Russia's opposition not surprising
Latvian officials said they were not surprised when the Russian Duma passed a non-binding resolution last week urging President Vladimir Putin to step up Moscow's opposition to NATO expansion. Some noted that the Russian foreign policy is not in the hands of the Parliament, but the government, whose position might not be as radical.
Still, in the wake of this week's NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Vilnius, Russian Ambassador to Latvia Igor Studennikov said Russia will take military steps if NATO expands eastward. Such measures would not stimulate peace, disarmament and mutual confidence, Studennikov told Latvian lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski repeated the earlier plea of Czech President Vaclav Havel, calling for the Baltic states to receive invitations to join NATO next year.
"We know the Baltic states are very well prepared, so we hope the Baltic states will be accepted in the first round [of enlargement]," Bartoszewski said after a meeting with his Latvian counterpart Indulis Bērziņš in Warsaw.
German Parliamentary Speaker Wolfgang Thierse, however, expressed more cautious support for Latvia's NATO bid while addressing the Saeima in Riga. Thierse promised German help for pursuing membership in the alliance but warned "NATO accession at the price of a confrontation with Russia is counterproductive."
Ruling on Kalējs' extradition expected
An Australian court could rule as soon as 29 May on Latvia's application for the extradition of Second World War crimes suspect Konrāds Kalējs.
Kalējs, 87, who is wanted in Latvia to answer charges on alleged war crimes and genocide, attended some of the six-day hearing in Melbourne in a wheelchair seated behind his defense team. Kalējs' lawyers say he is blind and suffering from prostate cancer and dementia. He appeared to have little awareness of what was happening during the hearing.
The defense says the case does not link actions by Kalējs with claimed events such as the death of 290 Jewish prisoners at the Salaspils concentration camp.
An appeal to the federal court and a new bail application is expected if the magistrate rules that Kalējs should be extradited to Latvia and immediately taken into custody. A separate appeal has already been lodged in the federal court challenging the validity of the notice issued by the federal government allowing his arrest.
World Bank holds back loan
Following earlier warnings, the World Bank held back part of new funding because of Latvia's failure to fully implement the structural reforms' program. Among the problems are the amendments to the pension law, privatization of large state-owned companies and state administrative reform.
The Bank voiced concerns about the government's decision to work out new rules for the privatization of Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO), which will delay the privatization process.
The Bank granted more than USD 40 million (Latvian lats, LVL, 25.2 million) in credit to Latvia last spring, and a similar sum was expected in the first half of this year. The Bank may consider disbursing the loan at the end of the year if Latvia implements the planned reforms successfully.
Proposal to revive shipping tender
The Privatization Agency said it wanted to revive a tender to sell the Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO), despite a government decision earlier this month to start a new sale.
An agency official told Reuters that a proposal had been drafted to restart the last tender to sell a 68 percent stake in Latvian Shipping with the same bidders—Italian d'Amico Societa di Navigazione and FAL Oil Company of United Arab Emirates. The World Bank has indicated it would support restarting the tender, which failed in April.
The agency said the alternative to reviving the previous tender could be a new sale with less stringent rules on prospective investors and giving up on the idea of attracting a strategic investor.
Social Democrats, Fatherland form coalition
More than two months after the local elections, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) and right-of-center For Fatherland and Freedom signed a Riga City Council coalition agreement.
Joined by a number of smaller parties, the Social Democrat-Fatherland coalition has 34 votes in the 60-strong council. The coalition does not include the left-wing alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL), which has 13 seats in the council.
Fatherland strongly opposed PCTVL joining the coalition because of its contrary ideology.
New rules for prostitutes
The government proposed new regulations that would require cities to set up official red-light districts in an effort to make prostitution safer and easier to control.
Under the new rules, which must be approved by Parliament, cities with more than 20,000 residents would have to designate a street or an area where prostitutes may work. The proposals would allow police to check whether prostitutes have had health examinations, including for the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
The new rules would forbid prostitutes from working outside specially designated areas. Those who fail to stay in their districts or to present health cards could face fines of up to several hundred lats.
According to the official estimate, there are some 5000 prostitutes in Latvia, though non-governmental organizations say there could be twice that number.
Soviet partisan's case sent for retrial
Prosecutors filed at Riga district court for a retrial of the former Soviet partisan Vasili Kononov for the murder of nine civilians during the Second World War.
Kononov was sentenced in January 2000 to six years in prison on war crimes charges for the 1944 killings, causing a disagreement between Riga and Moscow over the case. After Kononov lodged an appeal, Latvia's Supreme Court found in April 2000 that the case needed further investigation.
Kononov, who dropped his Latvian citizenship and was granted Russian citizenship last year, denies the charges. Last week, Kononov's defense attorney claimed the charges were "absolutely unfounded" and asked the prosecutors to drop them.
Russia regards Kononov as a persecuted anti-Nazi hero, while Latvia maintains all war crimes must be punished irrespective of what ideology motivated them.
Russian nationalist on hunger strike
A Russian ultra-nationalist, who drew a 15-year prison sentence on charges of terrorism and illegal border crossing, began a hunger strike last week.
Sergey Soloveyv, 28, who with Maxim Zhurkin, 23, and Dmitry Gafarov, 17, threatened to blow up St Peter's church in Riga last November, refused food and demanded the status of a political prisoner.
The three members of the Russian National Bolshevik Party are appealing the court sentence.
And in other news...
- The Social Democrats were the most popular party in April, followed by the People's Party and For Fatherland and Freedom. Social Democrats had the support of 17 per cent of the voters, People's Party— 10.6 percent, and Fatherland—10.3 percent.
- The cabinet proposed a plan to gradually lower the corporate income tax to 15 percent by 2004 from the current 25 percent.
- Total cargo turnover at Latvia's ten ports came to 19.2 million tons in the first four months of the year, a rise of seven percent year-on-year, according to the Latvian port information center.
- Latvia's first quarter export prices rose four percent, quarter-on-quarter, putting the annual rise at 1.8 percent, the statistics office said. The quarterly rise in export prices depended mainly on higher timber, textile and metal prices.
- According to the commercial bank association, the banking sector's first quarter profit stood at LVL 8.5 million (USD 13.5 million). The total deposits amounted to LVL 2.03 billion (USD 3.20 billion) at the end of April, a rise of 7.3 percent from December 2000. Its loan portfolio stood at LVL 1.2 billion (USD 1.9 billion), up by 10.7 percent.
Ieva Raubiško, 26 May 2001
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