Vol 1, No 22
22 November 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 news from Latvia
since 13 November 1999
Politics and foreign affairs
Latvia celebrated its Independence Day on 18 November. Alongside a military parade, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga congratulated the nation's armed forces, saying their sacrifice had paved the way to the establishment of a free Latvia. Saeima Speaker Janis Straume recalled words spoken in 1918 by Latvia's first President, Janis Cakste, stressing the nation's unity despite any turmoil, internal or external.
As the President remained in Latvia, Prime Minister Andris Skele led the Latvian delegation to the OSCE summit in Istanbul, Turkey. His trip was slightly delayed due to a flight cancellation which brought him into Istanbul past midnight.
The Latvian Central Electoral Commission officially announced that the referendum on changes to the law on pensions failed. Though 94.18 per cent of voters voted to reject the changes, the meager 25.08 per cent turnout did not meet the necessary 50 per cent level of the last general elections (it reached 32.25 per cent of that). Before the referendum, Prime Minister Andris Skele, a vehement opponent of the referendum, told people to "not vote." The changes to the pensions law concerned the raising of the retirement age gradually to 62 and the restriction of payments to working pensioners (see this week's Amber Coast for more on this controversial and critical story).
Over 50,000 teachers staged a one-day strike over a lower-than-expected pay rise. The government said they could not allocate more money. Threats of more strikes in the near future loom.
The strike action cost Education Minister Silva Golde her job, as she tendered her resignation the afternoon of the protests. Prime Minister Skele has yet to accept her resignation; however, Golde appears determined to leave office. The resignation was noted with dismay by the teachers' union, who thought she had played a constructive role in the negotiations.
In Helsinki, Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins took part in the conference on the European Union's "Northern Dimension." The focus of this meeting was to promote regional co-operation, as Finland, a prime mover of the project and current holder of the rotating presidency of the EU, believes it will be the fastest growing part of the continent. Issues discussed included regional gas and electric networks, transit issues and regional development. Top officials from the EU and member states, as well as partner countries in the region (Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Russia), all took part.
At the same conference, Berzins also held a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Various bilateral issues featured at the talks, including trade and transit, as well as the pending new Latvian language law and the conflict in Chechnya.
Despite this relatively good meeting, the Russian Duma voted unanimously to place economic sanctions on Latvia. This stems from alleged human rights abuses cited by the Duma. Most experts believe this to be part of the Russian parliamentary elections campaign. The Russian government, however, has stated its opposition to the sanctions.
Back to the pending language law issue, British Secretary for European Affairs Keith Vaz noted that the language law issue could become a problem, suggesting that the decision at the Helsinki Summit could be compromised by the issue. OSCE experts are also in Latvia meeting with members of parliament on the issue, which is due to come up in the near future.
Economics and business
Korean industrial giant Hyundai pulled out of a deal to build two large tankers for the Latvian fleet. The issue has been stuck in limbo in Latvia, despite the Latvian Shipping Company stating the need for the tankers.
Latvijas Gaze (Latvian Gas) and Russian giant Gazprom signed a long-term deal for gas supplies. The deal would establish a set gas supply until 2005, and a set price until 2002.
Unemployment dropped by 0.2 per cent nationwide, down to 9.3 per cent. The Rezekne region still suffers the highest jobless rate at 28.3 per cent. Riga's jobless rate is 5.1 per cent.
Culture Minister Karina Petersone is threatening to pull the plug on the world-famous Riga Opera. Citing financial burdens, Petersone said if more money were not found, then the fat lady would indeed be singing in Riga...
UNESCO voted to support the construction of a national library in Latvia. This would enable Latvia to unite its national collection into one building (the collections are currently in eight different buildings in Riga). UNESCO has said that it will help finance some of the estimated construction costs of USD 120 million.
On 8 December, the renovated Old Town Square and House of the Blackheads will be dedicated. These projects, years in the making, are focused on millennium year commemorations in Riga, which will host several key events such as the summit of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Additionally, 2001 is the 800th anniversary of Riga and tenth anniversary of the restoration of Latvian independence. In Town Hall Square, the statue of Roland will be returned, and the tip of his lance will again mark the centre of Riga.
Prepared by Mel Huang, 19 November 1999
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