Ready to join
In an online interview with Baltic News Service (BNS) Thursday, Estonian Defense Minister Jüri Luik expressed his belief that Estonia has at present every chance to become a new member of NATO in the alliance's next round of enlargement, although NATO member states have not yet decided the exact date of the next expansion.
According to the minister, members of the alliance are keeping close watch on how candidate countries are fulfilling their membership action plans. For this reason, implementation of national annual programs by aspiring members will play an important role when NATO members are making their final decisions.
"Estonia must steadily work with all NATO member states to win their support for our being invited to join the alliance," Luik said. "What is important is that no member country of NATO has announced it is opposed to Estonia's entry into the alliance." Luik named the United States, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Poland as Estonia's staunchest supporters.
On the same day, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), stated his support for including the three Baltic countries in the next round of NATO enlargement in 2002.
"These nations' independence will never be fully secure until they are safe from the threat of Russian domination and are fully integrated into the community of Western democracies. I intend to work with the Bush Administration to ensure that the Baltic States are invited to join their neighbors, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as members of the NATO alliance. This is vital not only for their security, but for ours as well.
"If we want good relations with Russia, we must show Russia's leaders an open path to good relations, while at the same time closing off their avenues to destructive behavior. That means taking the next step in the process of NATO expansion by issuing invitations to the Baltic nations when NATO's leaders meet for the next alliance summit planned for 2002," Helms said on 11 January to the American Enterprise Institute.
From Russia with love
Russia's new ambassador to Estonia, Konstantin Provalov, who presented his credentials to President Lennart Meri on Thursday and will take office this week, made news last week when commenting on Russian-Estonian relations.
Before coming to Estonia he expressed, in an interview with the daily Postimees, his concern about strained relations between the two countries and said that Estonia itself is to blame. After last summer's meeting between Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, the Russian side expected the positive impulse from the meeting to continue.
"But against our expectations, the Estonian side made several steps that cannot be assessed otherwise as being directed at the aggravation of our relations," the ambassador said. Provalov pointed out, among other things, the measures used against Russian nationalists Oleg Morozov and Pyotr Rozhok and the deportation of two Russian diplomats. He also blamed Estonians for launching a visa war.
Provalov mentioned also that the Baltic countries accession to NATO would destroy opportunities for cooperation and would replace them with an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion.
However, a more positive tone was exerted during official meetings with Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves and President Meri. Provalov affirmed his readiness to contribute his best to improve bilateral relations and said that he feels a great sense of responsibility for his mission. He added that all prerequisites for cooperation between the two countries are there, including a concerted interest in strengthening stability in the Baltic Sea region.
The ambassador also said that Russia understands Estonia's desire to integrate into European economic structures. President Meri said it will be in the interest of Estonia as a member of the European Union to promote vigorous cooperation between the EU and Russia.
Concurrently, as both sides are aspiring for better relations, Estonia is waiting to sign the border agreement between Estonia and Russia and for its ratification in the Duma, as well as the lifting of double customs duties imposed by Russia.
Estonia and the European Union
Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar held meetings on Monday in Brussels with European Commission President Romano Prodi and Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen. The meetings concentrated mainly on general EU-related topics and problems such as the free movement of labor, the status of Estonian oil shale and tax-free trade.
Laar and Prodi did not touch upon the idea of Estonia adopting the euro early, a controversial proposal put forward by Laar last year.
And in other news...
- Matti Päts, director of the Patent Office and the grandson of Interwar Estonian President Konstantin Päts, has accepted a proposal from the small Conservative Club and the ruling Pro Patria Union's radical wing to run for the presidency in the forthcoming presidential elections in August. Leaders of the ruling Pro Patria Union are against Päts's running for presidency, as this may reduce support within the party for the party's front-running candidate, Deputy Riigikogu Speaker Tunne Kelam. In Matti Päts's opinion, every citizen has the right to run for president. The party's final decision on its presidential candidate will probably be made at a congress in mid-April.
- Estonia's Azerbaijani community intends to build the largest mosque in northern Europe in Tallinn, at an estimated minimum cost of EEK (Estonian kroons) 40 million (about USD 2.5 million) to several times higher. The mosque is expected to unite all Muslims in the Nordic and Baltic countries. Though there is not any explicit opposition to the idea, many doubt the tangibility of this grandiose project.
- The central bank is forecasting five to six percent growth in Estonia's GDP and a rate of inflation of 4.2 to 5.3 percent in 2001. At the same time, there are more factors than last year to deflect Estonia from the path of sustainable economic growth. The global environment has also become less favorable for Estonia, as world economic growth has slowed down, the Bank of Estonia said.
- The Reform Party wants to lower individuals' income taxes from the current flat rate of 26 percent to 20 percent this year. To lower the income tax rate, the Reform Party wants to carry out public service reform, remove double compensations, reduce benefits paid to officials and render labor relations in the public sector more flexible. The Reform Party is a junior member of the ruling coalition.
- Finland and Estonia are officially against reopening the investigation into the 1994 sinking of the ferry Estonia. Some Swedish organizations have called for a new, independent probe to investigate the Estonia's sinking once more. Since Swedish authorities asked Estonia and Finland for their standpoint on launching new investigations, both sides replied that they are fully satisfied with the official inquiry report, which concluded that the ferry went down because of faulty construction, stormy weather and excessive speed.
Kristin Marmei, 12 January 2001
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