmailing the head of an international NGO. Michael Arvutin, head of the Union of Councils, claimed that Belkin has been threatening him for years. Belkin denies the charges.

Another sexual abuse case hits Latvia, as a 14-year old boy was taken into custody for molesting several boys under the age of ten. The perpetrator was a victim of sexual abuse as well, officials reported. This comes following the arrest of a county council head for propositioning pre-teen girls and the speculation-fuelled paedophilia scandal in the capital Riga.

A research study by Lithuanian academic Vygandas Paulikas shows Latvia sits in the middle when calculating government support for agriculture. For every hectare of agricultural land, the Latvian government spends USD 32.75 for support. This is much lower than Lithuania's USD 51.50 and higher than Estonia's USD 27 per hectare.

Latvia's forests are considered to be in pretty poor shape by the World Wildlife Fund, but just a hair better than Estonia. Latvia gained a cumulative 40 points, while Estonia came near the bottom with 38 (Denmark had 36). Lithuania triumphed above the other Balts at 51. Slovakia, along with Sweden and Austria, took third at 57 - behind Switzerland and Finland.

The flu epidemic in Latvia is still getting worse, as now the bug is estimated to have infected about 0.9 per cent of the entire country. In Riga, about 1.097 per cent of all residents have caught the flu, a figure topped in Jelgava (1.132 per cent) and Tukums (1.215 per cent). Shops are now selling masks for those worried about transmission.

The head of the Latvian National Opera, Andrejs Žagars, is happy with the funding the world-famous opera is receiving this year. He believes this will be the first time the institution's budget will be balanced and will be strong enough to boast a repertoire to match its international standing.

And others...

The nation marked the anniversary of the "Barricade Days," when Soviet forces stormed the Interior Ministry building on 20 January 1991, killing four people.

As pollution washes ashore at Pape, scientists are attempting to locate the source - and most believe it comes from the oil spilled at the Butingė Oil Platform in a December storm.

The Latvian bobsled team continued their strong year with a silver medal at an event in Cortina d'Ampezzo. The four-man team - Sandis Prūsis, Mārcis Rullis, Matīss Zacmanis, and Jānis Ozols - remains third on the World Cup standings.

Exchange Rates
As of 21 January 2000

currency Latvian lats (LVL)
1 US dollar 0.58
1 British pound 0.97
1 German mark 0.30
1 euro 0.59

[For continuous updates see the Bank of Latvia Exchange Rates page].

Prepared by Mel Huang, 21 January 2000

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles

News Sources

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The Baltic Times
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
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