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Vol 2, No 24
19 June 2000
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Estonian News News from Estonia
All the important news
since 10 June 2000

Mel Huang

Politics and foreign affairs

The Riigikogu passed amendments to the language law that brings the code into full compliance with OSCE recommendations and EU regulations. EU Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen, OSCE Minorities Commissioner Max van der Stoel and other officials praised the passage of the amendments. The amendments do away with language requirements in the private sector, except for essential public services, such as paramedics, police and others.

The Riigikogu approved changes that would allow disabled people to acquire citizenship much easier. Both the language and constitutional exam requirements were removed for disabled naturalisation applicants.

The Riigikogu also approved a controversial pay raise for ministers. After hours of heated debate, the watered-down pay raise will give ministers a monthly wage 5.5 times the national average, or EEK (Estonian kroons) 24,755 a month. Wages for the Prime Minister and the President also rose. However, this was a much lower pay raise than was originally planned by the government, due to complaints from the opposition and public.

The Riigikogu also approved a controversial five per cent VAT on heating. The government had originally planned for the VAT on heating to be harmonised with others at 18 per cent by 1 July, but junior coalition member Mõõdukad decided to assert itself for once and fought against it. Instead, Prime Minister Mart Laar stepped back and gave the Riigikogu the option to scale it back.

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The five per cent VAT was eventually passed with support from Mõõdukad and the opposition, while the Pro Patria Union and Reform Party - both coalition members - voted against the bill. However, with the lower VAT, Finance Minister Siim Kallas said a negative supplemental budget would be necessary. Estonian law requires the budget to be balanced (see below).

Lithuanian Defence Minister Česlovas Stankevičius hosted several of his counterparts in Vilnius for a meeting of the Nordic and Baltic defence ministers, which was augmented by US Defence Secretary William Cohen. In speaking about future NATO enlargement, Cohen stressed that geography and history will not play a role, but, rather, the criteria will include individual nations' achievements and integration efforts. Cohen and Stankevičius were joined by their counterparts, Jüri Luik (Estonia), Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis (Latvia), Björn von Sydow (Sweden), Hans Hækkerup (Denmark), Bjørn Tore Godal (Norway) as well as officials from Finland and Iceland.

Turkish Foreign Minister İsmail Cem finished his Baltic tour in Estonia, noting that European security is "not complete" without the Baltic states as NATO members. Cem also met with various officials to discuss EU and NATO integration as well as strengthening bilateral ties. Estonia is planning to open an embassy in Ankara in the near future, according to Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

After a long and busy session, the Riigikogu passed a law on trade unions. All aspects of unions, including rights of organisation, are dealt with in the new law. However, some union officials complain that the law benefits the employers - though one member of the ruling coalition who drafted the bill, Raivo Paavo, was the head of the largest trade union group until just recently.

Later that day, the Riigikogu also moved to annul the law on foreign investments. Officials say the law is completely outdated, and that it violates EU directives.

And finally, the Riigikogu approved a EUR (euro) 14 million loan with the Nordic Investment Bank to fund environmental projects, which are mostly related to drinking water.

However, parliamentarians could not rest, as extra sessions have been called. Extra session will be called in August for debate on a negative supplemental budget. This debate has arisen due to VAT proceeds from heating being lower than had been expected (see top of this section).

President Lennart Meri made a short trip to Washington to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the "non-recognition policy" pursued by the United States when the Baltics were first occupied and incorporated into the USSR by Moscow. During the trip, Meri also awarded former long-time congressman Gerald Solomon with the Cross of Terra Mariana for his staunch support for the Baltics.

At the same time, Ambassador Sven Jürgenson presented his credentials to President Bill Clinton. During the brief meeting, Clinton reaffirmed US support for Estonia's NATO aspirations.

Being assertive for a rare moment, Estonian negotiators with the EU suggested that EU member states restricted the rights of Estonians to open businesses in some countries, which is in violation of the association agreement. Estonia also began talks over the difficult chapter on agriculture.

The government gave Defence Minister Jüri Luik the right to start talks with four companies - Britain's BAe, Italy's Alenia-Marconi, France's Thomson CSF and the US's Lockheed-Martin - over building Estonia's airspace surveillance system. The last tender, which Thomson won, was cancelled after allegations of improper procedures and the inadequate technical ability of the equipment that was offered.

At another conference on crimes of Communism held in Tallinn, Prime Minister Mart Laar complained that Communist crimes are not treated on par with Nazi crimes. Laar added that Communism resulted in "much more evil" than Nazism. Russian MP and human rights activist Sergei Kovalev repeated his apology for Russia's occupation of the Baltics from his speech earlier in the week at a similar conference in Vilnius. At the Vilnius conference, former Estonian dissident Mart Niklus said that the Soviet military caused some EEK 56 billion worth of damage on Estonian soil. Back in Tallinn, Kovalev did criticise Estonian and Latvian officials over the inequalities Russians endure in the Baltics.

Three parties - the Rural Union, the Pensioners' and Families' Party and the Rural People's Party - merged last weekend to form the Estonian People's Union. Though the party has the largest number of members, they have only a handful of seats in the Riigikogu. Villu Reiljan was elected as Chairman.

Ambassador to Georgia Tiit Naber handed over his accreditation to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Naber also met with other Georgian officials to discuss bilateral co-operation. Naber resides in Kyiv.

As MP Sergei Ivanov is about to found a new centrist party for Russian speakers, the three largest current parties representing Russophones are talking about close co-operation, which will likely lead to a merger. These three parties ran as the People's Choice, which opposed Ivanov's People's Trust back in the local elections of last year.

Jorma Antero Törönen was named Estonia's honorary consul in Tampere, Finland.


Economics and business

The state coffers are nearly dry, after revenue collection brought less than was expected and spending was higher than expected in early June. Officials blamed the slow collection process tax refunds for the cash crunch.

The city of Pärnu decided to sell off its remaining 42 per cent stake in the city's port. The Port of Pärnu is the second biggest port in Estonia, after the multi-part Port of Tallinn.

In an extremely busy session, the Riigikogu extended the validity of privatisation vouchers to July 2002, for purposes such as the privatisation of land and living units. For other uses, as planned earlier, the vouchers will become invalid as of the year's end.


Social and local interest

Debates on the Estonian genetic database project are overwhelming the media, as the EEK 1.5 billion project is due to get under way. Issues such as protection of genetic data and protection from discrimination are among the issues talked about as well as the costs and uses for such a project. The novel project is voluntary in nature, and organisers hope that some one million people will participate to create the largest database of genetic information for a single nation.

A series of poll results issued by the Saar polling agency show that Estonians are still optimistic, but less so than in the past. Some 49 per cent of respondents think that developments will lead to a better life, with ethnic Estonians more in the affirmative than non-Estonians. Naturally, the younger and those in better jobs were more positive.

The Saar poll also showed that 77 per cent of Estonians trust President Lennart Meri, compared to the 44 per cent who trust the Riigikogu. However, that is still massively higher than the corresponding numbers in Latvia and, especially, in Lithuania. Most state institutions rate somewhere between 40 to 60 per cent on the trust list: border guards (60 per cent), Defence Forces (55 per cent), local governments (52 per cent), Security Police (51 per cent), the government (49 per cent), central bank (48 per cent), Prime Minister Mart Laar (47 per cent) and, at the bottom, the police (44 per cent). The media got a 48 per cent trust rating. Some 51 per cent also said they are dissatisfied with the political situation.

A poll by the rival EMOR group shows that 19 per cent of Estonians have a computer at home, and that 29 per cent of Estonians are Internet users.

Ever since the two small explosives went off in the popular Stockmann department store, a rash of false bomb threats has plagued Estonia. Other popular shopping locales and even hotels have been hit with false bomb threats, often believed to be made by bored teenagers. The government is looking into how to tackle the problem, but the best solution is perhaps to wait it out and let the bored teenagers get bored of making bogus threats. Prosecution would not be a bad idea either.


And in other news...

After complaining about a lack of balanced debate on Estonia's EU integration, Prime Minister Mart Laar has come up with EEK 200,000 in government grants for Eurosceptic organisations. Laar, a fervent EU supporter, said that the preponderance of "Europrogapanda" is not good for Estonia and an open debate is needed, thus the unique funding scheme.

Estonian ambassador to Washington Sven Jürgenson unexpectedly ended up in making news, when the Maryland National Guard helicopter he was on had to make an emergency landing at the famous Pimlico racetrack. In a strange turn of events, track officials then invited the unexpected guests to lunch and some diplomats even placed bets, but all apparently lost.

The animation film Porgandite öö (Night of the Carrots) by Priit Pärn won the top prize at the World Animation Festival in Hollywood.

Exchange Rates
As of 16 June 2000
Currency Estonian
1 US dollar 16.41
1 British pound 24.82
1 German mark 8.00
1 euro 15.65

[Up-to-date exchange rates]

Mel Huang, 16 June 2000

Moving on:


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