President notes economic gap
President Valdas Adamkus presented his third annual address to the Seimas on 18 April.
Speaking for about 90 minutes, Adamkus underlined the increasing social distinction in Lithuania between those below the poverty line living on welfare benefits and politicians, who are rapidly becoming wealthy. He said the "new politics" coalition victorious in Seimas elections has had problems implementing its programme in practice. Adamkus protested the dominant social vision that sees government intervention as a one-size-fits-all solution to social and political problems.
Concerning foreign policy, he maintained the supremacy of European integration while emphasising the need for constructive relations with Russia and a partnership between Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev. Adamkus also proposed the banishment of the phrase "Brussels wants it" from the political vocabulary, clarifying that Lithuania genuinely seeks assension the European Union. His most radical proposal was to reform the current local government system, assigning more power to the lowest levels.
MPs, apparently, were only moderately interested in the annual address, as the follow-up discussion took place in a half-empty hall.
Shipping sale hits rough waters
The sale of shares of the shipping company Lisco for privatisation has divided sentiment in the government coalition. In a controversial vote this week, the Cabinet approved a contract to sell 76.36 per cent of Lisco shares to Danish-owned DFDS Tor Line. This clears any legal obstacles to privatisation, but calls government confidence into question.
Lisco would be sold for LTL (Lithuanian litas) 190 million (USD 47.5 million) with the promise to invest another LTL 240 million (USD 60 million) over the next three years.
The debate in Parliament was intense, as the opposition Social Democrats' proposal to block Lisco's privatisation was voted down by the ruling coalition partners. However, the Social Democrats did not give up and, with 47 signatures, demanded another sitting of Parliament in the late evening. The Social Liberals from the ruling coalition, whose representatives asked to delay the decision to look at the contract, joined them. Nevertheless, their ministers in the Cabinet voted in favour of the sale.
While the opposition protested that this was a show of disrespect for the Seimas and a suspiciously assertive push for privatisation, other disagreements came to the fore. Liberals and Conservatives blocked a representative from the Prosecutor General's Office from speaking in the Seimas. It appears, according to him, that there are many legal difficulties in the sale contract.
Social Liberal coalition members, with support from the Parliament's economic affairs committee, have also suggested that the privatisation be stopped.
Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas responded that the government's decision to go-ahead with privatisation was attributed to the DFDS Tor Line stakeholders' annual meeting. This was the last opportunity for Lithuania to have its say before the decision of the Danish company was made.
Taxi drivers see red over yellow
A taxi drivers' strike against a city order to paint their cars and suspend rental contracts halted traffic for an hour in central Vilnius, while about 300 cabs clogged city streets.
Drivers are protesting a Vilnius City Council decision calling for taxies to be painted yellow, as well as the annulment of rental contracts. Currently, about 80 percent of taxi cabs belong to the drivers who rent them to taxi companies. To the dismay of the drivers, authorities want all the cars to be either leased or owned by the taxi companies, with a 12-year age limit on the age of the cabs.
Strike organisers, with no permit for the demonstration, had promised at least 1000 drivers would be in their cars protesting. Police stood by as the column of cars drove through the streets. An accident resulted when taxis blocked emergency cars at the entrance of the Red Cross hospital.
Nuke closure to cost billions
This week, the Seimas debated a study of costs if Lithuania were to close the nuclear plant in Ignalina.
According to research on the social costs, the closure of both blocks would entail about LTL 2.5 billion (USD 625.3 million) over ten years in creating job placements, professional training, infrastructure investments and various welfare benefits. Help from the European Union is possible, but not definite.
If the nuclear plant closed, about 8000 people would lose their jobs. The government has decided to close the first block by 2005 and decide the fate of the second block in 2004.
And in other news...
- The robbery of a bank car in front of Vilnius' largest supermarket resulted in the wounding of a bank employee when robbers shot at the car and grabbed a bag with LTL 70,000 (USD 17, 508) in it.
- The Seimas decided that half of the proceeds, about LTL 12 million (USD 3 million), from the "gambling" tax would go to a programme to buy computers for schools.
- The Lithuanian pavilion from Expo 2000 is for sale for the price of one lita (USD 0.25).
Inga Pavlovaitė, 20 April 2001
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