Latvian Finance Minister Gundars Bērziņš put a 24-hour webcam in his office, which is broadcasted live on the People's Party web site. The site generated a record number of visitors and also received attention from international media. Although the party spokesman said that the goal of the action was to provide more transparency for an increasingly disillusioned public and to boost awareness of information technology. Other politicians accused Bērziņš of campaigning for the upcoming municipal elections.
Transparency was also a concern when the Justice Ministry created a task force to work out amendments to the law on the funding of political parties. The issue is central in the debate on corruption among the political elite. Minister of Justice Ingrīda Labucka noted that this will require about USD one million from the budget.
NATO tops Latvia's agenda
The issues of Latvia's membership in NATO and its security policy were the major subjects of President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga's five-day visit to the United Kingdom. The President's meeting with British Queen Elizabeth II was held one-on-one as a gesture of goodwill. The President also met with the British foreign secretary, the secretary of state for defense, the British Armed Forces commander and a representative of the House of Lords.
Latvia is committed to the EU, but NATO is its top priority, Latvian Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Maris Riekstiņš said in an interview with a Portuguese newspaper. He did not expect the current French EU presidency to make much progress on the enlargement question. On EU reform, Maris Riekstiņš said all members should be represented in the EU Commission, regardless of size.
On the EU front, three EU negotiation chapters opened for Latvia, with two marked for closing. The French presidency of the European Union opened the chapters on fisheries, industrial policy and consumer and health protection for Latvia. The chapters on industrial policy and consumer and health protection are expected to be closed by 21 November.
As for timetables, Finland sees Latvia getting accepted with the first wave of new members. "Of course we cannot say what the date will be, but we hope that Latvia's progress will enable it to be, if not the very first, then at least in the first group of countries (to join the EU)," said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, speaking at a joint news conference with Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš in Finland. Bērziņš said Latvia aimed to complete its membership talks by the end of 2002, so it could join the European Union the year after that.
Legal cases progress
The Rīga Central District Court approved a petition by prosecutors requesting the arrest of Konrāds Kalējs, who is suspected of war crimes and genocide. Earlier this month, the Rīga Regional Court overruled the decision of the Central District Court, enabling the prosecutor-general's office to apply for a measure of precaution against Kalējs, who resides in Australia. Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff welcomed the court decision and pointed to Kārlis Ozols, another resident of Australia of Latvian origin, who is suspected of war crimes.
Meanwhile, Australian authorities have denied Kalējs's extradition in the near future, as some relevant documents have not been submitted by Latvia. Kalējs's attorney protested the court's decision on his clients' arrest, delaying the extradition request to Australia for at least a week.
Following strong public pressure, the prosecutor's office decided to re-investigate criminal charges against former Valmiera chief municipal official Jānis Miglavs, who killed a girl while he was driving under the influence of alcohol. The charges were dropped last week, due to an alleged lack of evidence. The case will be sent to another prosecutor in the neighboring town of Limbaži.
Healthcare to become more expensive
The Latvian health care system is set to become more expensive for the population. Reacting to the difficult situation in the Latvian health care system, the Saeima Budget Committee asked the Welfare Ministry to hammer out a new concept on payment-based health care services, foreseeing the introduction of more payment-based services. Parliamentarians believe additional funding cannot be allocated before substantial reforms are carried out in health care.
Russian-language press in Latvia?
According to the daily Diena, the 2001 Russian state budget has allowed for secret funds (nearly USD eight million), which the Russian media believes will be used to support Russian-language press in the Baltic countries and the CIS. The Russian Duma refrained to on comment the media reports.
The Ministry of Economy has drafted a new development program—"eLatvia"—in order to boost the efficiency and competitiveness of Latvia's economy in world markets via the accelerated development of IT. The essence of "eLatvia" is to facilitate the establishment of the "new economy's" basic principles. The program aims to increase Internet connectivity and assist every resident in gaining the necessary skills to utilize Information Technology.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš ordered a look at the options for publishing and making available all legislation on the Internet. The Estonian government has recently decided to place full texts of laws on the Internet.
Meanwhile, IT companies have started positioning for contracts to implement e-government in Latvia. Microsoft offered its services to the highest officials in Latvia, and Estonia's Microlink said it is ready to export to Latvia the system of e-government it implemented this summer in Estonia.
Latvijas Gaze (Latvian Gas) will look into possibilities of expanding its natural gas storage capacity from the current four billion cubic meters to benefit from growing Russian gas exports to Europe. The gas utility also said it was considering extensive long-term investment, ranging from USD 40 to 45 million, into trunk pipelines between cities and urban areas—with funding and exact projects to be explored when the 2001 budget is discussed. Latvijas Gaze uses its underground storage facility to stockpile gas supplies in excess of annual domestic needs to re-export to Russia and sell to other consumers in the region.
Swedish investment prospects
Sween's NetCom, the new owner of Latvian mobile operator Baltkom GSM, said it plans a USD 50 million investment to widen its Latvian mobile coverage in 2002 and 2003, combined with a slashing of tariffs in the coming months. NetCom, which bought Baltkom in early October for about USD 277 million, also said it sees its Latvian arm standing ready to branch out into fixed-line telephony, as soon as the current monopoly of Lattelekom is lifted in 2003.
Sweden's Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB), which is seeking to increase its presence around the Baltic Sea rim, had to increase buyout offers for two of three Baltic banks that it initially made in late August. SEB apparently had difficulties in securing comfortable voting majorities in Latvia and Lithuania. In Latvia, the bank faced a counter-offer from a minority holder of Unibanka, High Bridge Services, which had formally applied to the Latvian rites commission, although it did not make public its buyout offer.
Latvia took home two bronze medals from the Sydney Paralympics. Aigars Apinis won the bronze medal in the discus, while Armands Ližbovskis took home the medal in the long jump.
Skonto Rīga has won the Latvian league soccer championship for a ninth consecutive season, matching a record achieved in Norwegian soccer by Rosenborg Trondheim and in Scotland by the Rangers and Celtic. Skonto clinched the crown with a 3:1 win over third-placed Metalurgs, giving them a 100 percent success rate since the country regained independence in 1991. Ventspils and Metalurgs took the second and third places in the first division. Interestingly, all three leading clubs are supported by, and bear names of, the leading business conglomerates and companies in Latvia.
Financial watchdog chief appointed
The Latvian parliament appointed Uldis Cērps, 29, as director of a newly-created financial watchdog that will oversee banking, insurance and capital markets. Cērps, now executive director of the Rīga Stock Exchange, will enjoy considerable independence from the government. When the institution begins operations in July 2001, Latvia will be joining several Scandinavian countries and Britain in consolidating market supervision.
Sweden has started delivering surplus weapons and equipment for some 10,000 soldiers and officers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The deliveries are part of a five-year national security support program for the three Baltic countries, which includes education of military officers and customs and passport control personnel. The entire operation was valued at some USD 40 million.
No radioactive waste, please
The Latvian Parliament passed a bill on radiation and nuclear safety prohibiting the import of any radioactive waste to Latvia. State supervision and control over radiation and nuclear safety will be carried out by the Radiation Safety Center, which will also issue special permits.
And in other news...
- Bank of Latvia President Einars Repše is more popular than the President of Latvia, with a 50.4 point rating (on a +100 to -100 scale). President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga came in second, with 49.6 points, while Rīga Mayor Andris Ārgalis was third, with a rating of 39.3. Ex-premier Andris Šķēle is the least popular politician (-48.1). The current Prime Minister, Andris Bērziņš (37.1), is the most popular member of the cabinet.
- Currently, the average age of active scientists in Latvia is 58 years. The government is set to adopt a special program for the renewal of academic and scientific personnel. The program foresees an increase of scholarships for graduate studies both in Latvia and abroad.
- Latvian commercial banks posted a total profit of LVL (Latvian lats) 30.586 million in nine months. According to Latvian Association of Commercial Banks President Teodors Tverijons, the 26.1 percent increase in Latvian commercial banks' assets mirrors the development of the entire national economy.
- According to the Central Statistical Bureau, the average life expectancy of Latvia's residents is slowly increasing. The average life expectancy of men has increased from 64.1 years in 1998 to 64.9 years in 1999. For women, the figures are 75.5 years and 76.2 years, respectively.
As of 27 October 2000
|1 US dollar||0.62|
|1 British pound||0.91|
|1 German mark||0.27|
Daria Kulagina, 27 October 2000
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