Meaningful Irish no-vote on EU
Officials hoped Latvia's European Union bid wouldn't be harmed by last week's Irish no-vote on the Nice treaty, a key to the EU's eastern enlargement.
Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš said the Irish vote was a negative sign that could delay the expansion. But Bērziņš pledged to wholeheartedly continue the EU accession negotiations and with optimism aim at completing the talks by the end of 2002. Latvia concluded negotiations on two areas last week, bringing closed chapters to 15 out of 31.
Atis Sjanīts, foreign affairs adviser to the Prime Minister, said the referendum demonstrated that leaders of EU states needed to better explain the benefits of expansion. "Our job (the job of EU candidates) is to complete our homework. It's for the EU to explain expansion and its benefits," he told The Associated Press.
Latvians' support for EU membership has decreased to 37.6 percent, with the number of opponents reaching 37.4 percent. About 25 percent are still undecided.
Bush builds NATO hopes
US President George W Bush strongly endorsed further NATO expansion during his visit to Europe, raising Latvia's hopes that it will be invited to join the alliance alongside Estonia and Lithuania in 2002.
"I believe in NATO membership for all of Europe's democracies that seek it and are ready to share the responsibility that NATO brings," Bush said in a speech on foreign policy in Warsaw. ".... As we plan the [NATO] Prague summit, we should not calculate how little we can get away with, but how much we can do to advance the cause of freedom," he said without hinting which countries could be invited.
"We have heard all the encouragement we could have expected to hear from President Bush with regard to NATO expansion," Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga told Reuters.
Bush reaffirmed the commitment to a Europe "whole and free," first voiced by his father, in a keynote speech during his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia. Baltic leaders followed closely as Bush talked to the President of Russia, the fiercest opponent of NATO's Baltic expansion.
Bush has repeatedly announced that no nation should have a veto over who is admitted into the alliance.
Commemoration of Soviet deportations
Many events took place statewide as Latvians commemorated thousands of victims deported to Siberia in the 1940s on the orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga unveiled the monument to the victims of Communist terror at Torņakalns railway station in the outskirts of Riga, a departure point for Siberia-bound cattle wagons on 14 June 1941. Another monument opened in Litene, northeastern Latvia, where Soviets arrested and deported more than 500 Latvian officers on a single day.
Vīķe-Freiberga said the deportation of Latvians to Siberia amounted to "genocide." Addressing an academic conference, she urged several hundred historians to condemn them as strongly as Nazi crimes against Jews.
Latvian archives published a book containing the most extensive lists so far of the victims of the 14 June deportations, which occurred after the annexation of Latvia by the Soviet Union. Latvia saw 15,424 people sent to Siberia, where many later died in the harsh conditions.
Latvia leads Baltic GDP growth
Latvia had the highest gross domestic product (GDP) growth among the three Baltic states in the first quarter year-on-year, the Central Statistics Bureau reported. The Latvian GDP grew 8.2 per cent, while the Estonian GDP growth was 5.1 percent and Lithuanian GDP growth was 2.8 percent, according to preliminary data.
The CSB put the 2001 growth prognosis in the range of 6.5 to seven percent, while the Bank of Latvia has projected a 6.5 percent growth. Germany's Landesbank Schleswig-Holstein Girozentrale (LB Kiel) predicted Latvian GDP growth at five percent this year, the fastest growth in the Baltic region. The bank's Baltic Report estimated Estonia's economic growth at 4.5 percent and Lithuania's GDP rise at 3.5 percent this year.
Government raises nurses' salaries
The government approved a raise in nurses' salaries by adding LVL (Latvian lats) 1.4 million (USD 2.18 million) to the healthcare employees' budget at the Welfare Ministry.
Other state budget amendments included an additional LVL 2.3 million (USD 3.58 million) to boost children's benefits, LVL 1.1 million (USD 1.7 million) to take care of several other healthcare needs and LVL 410,000 (USD 639,625) to meet national defense goals.
Tougher drunk driving laws
The Saeima approved tougher penalties for drunk driving before the 23 June Midsummer celebrations, which caused 25 deaths on roads a year ago.
Fines will start at a blood-alcohol level of 0.5 percent, according to the new law and range from LVL 100 to LVL 450 (USD 156 to USD 703).License suspensions range from six months to three years, also based on blood alcohol content. The measure must still be signed by the President to become law.
Under the old law, drunk drivers faced a maximum fine of LVL 250 (USD 390), regardless of their blood alcohol content.
And in other news...
- The Latvian Privatization Agency (LPA) council approved a plan to sell the outstanding eight percent state stake in Latvijas Gaze (Latvian Gas) in several cash auctions through the Riga bourse. The state expects to net around LVL 12.3 million (USD 19.35 million) from the sales.
- The government's coalition council agreed to support a sell-off plan of the Latvian Shipping Company, which provides for a 51 percent controlling stake sale and 32 percent offer for privatization vouchers.
- The LPA ordered the sale of the state's 38.62 percent stake in the Ventspils Nafta oil terminal by the end of this year. Five percent of the state-owned shares must be sold in a public offering and 7 percent in an international offering. No rules have been drawn up for the remaining 26.62 percent.
- Semen Vainshtok, president of Russian pipeline operator Transneft, assured Latvian Economy Minister Aigars Kalvītis that the opening of a new Russian terminal in Primorsk will not reduce Russian crude oil reloadings through the Ventspils oil terminal.
- Finnish Rautakirja, controlled by media group SanomaWSOY, said it bought 52 percent of media retailer Santa and plans to take 50 percent of Latvia's retail media market.
- Kālija Parks, in the Ventspils port, will begin to construct a new mineral fertilizer storage warehouse in July. The warehouse capacity for one of the world's largest mineral fertilizer terminals will be 75,000 tons.
- Alfa Centrs, the biggest shopping center in Latvia, opened in Riga. The company Linstow Varner invested USD 22 million in the 21,000 square-meter, 40-shop center.
Ieva Raubiško, 15 June 2001
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