Vol 1, No 16
11 October 1999
C E N T R A L E U R O P E A
N N E W S:
News Review for Latvia
All the important Latvian news since 2 October 1999
The petition drive to hold a referendum on changes to the pensions law closed on 5 October. The drive, which began on 6 September, needs 10 per cent of the Latvian electorate - some 135,000 people - to force a referendum. Most politicians, both supporters and detractors, believe it will carry. Preliminary numbers suggest over 180,000 may have signed the petitions, but the official result will be announced on 12 October. The Saeima did pass the government-sponsored amendments, but the opposition halted its implementation and managed to stage the referendum petition drive. The controversial amendments would raise the retirement age to 62 and restrict pensions for working pensioners.
The ruling coalition has since called on the opposition to discuss possible changes to the amendments, in order to avoid the costly referendum process. The cost of the referendum, if it happens, could come from the recent eurobond emission, according to politicians.
Finance Minister Edmunds Krastins submitted to the Saeima a draft of the 2000 budget. The consolidated master budget totals LVL(Latvian lats) 1.43 billion - though revenues are predicted to be only LVL 1.36 billion, creating a deficit of two per cent of GDP. Without municipal spending, the state budget sits at LVL 755.7 million. The first reading of the bill is scheduled for later this month and should see final passage by early December.
Russia has reportedly dropped oil transit through Latvia by about 40 per cent over the past six months, according to various press reports.
Lawyers for Mikhail Farbtukh, who was convicted of genocide last week, announced they will appeal the verdict and sentence (see last week's Amber Coast for more details on this and other cases involving aged suspects).
Head of the Latvian military, Colonel Raimonds Graube, travelled to Estonia to meet with his Baltic counterparts, Colonel Urmas Roosimagi (Estonia) and Brigadier General Jonas Kronkaitis (Lithuania). Various co-operative projects were discussed, ranging from the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia to a proposed new joint naval training centre in Liepaja, Latvia. The joint airspace monitor BALTNET was also discussed, as its headquarters will open in January 2000 in Lithuania, and the infrastructures of the three countries are required to be fully ready by the end of 2000.
Latvian authorities have dropped investigations into bribery attempts during the June presidential elections. Internal investigations done by the Constitutional Protection Bureau stated a lack of evidence to proceed with court action. The noise came immediately after the 18 June elections, when Juris Bojars, leader of the Social Democratic Workers Party, stated that he and members of his party were approached with bribes at various points to sway their votes towards candidates of the then ruling Latvia's Way. After the investigation was dropped, Bojars named a local businessman as the person who offered the bribe and protested the investigation's discontinuation.
A late victory came for the deposed government of Vilis Kristopans. The Constitutional Court ruled that the Saeima’s decision to dismiss the Telecommunications Tariffs Council was illegal - a parliamentary decision originally challenged by the government. This came back during the days before the presidential vote, when Transport Minister and candidate for Latvia's Way, Anatolijs Gorbunovs, was trying to gain popularity by attacking phone rates. But when the Saeima dismissed the council before Gorbunovs got to it, the government objected, saying it was the government's prerogative and outside of the Parliament's jurisdiction. The Constitutional Court agreed, albeit too late for Kristopans and Gorbunovs.
Speaking of ex-Premier Kristopans, his verbal attacks of the current Prime Minister, Andris Skele, have earned him a reprimand from his own party, Latvia's Way. Kristopans made several outlandish charges against Skele, ranging from his government's links to the paedophilia scandal to a bribe suggestion to the Danish Ambassador. Kristopans has since agreed to also say "positive" things about the Skele government - of which his party is a constituent part.
Such major rows in the last few months did not, however, seriously dent popular support for the parties. According to polling firm Latvijas Fakti, Prime Minister Skele's People's Party remains on top, with 19.7 per cent support. In second place is Latvia's Way, at 12.7 per cent, and third is the Social Democratic Workers Party, at 10.1 per cent. Of all the parties in the Saeima right now, only the centre-left New Party has fallen under the five per cent minimum threshold.
But for some reason it has changed the popularity ratings of politicians. Now Riga Mayor Andris Berzins leads the pack with a 56.9 per cent approval rating, followed closely by Central Bank head Einars Repse at 56.6 per cent. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga falls a bit to third, to 51.4 per cent.
Environmental Minister Vents Balodis travelled to Lithuania and signed a co-operations agreement with his Lithuanian counterpart, Danius Lygis.
The Foreign Ministry also confirmed that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will be delaying his trip to Latvia, as well as to Estonia and Lithuania. There was no mention of when the trip, originally scheduled for later this year, will be rescheduled.
The IMF released information on GDP levels in Central and Eastern Europe, showing that Latvia remains at the bottom. The GDP numbers from 1998 show that Latvian GDP per capita was USD 5557, - which is just below Romania's level of USD 5646 per capita. This comes a week after the EU released comparative figures - but with 1996 numbers.
Authorities made the largest drug bust in Latvia, seizing 168 kilos of marijuana.
Controversy is growing over the privatisation of Latvijas Gaze, the gas utility. The media is suggesting that Russian gas giant Gazprom is putting pressure on the company and its trustees, which has resulted in foreign companies, such as Gas de France, in complaining about being forced out. However, the head of the Latvian Privatisation Agency, Janis Naglis, criticised the reports, suggesting that it was again a case of the rumour-mongering that has been plaguing the Latvian press (see a special report on the declining state of Latvian journalism by Steven Johnson in last week's CER).
Three suspects have been detained for the shooting of a state financial investigator, while a fourth suspect remains at large. Politicians are calling the attack a "declaration of war" against state investigators.
Latvia opened its first ever sperm bank during the week. The management of the new centre stated happily that Latvia would not have to import sperm from Estonia anymore. However, a pot shot: - the centre suggested that only 1 in 42 Latvian males have "good reproductive health." The centre said Estonia was not much better, as only 1 in 40 Estonian men show "adequate results."
A rally organised by a gay-rights group was overshadowed by opposition - and the press. Apparently, only ten pro-homosexual activists turned up, and were countered by a larger group of anti-gay demonstrators. The Saeima is currently working out legislation on the legal status of same-sex relations.
Prepared by Mel Huang, 7 October 1999
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