Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000
C E N T R A L E U R O P E A N N E W S:
News Review for Lithuania
All the important news from Lithuania
since 25 March 2000
Politics and foreign affairs
The winner of the local election for the Vilnius City Council, the Liberal Union, has managed to put together a majority coalition to run the city. The Liberal Union, with its 18 seats, is joined by the Conservatives, with their seven seats, from the coalition of the Conservatives and the Political Prisoners' and Deportees' Union, as well as, surprisingly, by the Polish Electoral Action, who won five seats. The ruling coalition now holds 30 of the 51 seats - a comfortable majority. The success came when the four-party centre-left coalition, made up of the New Alliance (Social Liberals),the Democratic Labour Party (LDDP), the Social Democrats and the Centre Union, failed to bring the Polish group to their 21 seats.
The State Electoral Commission approved the final local election results on 26 March. There were several changes to seat allocations, due to recounts and from postal votes, as parties needed to cross a minimum four per cent threshold to receive seats. In some councils, a dozen votes could mean crossing that threshold, thus a reallocation of seats.
One of the main campaign issues was the petition drive to divert LTL (Lithuania litas) 148 million from defence spending to education, led by the New Alliance (Social Liberals) of Artūras Paulauskas, the election victor. The State Electoral Commission said the drive was indeed successful, gathering more than the 50,000 signatures needed for citizens to initiate legislation. The bill will now be dealt with in the upcoming Seimas session (see Amber Coast, A Leap into the Unknown, 27 March 2000, for more on the local elections, including a table of results, and all its related issues).
The breakaway Moderate Christian Democrats faction in the Seimas, which nominally broke away several months ago, said that about 40 of the 99 seats won by the main Christian Democratic Party are loyal to the new faction. However, there are talks going on aimed at trying to reconcile the now three Christian democratic parties in Lithuania, perhaps before the upcoming elections. But the Christian Democratic Union, led by MP Kazys Bobelis, joined their coalition partner, the Farmers' Party, and now they appear to be going into a partnership with the New Alliance (Social Liberals) and the Centre Union.
The opposition LDDP and its leader, Česlovas Juršėnas, challenged the government to a vote of confidence, suggesting, with the latest break from the Conservatives, its parliamentary faction is down to 52 members in the 138-member chamber (up to 52 as one member of the breakaway faction returned mid-week). This could very well happen in a challenge waged by the LDDP and other opposition groups to Education Minister Kornelijus Platelis.
Latvian Economics Minister Vladimirs Makarovs hosted his counterparts Valentinas Milaknis of Lithuania and Mihkel Pärnoja of Estonia, in order to discuss regional co-operation, especially in the energy sphere. Issues related to the planned united and open Baltic energy market featured prominently, as the market is due to open by 2002. This became more important as Estonia's regional grid Narva Elektrivõrk (Narva Power Grid) began buying part of its electricity from Lithuania.
Seimas Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis travelled to Israel to promote bilateral ties. Landsbergis discussed war crimes prosecution, visa and trade issues, Holocaust education and a project to restore the Vilnius Ghetto with President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Knesset Speaker Abraham Berg, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky and chief Rabbi Meir Lau.
Paroled MP Audrius Butkevičius announced his desire to change committee assignments from the Legal Committee to the Human Rights Committee. The disgraced MP, paroled after serving 2.5 years for bribery, said the new assignment would allow him to "better influence" Lithuania's international obligations on human rights. Butkevičius maintains his innocence, though the conviction was upheld at every level in Lithuania. The Seimas, in a scandalous vote, failed to remove the mandate of Butkevičius last year (see Amber Coast, Lithuanian Parliament Fails to Clean House, 19 July 1999, for more on this shameful story).
A donors' conference for the shutdown of the first unit of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is scheduled for 21 and 22 June in Vilnius. Various international organisations and donors are expected to take part, to find the estimated LTL 800 million needed for the partial shutdown process.
Lithuanian leaders voiced either optimism or caution at the election of Vladimir Putin as Russia's president. President Valdas Adamkus voiced optimism in congratulating Putin, saying he hopes good relations could be maintained. Deputy Foreign Minister Vygaudas Ušackas also expressed hope that bilateral ties would improve.
About 5440 of the 17,000 Russian citizens eligible to vote in the Russian election voted in Estonia. A mild majority, 52 per cent of the electorate, voted for Putin, while only 37 per cent voted for his Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov.
Belarus re-introduced transit visas for Lithuanians travelling to the Russian Federation. Originally, the transit visas were applied on 15 March with no warning, which prompted protests from Vilnius. It led to the suspension of the visa regime the next day, but now it will return officially on 1 May.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus hosted his counterparts, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia and Lennart Meri of Estonia, to discuss Baltic co-operation. The talks focused on trilateral co-operation in various areas, including the energy sector and NATO integration. This one-day meeting was a normal get-together of the three presidents.
The Seimas passed a set of amendments to the law on registration of residency, which was earlier vetoed by President Adamkus. Adamkus harshly criticised the government for not getting rid of the old Soviet-era relic, which requires a residency stamp in passports. The practice will now be discontinued later this year, but, until the registry database is ready for use in 2002, the government will need to find an interim measure.
The Seimas also passed the law on the partial shutdown of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The new legislation deals with the mechanics and procedure of the shutdown, as well as empowering the government in various other areas, such as acquiring funds for the closure of the first unit at the controversial nuclear power plant.
Lithuania's Ambassador to the Council of Europe, Rokas Bernotas, submitted the ratification of the European Convention on the Protection of Minorities. The document was ratified in the Seimas earlier this year. It goes into effect in Lithuania on 1 July.
Lithuania and other EU aspirants began negotiations to join the European Environmental Agency (EEA). Officials from the European Commission suggested that new members could join the EEA as early as 2001, even before EU membership.
Along the same lines, the EU officially began negotiations with Lithuania and other "second-tier" countries in eight chapters - deemed easy enough for four to be closed provisionally by mid-year, according to some officials.
Germany is planning to donate 67 American-made M-113 armoured personnel carriers to the Lithuanian military.
Economics and business
As of the end of February, Lithuania's total state debt stood at LTL 13.16 billion, or 29.5 per cent of the year's expected GDP. Foreign debt itself totalled USD 2.351 billion, or about USD 650 per capita. This includes a dramatic rise in Q4 1999, when foreign debt rose by nearly 20 per cent.
A consortium led by Canada's CIBC Wood Gandy won the tender to advise the Lithuanian government on the restructuring and privatisation of power utility Lietuvos Energija.
As of 1 April, two more Estonian companies will be added to the joint Baltic blue chip index: retail outlet Tallinna Kaubamaja (Tallinn Department Store) and real estate company Pro Kapital. Estonia now has seven of the fifteen companies on the list - the limit under current rules. The remaining eight are equally divided among Latvian and Lithuanian companies.
The average wage in Lithuania as of February was LTL 1048.40, which is a drop of 0.2 per cent from the previous month.
The Russian Energy Ministry approved only 772,000 tons of oil for export to Lithuania in the second quarter of 2000. Further exports would be available upon consideration of domestic consumption only. Most of the crude oil would come from number two oil company Yukos.
British-Lithuanian company Uotas purchased a 90 per cent stake in the small petrol station chain, Ventus Nafta, from the state at LTL 5.5 million. However, Uotas must keep 70 per cent of the workforce and invest LTL 25 million in the next two years.
The government decided to take yet another loan, this time LTL 40 million to pay sugar beet farmers for 1999 supplies, as well as LTL 600,000 for transport. Sugar beet farmers have been the most active in protesting over the past few months, including during the local elections.
Agriculture Minister Edvardas Makelis bowed down to farmers' demands and signed a decree allowing for a free market on sugar beets. Farmers have been complaining about monopolies for sugar beets and have been blocking key roads in southern Lithuania, including the Kalvarija border post with Poland. However, the roadblocks were dissipated upon the signing of the decree. Foreign investors trying to restructure the country's sugar industry fought against the liberalisation, saying they would be forced to shut down plants in result.
Lithuania wins one against the EU? Unconfirmed press reports in Lithuania hint that the European Commission is about to drop the dumping case against television vacuum tube makers Ekranas. The report indicates that Ekranas did not violate the two per cent threshold in their pricing policies, thus the complaints by Phillips cannot considered valid in a dumping case. However, there has been no confirmation on this report yet.
But does Lithuania lose another? The press is also reporting that fertiliser company Achema has lost its dumping case in the EU. This could imply a penalty tariff for the nitrate-based fertilisers as high as EUR 5.19 per ton.
Social and local interest
Despite earlier ill-fated experiments with time changes, about 73 per cent of Lithuanians agreed with the government's elimination of the summertime period. The elimination of the summertime period was agreed to by the three Baltic prime ministers back in February, after Estonia suggested the idea. The Baltic countries are now in the same time zone as the rest of central Europe, but now are an hour behind Finland.
According to a pan-Baltic conference on mental health held in Riga, Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in the Baltics at 44 individuals for every 100,000 residents - thus placing them among the highest in the world. In both Latvia and Estonia, some 30 individuals for every 100,000 residents commit suicide according to last year's statistics.
Students in Klaipėda are protesting over the temporary closure of two universities, due to lack of funds. Klaipėda University will face a one-week shutdown, while the Agriculture University faces a month of forced closure.
The trial of a murderous gang, allegedly led by Valerijus Januškevičius, began in Vilnius. The 21 individuals are charged with 66 counts, including 13 murders and five extortion cases. The group caused a reign of terror from 1992 to 1998.
And in other news...
Is this a sad indicator of the times? The official Enterprise Bankruptcy Fund has itself gone bankrupt. Officials from the fund told the press that the bank account is empty, and they have not been able to pay any support to bankrupt enterprises, because no revenues have been coming in.
Mel Huang, 31 March 2000
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