The new year bringeth...
The coming of 2001 brought some changes in Estonia. First of all, the minimum wage was increased to EEK (Estonian kroons) 1600 (USD 97.14) per month and the minimum tax-free income is now EEK 1000 per month. However, the indexing of pensions does not begin until 2002.
The consumer price index is likely to make a jump early in the year as well, since electricity tariffs jumped with the new year. The normal consumer rate of EEK 0.75/kWh jumped to EEK 0.90/kWh, causing a massive rush of payments at the real turn of the millennium. VAT, which is being counted on for more revenues (see below), will also hit several new areas, such as medicines and medical supplies.
One of the most significant changes, however, is the deregulation of the fixed-line phone market. Full competition for service came into effect with the new year, as Eesti Telefon lost its monopoly status—one of the first deregulated telecom sectors in Central and Eastern Europe.
Different companies are offering various programmes and packages for consumers that are more oriented to different markets, such as international calls or cheaper connections to the mobile network. There have been no reported problems with the network or the changeover so far.
2001 budget approved
The 2001 budget passed in late December by a 54 to 38 vote. The EEK 29.79 billion budget, which is balanced, anticipates GDP growth of 5.5 per cent and inflation of 4.1 per cent. The budget volume grew just by over four per cent from the 2000 budget total, which should be covered by an anticipated higher VAT revenue.
In the mean time, the 2000 budget is scheduled to come in just a little short, with a deficit of about EEK 350 million, or about 1.2 per cent. The shortfall is attributed to the failure to privatise the TOP Olympic Yachting Centre. Reserve funds will have to be used to cover the shortfall.
The year of HIV
The year 2000 can be considered the year of HIV in Estonia, as the infection rate for the virus that causes AIDS skyrocketed in the latter half of the year. As of the end of 2000, there were 425 registered HIV cases in Estonia.
There were almost 300 new cases diagnosed from Narva alone. The numbers are alarming, when considering that before 2000 there were only 67 diagnosed cases of HIV in Estonia.
Monumental gene bill passed
In mid-December, the Riigikogu passed a bill by a 42 to 3 vote allowing the creation of a national gene bank. The law regulates the collection of genetic material from the 1.4 million-strong population, keeping the process voluntary and anonymous for participants.
The bill also created strong protection schemes against misuse of data, including improper screening by employers, and threatens jail terms for violators.
However, the scheme has created some controversy, especially with regards to its funding. A bulk of the funding is scheduled to come from corporate sponsors, which will be able to take advantage of the completed data. A full genetic data set would be several times larger than the other well-known gene bank project in Iceland, where the population is several times smaller than Estonia's.
In mid-December, the presidents of the only three Finno-Ugric nations that have attainted statehood—Estonia, Finland and Hungary—met to discuss co-operation and support of other Finno-Ugric nations. Finnish President Tarja Halonen hosted Estonian President Lennart Meri and Hungarian President Ferenc Mádl in Helsinki, where they jointly opened the annual Finno-Ugric Peoples' Congress.
The Congress placed emphasis on supporting the cultural development, or plain survival, for the many other Finno-Ugric nations—mostly in the Russian Federation, such as the Komi.
Following the Congress, Estonian President Meri returned home accompanied by Hungarian President Mádl, where the two discussed bilateral co-operation, with a focus on both countries' EU integration and expanding economic ties.
And in other news...
- Eerik-Niiles Kross, head of the intelligence service, resigned in late December. The resignation is allegedly linked to improper usage of an official credit card, though Kross has been involved in several scandals in the past few years.
- At the Nice European Council summit in mid-December, Estonia was allotted four votes in the Council of Ministers for Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) and six seats in the European Parliament upon membership. Estonia is also ensured a seat in the Commission for the medium term. Estonia generally voiced satisfaction at the results of the summit but urged the EU to move faster to retain the momentum for enlargement.
- Karl-Leonhard Paulov, found guilty of crimes against humanity, became the first person to be convicted of atrocities during the early part of Soviet occupation to be incarcerated. After losing an appeal with the Supreme Court, 76-year-old Paulov began an eight-year sentence in mid-December. Paulov was convicted of killing three Estonian resistance fighters; he denied guilt. Two of the victims were shot in the back.
- Prime Minister Mart Laar made a trip to Finland to discuss bilateral co-operation with various officials, including President Tarja Halonen. Halonen told Laar that she will endeavour to learn Estonian, which is linguistically very close to Finnish.
- On the same note, the sea transport route between Tallinn and Helsinki has become the third busiest in Europe—just after the English-French route through the English Channel and the Swedish-Denmark route at Øresund. About six million individuals travelled the Tallinn-Helsinki route in 2000.
- Surprisingly, Lieutenant General Johannes Kert took up the job of commander of the Ground Forces. Recently, Kert was unfairly pushed out of his job as commander of the entire Defence Forces by overzealous politicians. This comes as a major boost to new Defence Forces chief Rear Admiral Tarmo Kõuts.
Mel Huang, 5 January 2001
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