Downplaying nuke reports
Latvian officials continued to keep a low profile about the reported moves of nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad. Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš, in his weekly interview with Latvian Radio, said that reports "have not been confirmed," although diplomats were "in constant consultations with the US and other partners on such important matters as security issues."
Latvia has to simply monitor developments and consult with its NATO partners, adding that "all the information that is necessary we are getting from the United States." President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, too, refused to comment on reports on Russian nukes redeployment (see this week's story on nukes in Kaliningrad by Mel Huang).
GDP growth predicted
Latvia's head central banker has forecasted that gross domestic product (GDP) will grow in 2001 by six percent. The 2000 figure is expected to be between 5.5 percent and six percent. Bank President Einars Repše noted that the GDP in Latvia last year and the expected growth this year will exceed the average indicator in Central and Eastern Europe, which is between 4.2 and 4.4 percent.
"Due to the growing economic activity, inflation this year could exceed the level of 2000, but only slightly at 2.5 to 3.0 percent," he added. With the economy stabilizing, Latvian unemployment in December declined to 7.8 percent from 9.1 percent in the same month of 1999.
The Finance Ministry's preliminary data showed the 2000 budget fiscal deficit was 2.75 percent of the forecasted GDP, versus a planned 3.2 percent.
The rules of the game
Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš ruled out any last-minute changes to the rules for the sell-off for the Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO), despite misgivings by the government's junior coalition partner, For Fatherland and Freedom. To change the rules, when they have been sent out to 52 candidates, would be counterproductive," Bērziņš said.
Earlier For Fatherland leader Māris Grīnblats had said his party "would not shoulder the responsibility" if the sale failed to produce much-needed funds for state coffers. He said the current rules—allowing shippers, oil firms or cargo handling firms to bid for LASCO—could reduce funds an auction could generate, if other parties, in particular investment banks, were absent from the auction.
A party spokesman later said Grīnblats's statements did not imply the party was prepared to split from the coalition over the LASCO privatization. The Latvian Privatization Agency said the auction of a 68 percent state-held stake in LASCO could take place in May. Three previous government attempts to privatize LASCO failed amid political bickering.
French spying in Baltics?
President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and other officials dismissed reports that the French government was intercepting communications between Sweden and the Baltic states through a former Soviet listening post outside of Riga. She said the listening center in Tukums, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Latvian capital of Riga, does not have the technology to monitor communications traffic between Sweden and the Baltics.
The Swedish tabloid Expressen reported that France was using the Tukums site to monitor diplomatic, military and commercial communications between Sweden and the Baltics. British journalist Duncan Campbell, author of a recent report on the US-British Echelon communications spy system, claimed that Tukums was a key sight in the French spy network, citing sources in the CIA.
Latvia's top intelligence official, Lainis Kamaldiņš, earlier denied that the Tukums site was being used by the French "simply because it's not possible."
From radar base to amusement park
A private company plans to turn a once-powerful Soviet radar base in Skrunda into a recreation center with an array of restaurants, a hotel and an amusement park. The radar, some 100 kilometers west of Riga, was a key part of the Soviet Union's air-defense system for decades, responsible for scanning the western skies for incoming enemy planes or missiles. According to a bilateral treaty, Russia gave up the base in 1998.
It was Russia's last military installation in the Baltic states. The company leading the project, Fonds "Kurzemei," will lease the land from the government for two years, with hopes of later buying the property outright. The company hopes to encourage Danish, Swedish and German businessmen to invest in the project, which should take five years to finish.
Freedom of speech?
A court in the Latvian city of Liepāja on Friday sentenced Guntars Landmanis to an eight-month jail term for publishing anti-Semitic literature. The court found Landmanis guilty of three cases of anti-Semitic reports in his journal The Patriot.
Landmanis is known in Latvia as the chairman of two radical organizations. He said that the publications had been distributed only among friends and members of these organizations.
Latvian-born Mariss Jansons, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, is to become chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jansons will take over the Munich-based orchestra in September 2003, replacing Lorin Maazel.
Jansons was named music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1997. He has been associate principal conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Russia since 1973, served as the musical director of the Oslo Philharmonic and was principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1992.
New trial for war partisan
Prosecutors refiled charges against Second World War Soviet partisan Vasili Kononov, who will now face a retrial for his 1999 war crimes conviction, after a previous verdict was nullified on appeal. Kononov, 78, a former Communist partisan, was sentenced to six years in jail in 1999 for his role in killing nine civilians in 1944. Latvia's Supreme Court in April 2000 released Kononov for the duration of his appeal and asked experts to review the case.
The refiled charges will now be presented to Kononov and plaintiffs and then sent back to a lower court. Russia's Foreign Ministry denounced the prosecutors' decision.
What's the status?
The Russian language must be given the status of a second official language, or at least an official status in counties where Russians make up one-third or more of the population, a high-ranking official of the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an interview.
The director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's department for international cooperation and human rights, Teymuraz Ramishvili, who was interviewed by Internet portal Strana.ru, is expected to become Russia's new ambassador to Latvia.
- The number of Internet users in Latvia grew considerably to some 150,000 in 2000, a 50 percent growth from early last year, the Internet Association announced. About 20 percent of Latvian Internet users use dial-up connections, while 80 percent have access to a permanent connection.
- The Internet homepage of the Latvian president was attacked by hackers. For several hours, instead of the usual official welcome, visitors saw the slogan "Welcome to the homepage of the chairwoman of the Latvian SSR Supreme Council's Presidium!"
- Latnet, one of the pioneers of Internet catalogues in Latvia, has struck a deal with Tvnet, a TV archives and news portal, to incorporate its contents.
And in other news...
- A new Baltic environment survey showed that Latvia, compared to neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, has cleaner rivers and lower levels of harmful emissions but a lower quality of waste water and higher levels of forest felling.
- With the preservation of agriculture among economic and political priorities calling for investments, Latvia will stress in the next round of WTO talks the need for transition economies to be allowed to use state support in the sector, the cabinet ruled.
- The state-run Latvian Railways (Latvijas Dzelzceļš, LDz) said its 2000 cargo handling came to 36.4 million tons, a rise of 9.7 percent since 1999, when it declined 12 percent. LDz is planning a small 2001 cargo increase compared to 2000. The company is facing a tough year in 2001, as Russia is aiming at cutting its exports through foreign ports, the company's executive said in an interview.
- The cabinet plans to approve changes to the rules of tenant eviction after a seven-year post-denationalization moratorium runs out. The amendments, aiming to protect tenants, will prevent landlords from maliciously evicting people citing the need for capital renovations.
- The Interior Ministry said 81 soldiers from a guard unit in Jelgava had been hospitalized with dysentery and others were being treated.
Daria Kulagina, 12 January 2001
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