Sex industry sparks controversy
A Swedish documentary on Latvian sex workers snowballed into a major controversy in Riga this week, drawing harsh remarks from top government officials and ministries, which are considering lawsuits against the director.
Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga called "Buy Bye Beauty" by Pål Hollander "political propaganda" that didn't meet standards of objectivity. Hollander's movie, recently shown at the Gothenburg Film Festival, depicted a gloomy picture of the sex industry in Latvia.
Hollander interviewed a number of people involved with the Latvian pornography industry while making the film, many of them prostitutes. Based on his interviews, the filmmaker claimed there are about 18,000 prostitutes in Latvia. According to official statistics, there are 2500 to 3000 prostitutes in the country. Hollander also claimed that about 50 percent of Latvian women have had sex for money.
The Prosecutor-general's Office advised the Interior Ministry to ban Hollander from entering the country. Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš asked the Latvian Institute to evaluate the controversial film in terms of the damage it has done to Latvia's image. Bērziņš suggested that the country could file an international criminal case against the film's authors.
While attending a conference in Sweden, Latvian Welfare Minister Andrejs Požarnovs said he was appalled that Sweden had offered state funding to shoot a "pornographic film."
Meanwhile, the Latvian Embassy in Sweden was struggling to fight off the bad publicity by offering positive information to the Swedish media that have shown interest in the controversy. The Latvian Foreign Ministry told the Swedish Embassy in Riga that it was concerned about the negative effect "Buy Bye Beauty" could have on Latvia's image in Sweden, as well as on Latvian-Swedish relations.
TV3 Sweden, which aired the film twice, apologized to Latvians for the documentary's negative content.
Russia reiterates criticism of minority mistreatment
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov again criticized Riga for disregarding the interests of ethnic minorities in Latvia. At a news conference in Moscow, the Russian foreign minister said he believed that human rights were being violated in Latvia. "Can it be a normal situation if one-third of the population has no citizenship?... But Latvia and Estonia claim they are ready to join the European Union," Ivanov said.
Ivanov also said Russia is ready to "develop the closest relations with the Baltic states," referring to the meeting between Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and Russian President Vladimir Putin on 10 February in Austria. He pointed out, however, that the development of Russian-Latvian relations will depend on the treatment of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia.
Meanwhile, evaluating her meeting with the Russian President, Vīķe-Freiberga said there is a need for dialogue between the two countries. "If we want to create conditions for the Russian-speaking part of the population in which they can learn the state language, we call it integration; others call it violation of human rights," the Latvian leader said in an interview on Latvian radio.
Merger of Unibanka and Hansabanka likely
The merger of Sweden's Swedbank and SEB, which was announced last week, could lead to the merger of Unibanka and Hansabanka. If combined, the Latvian branch of Estonia's Hansapank and SEB's Unibanka would control about 30 percent of the country's deposits and 43 percent of its loans.
At the beginning of the year, Unibanka was the second largest Latvian bank, with assets of LVL (Latvian lats) 464.2 million (USD 750.5 million), while Hansabanka was the third biggest, with assets of LVL 364.1 million (USD 588.7 million).
Analysts said the merger would bring further stability to Latvia and the region's most fragmented banking market, where 22 banks now operate.
Sweden renews call for payment of scrapped ship
Sweden again asked Latvia to rapidly resolve the dispute over compensation for a Swedish ship that was unlawfully dismantled in Riga. The international arbitration verdict obliged Latvia to pay USD three million in compensation, but the Latvian government decided to postpone the payment and seek other legal solutions.
The Swedish government is putting diplomatic pressure on Latvia to honor the verdict. An aide-memoire sent to the Latvian ambassador to Sweden, Janis Dripe, read: "The Swedish government will continue to seriously monitor events and will bring up this issue at every available opportunity. Latvia will be compelled to respect the verdict of an international court."
Latvian soldiers to be tested for Balkans Syndrome
Ten Latvian soldiers who recently returned home from a peace-keeping mission in Kosovo will be required to undergo emergency medical tests for the so-called Balkans Syndrome. So far, none of the ten soldiers who have just returned from the dangerous region, nor other Latvian troops who served in the Balkans previously, have had any complaints, and no health problems have been detected in them.
About 400 Latvian soldiers have participated in various international missions since 1991. Early in the year, NATO members expressed concern over a spate of cancer cases, some fatal, among former Balkan peace-keepers, which doctors say could be linked to the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions, used in tank-busting attacks.
Latvia bans animal imports from UK and Mongolia
The Latvian National Veterinary Service imposed a ban on the import of animals from the United Kingdom and Mongolia. The ban was imposed due to outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease recently registered in both countries.
The service banned the import of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, their meat and products containing meat of said animals from the UK and Mongolia. It also prohibited the import to Latvia of food, grains for animal feed and other animal feed originating, or stored in, the two countries.
And in other news...
- Latvia's exports and imports increased by 12.2 percent in 2000, compared to 1999 levels, the Central Statistics Office reported. Latvian exports totaled LVL 1.13 billion (USD 1.82 billion), and imports totaled LVL 1.93 billion (USD 3.12 billion).
- Oil and oil products imports to Latvia increased by 46 percent in 2000, reaching LVL 134 million (USD 216.7 million), compared to LVL 92 million (USD 148.8 million) in 1999. Oil products came primarily from Russia, Belarus and Lithuania.
- The Latvian government approved the seventh draft memorandum for economic cooperation between Latvia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Under the memorandum, Latvia's national budget deficit shall not exceed 1.74 percent of the GDP this year. In 2002, the fiscal deficit, as stipulated by the budget, must be below one percent of the GDP.
- Pope John Paul II officially elevated Jānis Pujats, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Riga, to the rank of cardinal in a ceremony in the Vatican's St Peter's Basilica. The Pope named Pujats secretly in 1998, a practice popes have used to protect cardinals from political retribution in their home countries.
Ieva Raubiško, 26 February 2001
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