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Vol 2, No 18
9 May 2000
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Latvian News Review News from Latvia
All the important news
since 29 April 2000

Mel Huang

Political and foreign affairs

The government of Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš was confirmed by the Saeima on 5 May. This came after all four parties in the coalition - Latvia's Way, the People's Party, For Fatherland and Freedom, and The New Party - agreed to the government programme and signed the coalition agreement on 4 May. Many jokingly called it the government of the "Bērziņš-es," as three of its members share the same surname but are not related. The list (asterisks indicate those holding onto their portfolios from the previous government):

  • Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš (Latvia's Way)

  • Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš (Latvia's Way)*
  • Transport Minister Anatolijs Gorbunovs (Latvia's Way)*
  • Culture Minister Karina Pētersone (Latvia's Way)*
  • Interior Minister Mareks Segliņš (People's Party)*
  • Economics Minister Aigars Kalvītis (People's Party)
  • Finance Minister Gundars Bērziņš (People's Party)
  • Agriculture Minister Atis Slakteris (People's Party)
  • Education Minister Kārlis Greiškalns (People's Party)
  • Defence Minister Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis (For Fatherland and Freedom)*
  • Welfare Minister Andrejs Požarnovs (For Fatherland and Freedom)
  • Environment Minister Vladimirs Makarovs (For Fatherland and Freedom)
  • Minister (without portfolio) for Co-operation with International Financial Institutions Roberts Zīle (For Fatherland and Freedom)*
  • Justice Minister Ingrīda Labucka (The New Party)
  • Minister (without portfolio) for State Administrative Reform Jānis Krūmiņš (The New Party)

However, this did not go off without a hitch. Early in the week, Bērziņš released a proposed division of cabinet seats to a storm of criticism from the People's Party and the New Party. The People's Party was angry that Latvia's Way - the party of Bērziņš - kept the two key portfolios of foreign affairs and transport. The New Party also lashed out at being given two seats. In the end, both parties supported the plan after making enough comments in the press. It was the last partner, For Fatherland and Freedom, that really made it interesting at the end, when they were the last to make a formal declaration to support the government.

Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga made a state visit to Estonia this past week, the first state visit since the restoration of independence by a Latvian leader. The trip was designed to promote bilateral relations, ranging from EU integration to cultural exchanges. The Latvian president met with her counterpart, Lennart Meri, Prime Minister Mart Laar, Riigikogu Speaker Toomas Savi and other officials. She also visited Tartu University and the Baltic Defence College, in Estonia's second city.

Latvian Defence Minister Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis accompanied President Vīķe-Freiberga to Estonia and took part in talks with his counterpart Jüri Luik. The two discussed issues such as the acquisition of the joint airspace surveillance system. Kristovskis also visited several training centres.

However, most of the press attention given to President Vīķe-Freiberga during the week came from her comments to the BBC warning against Russian aggression. The President suggested that a Russian attack on Latvia is tantamount to one against the Western community (read: NATO and EU).

The comments sparked harsh criticism from Russia. For example, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyev, quoted by Itar-Tass, said: "This lady appeared in Latvia in a strange way. She does not know what the Soviet Union was, what Soviet Latvia was like. She is, so to speak, a godsend for the Latvian electorate and, judging by everything, she does not understand what Russia is, and she does not understand what she is talking about." The Foreign Ministry also lashed out at the Latvian President, calling her statements in the "worst traditions of the Cold War."

This was also exacerbated by press reports that Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Udaltsov was seen, alongside a member of the banned extremist group National Bolsheviks, toasting with vodka after meeting accused war criminal Vasili Kononov . The Russian Embassy fired back criticism at that assertion as well.

Mikhail Farbtukh, convicted of crimes against humanity in his role as a Soviet security service official, lost an appeal to delay his prison sentence. Farbtukh was convicted in September 1999 for ordering deportations of 31 families to Siberia.


Economics and business

Reality set in, as only one share was sold at the public offering of government shares for oil trans-shipment firm Ventspils Nafta (Ventspils Oil). Analysts blasted the entire sell-off plan for the 5.2 million shares at the Riga Stock Exchange public offering, saying the established minimum price per share of LVL (Latvian Lats) 1.94 was totally unrealistic. The stock has been trading at about LVL 0.84 per share. Criticism came from all political sides, and calls were made to halt the secondary international offering for more government shares in the company.

A survey by the Financial Times showed that the largest company in the Baltics by market capitalisation is Estonia's Eesti Telekom (Estonian Telecom), at USD 1.12 billion, but only the 23rd largest in Central and East Europe. Russia's LUKOil was, naturally, first at USD 9.6 billion. Latvia's Latvijas Gaze (Latvian Gas) came in 88th, with USD 123.9 million.

Heads of the stock exchanges of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius signed a letter of intent of their move towards the pan-Nordic NOREX. NOREX, which currently links the exchanges in Stockholm and Copenhagen, has similar letters of intent from the exchanges in Reykjavik and Oslo. The three Baltic bourses see membership as the ultimate goal.


Social and local interest

An alarming report by the UN Economic Commission for Europe shows that Latvian women have the lowest fertility rate in Europe, at 1.09 child per woman. The report also warned that if the current trend continues, in 50 years Latvia's population could drop by 31 per cent.

Both the SKDS and Latvijas Fakti polling agencies revealed party popularity polls that show Latvia's Way on the top of the table, at 15.5 per cent/14.3 per cent respectively, followed by For Fatherland and Freedom (12.9 per cent/13.4 per cent), the Social Democrats (11.7 per cent/11.7 per cent) and the People's Party (8.3 per cent/9.1 per cent).

SKDS also polled people on politicians, as President Vīķe-Freiberga remained tops, with 79.2 per cent approval and 14.2 per cent disapproval, followed by Central Bank head Einars Repše and incoming Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš. Former Soviet-era boss Alfrēds Rubiks remained most unpopular, at 63.3 per cent disapproval, though somehow 21.8 per cent found him worthy of approval.

Among cabinet ministers, the same SKDS poll showed that Transport Minister Anatolijs Gorbunovs had the highest approval rating, at 61.7 per cent and 28 per cent disapproval. On the other hand, outgoing Prime Minister Andris Šķēle had the worst rating, with 20.2 per cent approval and 75 per cent disapproval.

The head of the HIV prevention centre in Latvia estimates that ten per cent of IV-drug users are HIV positive. This is one of many alarming signs of a dramatic rise in HIV cases in Latvia this year already.

The memorial to US naval airmen killed in a crash near Liepāja was defaced by unknown hooligans. The words "NATO shit" was written on the memorial, alongside initials of the National Bolshevik radical group and a hammer and sickle.


And in other news...

This was a week of anniversaries in Latvia, the most important being 4 May, the tenth anniversary of the restoration of independence. On 4 May 1990, the Latvian Supreme Council voted to restore the nation's independence. The festivities were relatively low-key, though national awards were given to the deputies that voted in favour of the resolution a decade ago. Speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas Vytautas Landsbergis and the head of the Polish Senat, Alicja Grześkowiak, also took part in the events.

Also on 1 May, while some celebrated with red flags, Latvia celebrated the 80th anniversary of the convening of the Constitutional Assembly. Flowers were laid at the grave of Latvia's first President, Jānis Čakste. The document drafted by the Assembly, the Satversme, remains the constitution of Latvia today.

Outgoing Prime Minister Andris Šķēle has gone mole-crazy, as nearly every statement he has made involves how to rid his beloved garden of burrowing moles. However, no one expects Šķēle to be on stage at the Improv anytime soon.

In what is likely to be his final act as Riga Mayor, Andris Bērziņš reprimanded two city officials for unsatisfactory Easter decorations. The decor has been the butt of many jokes in the recent weeks. This comes after some pretty awful Christmas decorations, too, including the tree in Dome Square that seemed to suffer from a horrific case of scoliosis and threatened to fall on drunken teens playing with it during the holiday season.

Last, but not least, is probably the biggest news in the country for a long, long time. In the second round of the World Ice Hockey Championships, Latvia overcame enormous odds in St Petersburg and defeated the Russian national team 3:2. The spectacular win puts Latvia in a strong position for the rest of the championships, as they meet the United States next. This is nearly as symbolic as the 1992 Olympics, when the Lithuanian basketball team beat the "Unified Team" to take bronze. Latvia won two of three in the first round round-robin segment, beating Belarus (6:3) and Ukraine (2:1), though lost a hard-fought battle against Sweden (2:3).

Exchange rates
As of 5 May 2000

currency Latvian lats(LVL)
1 US dollar 0.61
1 British pound 0.93
1 German mark 0.28
1 euro 0.54

[For continuous updates see the Bank of Latvia Exchange Rates page].

Mel Huang, 5 May 2000

Moving on:


Baltic News Service (BNS)
The Baltic Times
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Reuters news on Yahoo



EU Focus:
Mel Huang
Between Helsinki and a Hard Place

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungary Playing Hard to Get

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Cities

Jens Boysen
German Hegemony

Rafał Riedel
Poland on Course

Robin Sheeran
Slovak Catch-up

Catherine Lovatt
Romanian Road to Reform

Jan Čulík
Anarchists on Parade

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Oliver Craske
Britain Looks East

Andrew James Horton
Director Aleksei Balabanov

Elke de Wit
Football Flick

Wojtek Kość
Polish Sensation

Culture Calendar:

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Terrorists

Mel Huang
PR and Extremism

Czech Republic