Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
The Baltics in 1999
A look back
Mel Huang

(jump to full month-by-month round-up)

To say 1999 has been a monumental yet tumultuous year in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be an understatement. All three countries experienced significant political shifts in the wake of economic collapse throughout the region. Latvia and Lithuania began the year in disappointment over EU hopes, but, looking to the Helsinki European Council Meeting, rounded out the millennium with joy - that is, of course, before Commissioner Chris Patten poured icy water over those same aspirations. Controversy raged in the three countries in their look at the hugely divisive past, but the year was also laced with stories of heroism, compassion, happiness and solidarity.

After all, this was a year in which a "pork war" was fought over Latvia's tariffs on Estonian and Lithuanian pork. Farmers staged massive protests through the summer, some arguing about pork, others about sugar beets. Under EU pressure, the formerly ultra-liberal Estonian government for the first time introduced the idea of import tariffs, and WTO member Latvia welcomed Estonia into the fold, though the Seattle Summit proved to be quite dangerous for the participants.

Estonia went through two elections (national and local), both yielding very similar results. The centre-left opposition Centre Party took the most seats in both national elections and local elections but failed to take power. In the Riigikogu as well as the Tallinn City Council, the centre-right regained power after years on the opposing benches. However, turnout crumbled with each election and apathy was, sadly, the winner in both cases. Latvia saw the shaky minority government of Vilis Kristopans collapse - to be replaced by a government of Kristopansís arch-enemy Andris Skele. Lithuania saw two governments collapse, with the current government of Andrius Kubilius as shaky as the others.

The Russian economic crisis played an ugly role in 1999, forcing the Baltics to confront a reality different from the otherwise spectacular growth in years past. Estonia took the hint early and pushed through (albeit with difficulty) a large budget cut in the summer. Latvia soon followed, but Lithuania lingered to the fourth quarter before making such a cut. All three countries mired in recession with quarterly GDP drops, and it would be a mild surprise if GDP levels held even for the year.

However, at the start of the year Estonia held a successful IPO for its telecoms sector, which raised the hopes of its two southern neighbours. But privatisation issues in Latvia caused unending strains within the governments, and the debate over selling off Lithuania's oil industry actually collapsed two governments. As Estonia's Hansapank, now with Swedish overlords, moved into Lithuania, its two large private banks - Vilniaus Bankas and Hermis - announced a major merger. Amidst all this, the old shadow of banking problems returned, with the collapses of EVEA Pank (Estonia), Rigas Komercbanka (Latvia) and Litimpeks (Lithuania).

Controversy, of course, could not be avoided in the three countries. The ongoing trial for corruption of Finance Minister Siim Kallas cheapened the meaning of a cabinet seat, while it appeared that everyone - including politicians - was drunk during the hot summer. Worse upheavals appeared in Latvia as a paedophilia scandal gripped the press. A crazy wanna-be serial killer murdered three toddlers and their teacher in Gulbene in the same week that the Saeima ruled to ban the death penalty. Latvia also survived yet another referendum, this time over the controversial pensions law. Licensing of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant caused problems in Lithuania; then the Seimas said it was okay to partly shut the plant down in 2005. The Seimas also fell into disrepute after failing to revoke the mandate of disgraced MP Audrius Butkevicius - who sits in jail for bribery.

In Latvia we did see the arrival of a new president: Vaira Vike-Freiberga. She has been elevated to the status of Estonia's Lennart Meri in terms of international successes. Despite the poor heifer her motorcade hit in rural Lithuania, Vike-Freiberga earned the praises of most by taking a tough stance against the government over controversial issues such as the language law. At the same time, ultra-popular Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus dropped suddenly back down to earth, as the population blamed him for a bad privatisation deal for the nation's oil industry.

Lithuania got into further hot water when trials of suspected Nazi criminals were suspended due to the poor health of the defendants. Latvia suffered internationally due to its inability to explain its history, as the march of the Latvian Legion again provoked controversy. There was a similar story in Estonia surrounding the re-burial of Alfons Rebane - a national hero to many, a vicious foe to some.

However, at the end of the day, we did see a lot of very nice stories in the Baltics. Despite their own budget difficulties, the three states managed to find money to help refugees in Kosovo, earthquake victims in Turkey and even thirsty residents in the Russian town of Ivangorod. An Estonian cyclist captured the imagination of a nation by leading the Tour de France for several stages, but only Lithuanian female cyclists managed to bring home medals. The Zalgiris basketball club won the European championships, and the heroic Latvian national hockey team remained in the top international grouping alongside big boys such as Canada and Russia.

Jose Carreras delighted the Tartu crowd with his magical voice, and Metallica brought a bit of thrash to Tallinn. But the Estonian people showed both acts up with the National Song Festival, which drew over 100,000 people. Sherwood Forest returned to Lithuania with the filming of The Adventures of Robin Hood, while Riga finally unveiled the painstaking reconstruction of its Old Town, which culminated in the opening of the House of the Blackheads.

All in all, 1999 was a very eventful year for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Painfully needed lessons alongside relief from daily realities keep the people going and growing. However, as the century is capped off with joy and freedom, most in the Baltics are glad this painful century in their history is now over. The next millennium is in their hands; they will shape the fate of the region for their grandchildren's grandchildren.

Haid joule! Head uut aastat! Kuni 2000...
Priecigus Zviemsvetkus! Laimigu Jauno gadu! Lidz 2000...
Linksmu Kaledu! Linksmu Nauju Metu! Iki 2000...

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Until 2000...

Mel Huang, 8 December 1999


A brief month-by-month wrap-up

January:

* ESTONIA

  • Row between Estonia and Russia over sewerage and water for Ivangorod - a border town in Russia.
  • Johannes Klaassepp is convicted of crimes against humanity for deportations in 1949.
  • IPO for Eesti Telekom opens to wide subscription. Interior Minister Olari Taal resigns.

* LATVIA

  • Russian-language daily Respublika prints falsified interview with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. Author of "interview" sacked from high post in Latvia's Way party.

* LITHUANIA

  • Rimantas Didziokas named new Lithuanian transport minister.
  • Trial of suspected Nazi Kazys Gimzauskas suspended due to ill health.
  • Latvian Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans visits Lithuania over pork quota problems.
  • Mob hit worries as prosecutor is gunned down in the town of Panevezys.
  • Medical panel rules that suspected Nazi Aleksandras Lileikis is unfit for trial.

February:

* ESTONIA

  • The small EVEA Pank is ruled bankrupt.
  • New language law is approved by Riigikogu.
  • Government creates Valga and Voru free enterprise zones.
  • Interior Minister Taal withdraws resignation.
  • Estonia celebrates Independence Day.
  • The Baltic Defence College opens in Tartu. British Defence Secretary George Robertson visits for the occasion and meetings.
  • Foreign Minister Raul Malk visits Kazakstan.


* LATVIA

  • Ruling minority coalition signs agreement with Social Democrats.
  • Latvia officially becomes WTO member.
  • Riga suffers through a rash of bombings.
  • The Saeima passes law on stateless persons.
  • A shocking mass murder in the town of Gulbene, in which 3 nursery school children and their teacher are stabbed to death.
  • Saeima passes 1999 budget at LVL 1.52 billion.


* LITHUANIA

  • Crude oil to Mazeikiai Oil from Russia cut, blamed on pipe works; it soon resumes. This pattern is a recurring theme through the entire year.
  • Scandal erupts when it is revealed that Belarus owes nearly USD 100 million for electricity exports.
  • Lithuania celebrates Independence Day.
  • President Valdas Adamkus travels to Italy.
  • The Centre Union recalls Agriculture Minister Algis Caplikas.

March:


* ESTONIA

  • Parliamentary elections: Centre Party wins most seats - 27 of 101.
  • Vassili Beskov is convicted for crimes against humanity during the deportations of 1949.
  • Prime Minister Mart Laar of Pro Patria Union forms new cabinet, which includes Finance Minister Siim Kallas of the Reform Party and Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Moodukad.
  • Finance Minister Kallas is acquitted of corruption, but prosecutors appeal.


* LATVIA

  • A large protest by mostly Russian-speakers in central Riga goes off without problems, unlike last year.
  • Moody's assigns A2 for Latvia.
  • Creditors agree to bailout plan for Rigas Komercbanka, which failed.
  • The march of the Latvian Legion on 16 March passes smoothly, but controversy looms over change of date for next year.


* LITHUANIA

  • Deal between government and US company Williams International for Lithuania's oil sector delayed.
  • US Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert leads large congressional delegation to Lithuania.
  • Several by-elections fail due to low turnout.

April:


* ESTONIA

  • The three presidents, Lennart Meri (Estonia), Guntis Ulmanis (Latvia) and Valdas Adamkus (Lithuania) travel to the US and meet with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about Baltic security during the whole NATO Summit proceedings.
  • Finance Minister Kallas is acquitted from corruption charges by an appellate court, but prosecutors appeal.
  • The CIH computer virus wreaks havoc in the country.


* LATVIA

  • Saeima abolishes the death penalty. President Ulmanis travels to Iceland to shore up Latvia's NATO bid.

* LITHUANIA

  • President Adamkus hosts a summit of his counterparts Aleksander Kwasniewski (Poland) and Leonid Kuchma (Ukraine).
  • Hitler's birthday brings unwanted swastikas around the country.
  • The lustration law banning KGB operatives from certain private and public sector jobs is amended to deal with presidential criticism.
  • Basketball giant Zalgaris from Kaunas wins the European Championships.

May:

* ESTONIA

  • Government approves a negative supplemental budget at EEK 1 billion, but has hard time selling it in the Riigikogu.
  • Crisis in the Estonian military when a member of an elite unit is implicated in a road robbery.
  • Slovene Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek visits Estonia.
  • President Meri visits Greece.
  • Estonia signs its WTO entry document.

* LATVIA

  • Latvian Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans becomes unpopular on International Press Freedom Day by restricting access in the government building.
  • Kristopans also sacks Economics Minister Ainars Slesers over botched privatisation plans for power company Latvenergo and others.
  • President Ulmanis makes his final foreign visits to Norway and the Czech Republic.
  • Ingrida Udre becomes the new economics minister.
  • German President Roman Herzog makes his final trip abroad to Latvia.
  • The Central Bank approves the rehab plan for the failed Rigas Komercbanka (Riga Commercial Bank).
  • "Pork War" begins, as Latvia imposes tariffs on pork from Estonia and Lithuania. Farmers protest nonetheless.

* LITHUANIA

  • Prime Minister Vagnorius resigns after a war of words with President Adamkus.
  • Slovenian President Milan Kucan visits Lithuania.
  • Popular TV show The Adventures of Robin Hood returns to film in the country.
  • Vilnius Mayor Paksas is named new prime minister.
  • German President Roman Herzog finishes his final foreign trip in Lithuania.
  • Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant goes off line due to licensing dispute.
  • President Adamkus visits Hungary, but illness of President Vaclav Havel postpones trip to Czech Republic.

June:

* ESTONIA

  • President Meri visits Finland and meets with President Martti Ahtisaari, just before Finland takes the EU presidency.
  • Jose Carreras sings in Tartu.
  • Freedom fighter Alfons Rebane is reburied in Estonia to protests by Russians.
  • Negative budget bill passes after weeks of non-stop battle against opposition delay tactics.

* LATVIA

  • Latvia's Saeima elects Vaira Vike-Freiberga as president.
  • Estonian President Meri celebrates Victory Day in Latvia's Cesis.
  • Several bribery rumours surround the presidential election.

* LITHUANIA

  • The Christian Democrats in Lithuania dissolve their coalition agreement with the Conservatives but remain in the cabinet.
  • The Seimas agrees to relinquish state control over the oil industry.
  • The large Vilniaus Bankas (Bank of Vilnius) and Hermis Bankas announce a blockbuster merger.
  • The Seimas disgracefully fails to remove the parliamentary mandate of convicted MP Audrius Butkevicius.
  • Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant slowly goes back on-line after maintenance.
  • Brigadier General Jonas Kronkaitis is named head of the military.
  • USAID pulls out of Lithuania, finishing its tenure.
  • Farmers block highways to Riga in protest.

July:

* ESTONIA
  • Colonel Urmas Roosimagi is named acting head of Estonia's military.
  • Commanding officer in the Kurkse tragedy convicted of negligence.
  • Metallica plays in Tallinn.
  • Estonia hosts National Song Festival with over 100,000 in attendance.
  • Top cyclist Jaan Kirsipuu leads several stages of the Tour de France.
  • Laane County head Lembit Vali sacked for sexual harassment and public drunkenness; MP Kalev Kallo nailed for drink drive with 2.3 per mill.
  • British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook drops into Estonia, as well as the popular bar Tehas.
* LATVIA
  • President Vike-Freiberga is inaugurated, host of regional presidents gather in Riga for festivities.
  • Tragedy at a motor rally as car careens into crowd.
  • Prime Minister Kristopans resigns as coalition collapses.
  • Saeima passes controversial language law; President Vike-Freiberga vetoes it.
  • Andris Skele returns to the prime ministerial hotseat with a new majority coalition.
  • USAID closes mission in Latvia, ending Baltics presence.
  • NATO SACEUR General Wesley Clark visits Latvia.

* LITHUANIA

  • Greek President Constantinas Stephanopoulos visits Lithuania.
  • Prime Minister Paksas makes quick trip to Moscow.
  • Farmers stage massive protest around country - "Lepper" style.
  • PLO leader Yassir Arafat drops into Lithuania.
  • Butinge Oil Platform begins operations despite protests by Greens.
  • Prosecutors file charges against Australian Antanas Gudenis and American Petras Bernotavicius for crimes against humanity in killing Jews.
  • NATO SACEUR General Clark visits Lithuania when news breaks of his "retirement" from the post.

August:

* BALTICS

  • Balts unite and celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Baltic Way human chain from Vilnius to Tallinn, and the 60th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Estonia and Latvia mark five year anniversary of Russian military withdrawal.

* ESTONIA

  • A Parnu court convicts Mikhail Neverovski for crimes against humanity for deporting Estonians in 1949.
  • Military field game ERNA RETK takes place, with Chinese elite forces humbled by Estonian reservists led by Prime Minister Laar.
  • Government rules to abolish corporate income taxes.

* LATVIA

  • President Vike-Freiberga's car hits a heifer while en route from Lithuania.
  • The Saeima passes a negative supplemental budget of LVL 64.4 million.
  • Saeima passes controversial law on pensions, which is held up by opposition MPs wanting a referendum.

* LITHUANIA

  • Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant on full operations after license is granted.
  • A minor mob war grips Lithuania with a few bombings.
  • EU promises EUR 100 million to close Ignalina.
  • Litimpeks bank is shut by regulators.
  • An appeals court extends the sentences for ethnic Poles pushing for regional autonomy.
  • Another court sentences coup plotters in 1991, prompting anger from Moscow.

September:

* ESTONIA

  • Estonian President Meri visits Germany. About 1500 members of Scotland's Tartan Army leave happy about the drink and sun, but unhappy about the nil-nil draw for the Euro 2000 football qualifier.
  • Near blasphemy when a historian accuses inter-war President Konstantin Pats of collusion with Moscow.
  • President Meri makes return visit to Iceland.
  • Interior Minister Mois shocks nation when he proposes a one-seventh cut in police forces.
  • Ambassador to the US, Kalev-Grigore Stoicescu, recalled.
  • Government approves first ever set of import tariffs.
  • Estonia remembers the sinking of the ferry Estonia five years ago. The Riigikogu approves Estonia's WTO accession.
* LATVIA
  • Opponents of the Latvian pensions law begin to collect signatures for referendum.
  • More than 2000 workers in Daugavpils protest over closure of fibres plant.
  • Controversy brews over President Vike-Freibergaís travel arrangements to New York for UN session.
  • An police financial investigator is shot, sparking off a crackdown on financial crimes.
  • A paedophilia scandal erupts around beauty pageant firms, with rumours going out of control about other participants.
  • Ferry service from Riga to Stockholm is halted when the ferry Rusj is seized by Swedish officials.
  • Mikhail Farbtukh is convicted of crimes against humanity for his role in the 1941 deportations.

* LITHUANIA

  • Government approves plan to shut first unit of Ignalina Nuclear Plant in 2005, but Brussels wants the second unit off by 2008.
  • Central Bank approves mega bank merger between Vilniaus and Hermis.
  • President Adamkus finally visits Prague, as Havel is well again.
  • Government rules to bring Lithuania back to Baltic time away from Central Europe Time.
  • Russian oil giant LUKOil essentially threatens Lithuania for a piece of its oil industry in return for continuous flow of crude.
  • Second quarter GDP numbers delayed due to "slow data" but some believe the delay is linked to the European Commission report release date.

October:

* ESTONIA

  • Lithuanian President Adamkus makes trip to Estonia.
  • Foreign ministers of the "front-running" EU candidates meet in Tallinn.
  • EC report on Estonia relatively good.
  • Businessman and scandalous politician Mait Metsamaa gunned down.
  • President Meri, while in the US, attacks the Estonian press.
  • Sweden's Autoliv takes control of seatbelt maker Norma.
  • Local elections in Estonia; results much like national polls with centre-right coalition winning bare majority in Tallinn.

* LATVIA

  • Petition drive for referendum on the pensions law succeeds.
  • Investigators drop case on bribes during presidential vote.
  • President Vike-Freiberga goes to Iceland.
  • EC report rather good for Latvia, recommends EU to start membership talks with Latvia.
  • The revitalised Rigas Komercbanka is renamed Latvijas Pirma Komercbanka (The First Commercial Bank of Latvia).
  • Russia officially hands over the Skrunda Radio area to Latvian authorities.

* LITHUANIA

  • Seimas passes set of laws to let US-based Williams International take hold of oil sector.
  • Leader of Christian Democrats, Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas, jumps ship from party when it's sinking at 3% popularity.
  • Seimas approves energy plan, which includes partial Ignalina shutdown by 2005.
  • Russian oil giant LUKOil acts on threat and announces a pullout.
  • EC report not very good for Lithuania, nevertheless gets a recommendation to start membership talks with EU.
  • Negative supplemental budget, at LTL 450 million, passes the Seimas.
  • Lithuanian ratifies border treaty with Russia, as well as maritime border treaty with Latvia.
  • Finance Minister Jonas Lionginas and Economics Minister Eugenijus Maldeikis resign over government decision to pursue oil deal with Williams. Then Prime Minister Paksas also resigns, replaced by Andrius Kubilius. Oil deal with Williams concluded.

November:

* ESTONIA

  • Interior Minister Mois is elected Tallinn mayor, but election is challenged in court by opposition.
  • Viljandi Mayor Tarmo Loodus is named new interior minister.
  • France's Thomson CSF wins tender to build Estonia's radar system.
  • President Meri boycotts OSCE Istanbul Summit over Western inaction in Chechen conflict.
  • Prime Minister Laar in Istanbul lambastes Russia for "racism" against Chechens.
  • Tallinn and Hansapank agrees on EEK 130 million line of credit.
  • Estonia officially becomes WTO member.
  • Estonia donates computerised classroom to a Ukrainian town in the Chornobyl zone.
  • NRG Energy and the government agrees to invest EEK 327 million into the two power plants NRG wants to partially buy.
  • Opposition fails to remove Finance Minister Kallas.

* LATVIA

  • Latvia celebrates Independence Day on 18 November.
  • Teachers strike twice over low pay; first strike pushes Education Minister Silva Golde to resign.
  • Cultural Minister Karina Petersone threatens to quit over lack of funding for the National Opera, but money is found.
  • Referendum on pensions law is officially declared void due to low turnout.
  • Korean conglomerate Hyundai pulls out of deal to build tankers for Latvian fleet, accusations fly in government.
  • Russian Duma votes to place sanctions on Latvia as part of election campaign.
  • Microsoft opens its office for the Baltics in Riga. Prime Minister Skele visits France.

* LITHUANIA

  • Lithuanian poll results bode negative over Williams oil deal, with President Adamkus's popularity dropping.
  • Prime Minister Kubilius goes to Sweden, gets SEK 1 billion promise for Baltic states from Prime Minister Goran Persson.
  • Seimas passes another lustration law, this time forcing all KGB operatives to register.

December (up to 3.12.99):

* ESTONIA

  • Defence Ministry annuls radar purchase scheme due to irregularities in tender procedure.
  • Defence Forces acting commander Colonel Roosimagi reprimands Kaitseliit (Civil Guards) commander Captain Benno Leesik and others for improper activities.
  • Interior Minister Loodus presents final police cuts plan, with over 500 job losses.

* LATVIA

  • Saeima passes 2000 budget, totalling LVL 1.433 billion and with a deficit of 2% GDP.
  • President Vike-Freiberga visits Sweden.
  • Foreign Ministry Secretary of State Maris Riekstins is knocked over at the WTO Seattle Summit.
  • Trial of mass murderer Aleksandr Koryakov - who has admitted to killing 3 nursery school girls and their teacher - begins.

* LITHUANIA

  • Year 2000 budget approved, at LTL 9.8 billion with LTL 800 million fiscal gap.
  • President Adamkus goes to inauguration of Ukrainian President Kuchma.

Mel Huang, 10 December 1999

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles

 

THIS WEEK:

1999
1999: The Year in Review
Slovakia
Romania
Hungary
Czech Republic
The Baltics
Franjo Tudjman
Croatia
after Tudjman


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Schengen's Iron Curtain

Sam Vaknin:
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