Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 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 12 February 2000

Mel Huang

Political and foreign affairs

All hell broke loose in political Latvia, when Social Democrat MP Jānis Ādamsons linked Prime Minister Andris Šķēle, Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs and director of the State Revenue Service Andrejs Sončiks to a paedophilia scandal. Though Ādamsons is the head of an ad hoc committee investigating any government links to the scandal, he made his statements in the Saeima as a normal member.

The statement earned a ferocious set of responses from those named and others. Prime Minister Šķēle called it a "provocation" against the Latvian state, while Revenue Service head Sončiks said he will file a legal grievance against Ādamsons.

The most drastic measure taken in response came from Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs, who has gone on a hunger strike until his name is cleared (see this week's Amber Coast for the full story of this horrific breakdown of political decorum and norms).

As if not enough confusion had gripped the country, at the week's end there were two high-profile murders. The head of the Riga Veterinary Department, Artūrs Fokins, was found murdered at his home. The head of the Latvian Privatisation Agency's Insolvency and Liquidation Department, Ilona Skadina, was clubbed to death with a baseball bat.

The Social Democrats heavily criticised Finance Minister Edmunds Krastiņš for not guaranteeing a loan to the port city of Ventspils, hinting at the long-standing Ventspils-Šķēle dispute. Krastiņš is a member of the prime minister's People's Party.

The EU officially began membership talks with Latvia and all other associate members not yet negotiating for membership. This came at a meeting of EU and associate members in Brussels on 15 February.

After taking part in the meeting, Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš said that Latvia will ask for transition periods on several issues, such as agriculture, fisheries, environment and regional development.

Both the Latvian Supreme Court and the Office of the Prosecutor General are investigating allegations of wrongly overturned convictions from the Second World War. Latvian courts exonerated about 13,000 individuals convicted under Soviet courts, but the Simon Wiesenthal Centre said a number of the convictions were legitimate. So far, none of the overturned convictions have been found to be wrongful.

Investigators from several countries gathered in Riga to pool information on the Konrāds Kalējs case and to forge links for further co-operation in war crimes prosecution. Investigators from the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, Australia and Israel joined their Latvian colleagues over the two-day closed-door summit.

Russian investigators expressed dismay at not being invited to the meeting, but Latvian officials said they would like to talk to their Russian counterparts and have invited them to Riga later in February.

Danish subjects are now allowed to stay in Latvia for six months without a visa, an extension from the original 90-day visa-free regime.

Latvia will award former Russian President Boris Yeltsin with the Tristar Order, the highest award of the nation. The New Party came up with the idea originally, praising Yeltsin's support for the restoration of Latvian independence and his personal support in many other areas.


Economy and business

Mobile phone service provider Baltkom GSM appears to be in trouble with age discrimination, as they refused to connect a 70-year old to their network. Though the company denied the charge that there's a ban on the elderly who apply to the company, the LETA news agency has found information otherwise.

World-wide hotel chain Marriott is eyeing some development work at the Soviet-style Riga Hotel in central Riga. No hints whether this is a possible take-over, but the task will be a difficult one for the hotel chain, as the Hotel Riga is still mired in Soviet stylings – including a "key lady" on every floor, famous in Intourist hotels of days past....and present, too, apparently.

Industrial production in Latvia fell by 8.8 per cent in 1999, showing how significantly the economic recession affected the country.

Thomson Financial BankWatch upgraded the intra-country risk rating of Unibanka to B from B/C.

News agency LETA announced it is acquiring a minority stake in Estonian news service ETA. No terms were announced, though it was stressed it was a minority stake.


Social and local interest

Real estate agency OberHaus named Riga as the most expensive city for a two-room flat in the Baltic region. In the centre of town, the usual rent for such a flat is between USD 650 to USD 1200. Tallinn and Vilnius are both lower, at around USD 483 to USD 1034 and USD 900 respectively.

The UNDP issued its annual report on Latvia, which, among other things, said there are 80,000 Internet users in Latvia or 3.3 per cent of the population.

Germany has decided to extradite Artjoms Korkins, suspected in the attempted murder of a financial police officer. Several others accused in the shooting have already been apprehended.


And in other news...

The Latvian service of Voice of America (VOA) has been drastically cut from five employees to a mere two. Many say that that is tantamount to cutting the service outright. The Lithuanian service also took a major cut, from six to two employees. However, the Estonian service was spared the chop, as figures show higher ratings among listeners.

Former Communist Party boss Ojārs Potreki, along with a group of others, has been indicted for massive fraud.

Exchange rates
As of 18 February 2000

currency Latvian lats(LVL)
1 US dollar 0.59
1 British pound 0.95
1 German mark 0.30
1 euro 0.59

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

Prepared by Mel Huang, 18 February 2000

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles

News Sources

Baltic News Service (BNS)
The Baltic Times
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Reuters news on Yahoo

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