Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga delivered a keynote address, which focused on the security aspects of Latvia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, at the Fifth Annual Stockholm Conference on Baltic Regional Security and Cooperation. The conference was organized by the US government and the Swedish Foreign Institute.
Sweden's assistance to Latvia's armed forces, European Union enlargement issues and Sweden's upcoming presidency of the EU were also central themes at a subsequent bilateral meeting between Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallén and Vīķe-Freiberga. The leaders did not forget to accent cultural aspects that have drawn the two nations closer.
Admitting Holocaust shame
Some 200 educators, officials, teachers and historians, most of whom were from Latvia, gathered in Rīga for an international conference on probing the Holocaust in the Baltics. Organized by the governmental Historical Commission, the conference aimed to increase the public's awareness of the Holocaust. It also discussed issues of research and education, anti-Semitism and the prosecution of Latvian war criminals.
In what was said by agencies to be a rare public admission, President Vīķe-Freiberga spoke of her country's national shame in ignoring its culpability in the Holocaust. "It is our eternal sorrow and our eternal shame that some of the [Holocaust] events took place on Latvian soil and with the collaboration of some of our fellow citizens," she said.
Vīķe-Freiberga's comments came as prosecutors seek to have alleged Nazi war criminal Konrāds Kalējs extradited from Australia to stand trial in Latvia (see Daria Kulagina's article, "The Truth Shall Set You Free", in CER this week).
Fish and oil
Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš hopes that the new Lithuanian government will be more understanding, concerning the issue of the Latvian-Lithuanian sea border treaty. Meeting with Saeima members, Bērziņš said the previous Lithuanian government could not have made concessions due to the recent elections. However, Bērziņš noted, "We could try to reach an agreement with the new government."
The right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom believes there can be no debate over Latvia approving the treaty, until an additional agreement is signed on fishing territories and oil drilling rights. Latvian fishermen have earlier threatened to block Latvia's ports in case the treaty is passed. They believe that with the treaty they could lose 20 percent of their fishing territory.
Approving the budget
The Saeima approved in principle the 2001 budget bill, setting the fiscal deficit level for next year's budget at 1.9 percent of the gross domestic product, in hope that the deficit could actually total only 1.74 percent of GDP. Minister of Finance Gundars Bērziņš called the 2001 budget a "mild spring warm-up for the 2002 non-deficit budget." The government was able to cut the deficit from 4.5 percent in 1999 to three percent this year and to the expected 1.7 percent next year. "This is a very strong and healthy tendency," the Minister said.
The biggest expenditures planned are in areas related to Latvia's NATO and European Union integration. "[By] pinching and scraping at the expense of defense and state security, we can reach the point where we lose the most important thing—Latvia's independence," Prime Minister Bērziņš said during Parliament debates.
Czech President Václav Havel once again confirmed his country's support for Latvia's and other Baltic states' NATO integration. Meeting with Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš in Prague, Havel also praised the two countries' cooperation in the European Union integration process.
During his official visit, Bērziņš opened the Latvian Business Days in Prague, which aims to expand Latvian and Czech economic and commercial cooperation. The minister met a number of leading officials and addressed the Czech International Relations Institute on "The Latvian Choice: A free and united Europe."
Supporters of the Catholic movement "For Life!", together with Evangelical Lutherans and Roman Catholics, picketed the Saeima under banners, saying "Don't Sponsor the Legal Murder of Our Children," in an attempt to bring to the community's attention the bill on sexual and reproductive health being reviewed by the Parliament.
The Saeima, however, approved in principle the bill, which, for the first time, allows for the "terminating [of a] pregnancy due to medical reasons or social conditions, and at a woman's own discretion." The bill also includes points on contraception, artificial insemination (restricting production of human embryos for scientific purposes), assistance in delivery and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
Drugs, AIDS, racketeering and children
Prime Minister Bērziņš believes the spread of drugs in Latvia is an urgent problem. The prime minister's office is preparing several moves to improve the fight against illegal narcotics, including amendments to legislation and education. However, Minister of Internal Affairs Mareks Segliņš claimed in an interview that the government-approved 1998 Anti-Narcotics Program exists "only on paper."
United Nations Development Program (UNDP) experts have said that if the problem of street children is not tackled, the number of HIV/AIDS cases will grow rapidly in Latvia. Since drugs are also readily available in schools, the UNDP selected 20 schools in which preventive programs will be enforced. The program's primary goal is to instruct teachers on how to combat the spread of drugs in schools.
Meanwhile, Rīga's Latgale district school children have named fighting drugs in schools and racketeering among various youth groups as their main problems during a special conference: "How I Feel in My School." Youngsters feel police pay too little attention to drug dealers, who often employ the services of children.
And in other news...
- Microsoft's business in Latvia has developed better than planned. Since the company's office launched its operations in the country 18 months ago, it has been growing and flourishing, Microsoft's European president Michel Lacombe told a press conference while on a visit to Rīga. Lacombe, who met with President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and representatives of the government and the Saeima, aims to continue expanding the partnership network in Latvia, boosting Microsoft's cooperation with the Latvian government "in the formation of an information society."
- Crime problems in the Baltics and Russia must be tackled jointly, Minister of Internal Affairs Mareks Segliņš suggested, following a meeting between the interior ministers of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Russia. They also discussed measures to combat corruption, organized crime, the spread of drugs and arms, economic crimes and terrorism.
- The state-owned Latvijas Nafta (Latvian Oil), which is currently undergoing privatization, was declared insolvent by a regional court, which appointed a lawyer as the company's receiver and ruled that creditors may file their claims on the company in two months. Latvijas Nafta has taken out a loan of just under USD 14 million, guaranteed by the government from the World Bank.
- Latvia is looking into the possibility of opening an embassy in Japan, said Prime Minister Bērziņš in his meeting with outgoing Japanese Ambassador to Latvia Takeshi Fujii. Ambassador Fujii agreed that Latvian-Japanese economic and business relations will intensify in the future and that the lifting of visas for travel between the two countries opens doors for the development of cultural relations as well.
- According to a public opinion poll, 84.4 percent of Latvian residents believe that the possibilities are limited for the public to control the work of politicians. Interestingly, the less optimistic respondents were ethnic Latvian citizens. Politicians are trusted least of all in rural areas.
- Sex offender Andris Meinarts, indicted for pederasty and sodomy, was sentenced to ten years in prison. This was the second conviction in the so-called "pedophilia scandal."
- Some 36 percent of those registered with HIV in Latvia this year are prison inmates, and, compared to last year, the number is growing. Most, but not all, acquired the disease before entering prison.
- "Ambassadors are the ones who make Latvia's history," and, as such, were encouraged by the President to write diaries and cooperate with each other. At the annual conference of Latvia's ambassadors, the President also advised diplomats to comply with the laws and protocol, saying that, as representatives of a small country, they have to try harder than their superpower colleagues.
- Sydney Olympic gold medal winner gymnast Igors Vihrovs was promoted to the rank of lieutenant by a special Interior Ministry decree. Vihrovs is a physical trainer for the Interior Ministry's Guard Regiment.
- Latvian President Vīķe-Freiberga has a new on-line fan-club with a Russian domain name. The site was established by web enthusiasts of women in politics and features the President's biography, photographs, caricatures and a public opinion poll. President Vīķe-Freiberga, however, could wish for a better-looking source of information on herself.
As of 20 October 2000
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Daria Kulagina, 20 October 2000
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