Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for Estonia
All the important news from Estonia
since 8 January 2000

Mel Huang

Politics and foreign affairs

Defence Minister Jüri Luik presented the response from NATO to Estonia's Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO integration. The document, called "Partnership Goals," lays out areas of attention for the Estonian military up to the year 2006. Luik reiterated that Estonia wants to be ready for NATO membership by 2002 (see this week's Amber Coast for more on the defence sphere).

The funding of Reformierakond (The Reform Party) came into question again when the local press dug up a EEK (Estonian kroon) 360,000 donation from a local foundation. Kodanikuhariduse Sihtasutus (The Citizens Education Foundation) was allegedly set up by a Reform Party MP to hide sponsors, but the MP, Maret Maripuu, said the foundation is legitimate and supports international liberalism. Opposition parties charged that this is a repeat of the infamous R-Hooldus (R-Trust) scandal, where the inactive company registered by several top party members donated EEK 2.1 million to the party during the last general elections.

Russia announced that it will accede to the international convention on protecting the wreck site of the ferry Estonia. The agreement was drafted and signed by Estonia, Finland and Sweden in 1995, as the 853 victims of the ship wreck are mostly nationals of the three countries. Denmark and Latvia also joined the convention later. The convention declares the site as a mass grave and protects it against any intrusion. The ferry Estonia sank en route from Tallinn to Stockholm the stormy night of 28 September 1994. Though the investigative commission established the cause as a construction fault from the German shipyard, other experts feel that there could have been other reasons - such as an explosion.

The Estonian Foreign Ministry plans to file a protest with its Czech counterpart for alleged violations of visa-free travel. Some tourists travelling to the Czech Republic were stopped at the Czech-German border, as border guards seemingly don't understand the new procedure. This even involved an employee of Radio Free Europe's Estonian service.

Chaos ensued in the local council of the town of Paldiski, which could lead to new elections. This comes after the council failed again to elect a mayor. The opposition, composed of the centrist Mõõdukad (roughly translated as "Moderates," but they don't want it translated), accuse the ruling coalition of wanting to get a bigger majority. The ruling coalition is nearly a rainbow coalition, composed of local activists, Russophones, liberals and centre-right forces.

The Tallinn City Council adopted the 2000 city budget at EEK 2.37 billion, down by EEK 200 million from 1998. The vote was 35 to 21.

The chancellor (permanent under-secretary) of the Transport Ministry, Ruth Martin, was sacked for actions detrimental to the state. Martin is accused of several questionable financial deals. She was replaced by Margus Leivo, who was the chancellor of the Economics Ministry. He in turn is replaced by Signe Ratso, the deputy chancellor of the Economics Ministry. Martin denies the charges and planning to contest the dismissal.

Ambassador Mart Laanemäe presented his credentials to Mohammed El-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Laanemäe is Estonia's ambassador to several central European countries and is based in Vienna.

President Lennart Meri named Sven Jürgenson Ambassador to Washington and Merle Pajula to New York. Ambassador Jürgenson, currently the ambassador to the United Nations, begins in Washington in February. Pajula, the current head of the Foreign Ministry's Press and Information Department, takes over the United Nations job. Outgoing Ambassador to Washington Grigore-Kalev Stoicescu was recalled, reportedly due to problems liasing with the US State Department and other officials.

Two members of the opposition walked out of the government council on minority affairs, but one joined again immediately afterwards. The two opposition MPs of the Centre Party walked out, calling it an attempt to assimilate the non-Estonian population. They are critical especially on the merging of Russian-language schools into the mainstream education system by 2007. However, Populations Minister Katrin Saks said this is clearly a political ploy, as the merging of the education system is necessary for all children to gain the best education and equal opportunities in the future. Currently Russian-language schools keep Russian as the main language of instruction. The Centre Party MPs were rebuked in their argument as MP Sergei Ivanov immediately joined the council.

New Estonian citizen and real estate mogul Ernesto Preatoni granted the Estonian Defence Forces the use of an abandoned meatpacking warehouse for urban warfare training. The building was the former plant of the now-defunct Tallinna Lihakombinaat (Tallinn Meatpackers).

Eight customs officials at the border station (with Latvia) at Valga are accused of aiding underworld groups in trafficking stolen cars. The three-month investigation by the police and internal investigators of the Customs Department yielded this dramatic result. One has been charged formally at this stage.

The Riigikogu established the Georgia (that's Sakartvelo, not the Peach State) Friendship Group. It is chaired by the opposition MP Siiri Oviir from Keskerakond (Centre Party).

Russian nationalists Oleg Morozov and Eduard Shaumyan were acquitted of disturbing the peace. They were charged for an impromptu rally outside the Parliament house in 1997. Both have criminal records, and Morozov is due to be deported for violating immigration laws. Both are Russian citizens.

Economics and business

The inflation rate in Estonia in 1999 was 3.9 per cent, the highest among the Baltic states. This is significantly down from the 1998 number of 6.5 per cent. December's CPI jump was 0.8 per cent from November.

Leading economists in Estonia believe the GDP growth rate in the first half of 2000 will top 6 per cent.

Four television stations - Polsat from Poland, Baltijos Televizija (Baltic Television) from Lithuania, Latvijas Neatkarīgā Televizija (LNT, Latvian Independent Television) from Latvia, and TV1 from Estonia - signed a co-operation agreement to create a larger television market in the region. The new conglomerate will be able to acquire programming and advertising together, giving the smaller Baltic stations much more clout linked with the large Polish market.

The Estonian government ruled to give 51 per cent of shares in Eesti Põlevkivi (Estonian Oil Shale) to power utility Eesti Energia (Estonian Energy). The shares of the oil shale company will be transferred to Narva Elektrijaamad (Narva Power Plants) in the near future, once the privatisation talks with US company NRG Energy proceed further. Both sides in the talks to privatise the power plants said the deal should be done by March. Over 90 per cent of Estonia's electricity comes from the two power plants, which burn indigenous oil shale. Contrary to popular belief outside the country, Estonia is self-sufficient in fuel for electricity.

The "Big Mac Index" from The Economist shows that the Estonian kroon is undervalued by 28.5 per cent. The price of a "Big Mac" in Tallinn in early January was EEK 26.50 (USD 1.75), which is much less than the average price in the US of USD 2.42. However, this is a slight improvement in the power-purchase parity index from 1998, though on the wisdom of a burger with "special sauce."

Despite rumours, Finnish alcohol monopoly Primalco said that production of the best-known Estonian spirits will remain in Estonia. Primalco recently bought up the leading spirits maker Liviko, which makes the famous vodka Viru Valge and the unique liqueur Vana Tallinn. The Finnish company now holds a very dominant role in Estonia's spirits market, as they plan to merge Liviko and Ofelia, which they also own.

More on the take-over front. Finnish dairy company Valio is considering the buyout of the largest Estonian dairy, Ühinenud Meiereid (United Dairies). Representatives of the Finnish company said United Dairies is a good target, as it has well-known trademarks and a large share of the Estonian market. United Dairies is one of the last big Estonian-owned private companies left without a foreign overlord.

Newspaper circulation in 1999 remained strong, with the Tartu-based Postimees holding onto the top spot easily with a daily circulation of 58,200 (down by 7000 from 1998). The rival Tallinn-based Eesti Päevaleht fell significantly to 40,700 (down 6500) below several other papers. The tabloid Õhtuleht, with significant price drops, raised their circulation to 45,500 (up by a staggering 20,000). The rural-interest Maaleht also did well, with a circulation of 42,500 (up by 700). The popular weekly Eesti Ekspress also had a successful year, with its Thursday paper's circulation up to 48,500 (up 3500). Finally, the tabloid Sõnumileht, with their low prices and free Thursday editions, raised circulation to 30,000 (up 3200). The business daily Äripäev also did well with 17,800 (up 700).

Social and local interest

The unemployment rate in December remained still at 5.2 per cent nation-wide. The highest figure remains in the north-eastern Ida-Viru county, where the jobless rate is at 9.5 per cent.

A survey conducted by a youth political group shows that drugs are easily available in Tallinn schools. The survey showed that 39 per cent of secondary school students have been offered drugs for sale and 28 per cent have seen drugs at parties. However, more alarming is the usage numbers: 20 per cent of grade ten students, 35 per cent of grade 11 students and 53 per cent of grade 12 students have tried drugs. Also, 74 per cent of students said they have an acquaintance that uses drugs. On the other hand, 43 per cent of teachers said they believe drugs are available at schools, but 73 per cent said they can't tell if their students are using drugs.

The Citizenship and Migration Department granted EEK 7.9 million in 1999 to support immigration and emigration. Most of the 368 immigrants to Estonia supported by the scheme are ethnic Estonians from the CIS or other countries, while most of the 498 emigrants out of Estonia moved to Russia. Of the total funds, EEK 3.8 million came from the state and the rest from Finnish and Swedish grants.

With the controversial police reorganisation plan in full force, an estimated 424 police officers have lost their jobs. This is lower than the originally anticipated 600 officers. About one-third of the officers have found other work in the public sector.

The national Police Department announced that in 1999 there were 51,539 crimes committed, which is up by about 12.7 per cent. Of the number, only about 29 per cent were solved. The report showed that the highest increase came from theft, while for serious crimes like murder it dropped.

Tallinn Police also announced that in 1999, only 14.7 per cent of all cases were solved - down from 15.6 per cent in 1998. The solving rate was higher for murder (21 of 38) and attempted murder (eight of ten) cases. The police solved also five of 20 rape cases in the capital last year.

The flu bug that has plagued all of Europe has also hit Estonia quite hard. Several hospitals are already nearing the limit in treating flu patients. Doctors are advising people to get flu shots and take plenty of vitamin C.

An orphanage in the town of Rakvere burnt down, due to a child playing with lighters. Several of the children were injured and hospitalised.

The Transport Ministry announced that in 1999 road casualties were down. Fatalities from road accidents dropped by 55 and injuries by 306 throughout the country.

And Others...

Cell biologist Toomas Neuman and his team documented a successful treatment of Parkinson's Disease. In a breakthrough operation involving cell transplants into a patient's brain, the first recipient of the treatment was well enough to go on safari in Africa three weeks after the surgery at Cedar-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

Thieves in the second city of Tartu managed to steal an entire automated cash machine from the side of a convenience store. By the time police arrived, the only thing they found was a forklift. The thieves ran off with the one-ton machine, as well as EEK 30,000 inside.

Seeping water from melting snow found its way into the 98E petrol reserves at a Statoil station, causing havoc with the engines of some luxury cars, which, unfortunately, took the watered-down petrol. Mechanics said that from 60 litres of 98E, they had about ten litres of water...

Estonia's top women's cross-country skier, Kristina Šmigun, took silver at Nové Mesto in the Czech Republic. Šmigun remains second on the World Cup rankings, after several other golds and silvers this season already.

Exchange Rates
As of 14 January 2000

currency Estonian
1 US dollar 15.27
1 British pound 25.16
1 German mark 8.00
1 euro 15.65

[Up to date Estonian exchange rates can be found here]

Prepared by Mel Huang, 14 January 2000

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles

News Sources

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

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