Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for Latvia
All the important news from Latvia
since 22 January 2000

Mel Huang

Political and foreign affairs

A Riga court convicted Vasili Kononov of war crimes and sentenced him to six years in jail. Kononov, a former Soviet partisan leader, was held accountable for the deaths of nine civilians in the village of Mazie Bati, on 27 May 1944. Kononov said the action at the time was consistent with the laws of war. The verdict provoked angry reaction from pro-Soviet protestors, who shouted "death to the court" and other slogans in Russian, which prompted the clearance of the courtroom.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a harsh response to the Kononov verdict, calling it "a total lack of respect for the letter and spirit of the Nuremberg trials." Moscow has followed this case closely, as it is the first such case involving a former Soviet partisan leader. The Latvian consulate in St Petersburg was also vandalised, and officials believe it was due to the verdict.

However, the Russian response provoked an even harsher response from Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who called the Moscow statement "a cynical sneer at the millions of victims of Soviet totalitarianism." Prime Minister Andris Šķēle added that "a criminal is a criminal, regardless of the regime."

President Vīķe-Freiberga led the Latvian delegation to the international conference on the Holocaust, held in Stockholm. During her speech to the gathering of international leaders, she vowed to bring war criminals to justice, "regardless of the ideology in whose name such crimes were perpetrated, be it Nazism or Communism."

During the trip, while meeting with Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, President Vīķe-Freiberga said that officials will look into allegations that 41 people were wrongly exonerated by Latvian courts for war crimes. Some 13,000 Latvians were cleared by Latvian courts of war crimes convictions during the Soviet era, as the cases mostly pertained exclusively to those fighting against the Soviet invasion and occupation. Zuroff claims that 41 of the cases were wrongly overturned, adding the Centre has evidence. Vīķe-Freiberga welcomed the evidence.

Also in Stockholm, officials from Latvia and Australia met to discuss the hastening of the planned agreement on extradition between the two countries - pressured by the Konrāds Kalējs case. Officials from Latvia, the US, Canada, Israel, Australia, Great Britain and Germany will meet in Riga in mid February to pool their information on the Kalējs case, in order to see if further steps can be taken.

Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs travelled to the United States to meet with various officials in New York, Washington and Boston. Birkavs held meetings with the Justice Department's Office for Special Investigations (OSI) head Eli Rosenbaum, as well as leaders of several Jewish organisations.

Foreign Minister Indulis Bērziņš travelled to London to meet with his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Issues relating to bilateral relations, as well as EU and NATO integration, were featured on the agenda. Bērziņš also held several other meetings and delivered a lecture at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA).

Latvian Defence Minister Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis hosted his counterparts, Jüri Luik of Estonia and Česlovas Stankevičius of Lithuania, in Riga to discuss various co-operation projects. During the meeting, the three ministers signed an agreement detailing the operations of the command centre for the joint airspace surveillance programme, BALTNET. The three ministers also discussed other topics, such as other joint projects and the possibilities of a joint purchase of arms and equipment.

The Latvian government decided to settle an ongoing dispute with Slovak arms manufacturer Katrim Stella. The company sold Latvia a batch of mostly useless arms, for which Latvia of course refused to pay the USD 3.9 million for. However, the settlement will reap up to LVL (Latvian Lat) 190,000 for the Slovak company for the usable parts of the shipment.

Surprisingly, former Premier Vilis Krištopans resigned his Saeima mandate, saying it was, in part, due to disagreements with government policies. Though Krištopans belongs to Latvia's Way, a member of the ruling coalition, he has been involved in several high-profile public arguments with Prime Minister Andris Šķēle of the People's Party. Mariss Andersons will take over the seat in the Saeima.

Sadly, on the same day as the Krištopans resignation, Social Democrat MP Leonards Stašs suffered a fatal heart attack while at work.

Members of the Saeima again managed to collect 55 signatures for a petition to launch an investigation into Prosecutor General Jānis Skrastiņš. The first request was denied by Supreme Court Chairman Andris Guļāns. The MPs, led by opposition politician Jānis Ādamsons, are displeased with the slow pace of investigations into a widely-reported paedophilia scandal. However, Guļāns returned the document due to a technicality - they forgot to date the signatures. However, immediately Ādamsons collected 57 signatures - with dates - and submitted it to Guļāns again.

An ad hoc committee in the Seima investigating privatisation has scolded head of the Latvian Privatisation Agency (LPA) Jānis Naglis for "destructive" statements at the time of the privatisation attempt for Latvijas Kugniecība (Latvian Shipping Company). The attempt, in December 1999, failed when no bids were presented. Saeima officials blame Naglis for publicly saying the price per share was too high.

Economy and business

The Latvian Privatisation Agency said that the 44 per cent stake owned by the state in Ventspils Nafta (Ventspils Oil) will likely be auctioned in the third quarter. However, this comes as Russian oil giant LUKOil states they have no interest in them.

The Lithuanian Central Bank gave permission for Latvia's Parex Bank to take over the small Industrijos Bankas (Bank of Industry) in Lithuania. The window of opportunity is for six months, though some local media have already reported the deal as done - which is unconfirmed.

Confectionery Laima has decided to end part of its production in Latvia and move it abroad to Russia. The company, a well-known candy maker, said it will cut 100 jobs and move all caramel-based production out, due to the high price of sugar in Latvia.

Social and local interest

Some 23,000 pensioners decided to continue to work, thus jeopardising parts of their pension. With the passage of the new law on pensions, the payments to working pensioners are reduced.

In 1999, there were a total of 30,614 accidents involving motor vehicles in Latvia, with 604 fatalities and 5244 injured. More than half of the accidents took place in Riga alone.

Prison officials vowed to re-examine the open-door policy at the large Vēcumnieki prison, as notorious criminal Jānis "Klops" Kalva has become a fugitive. The well-known criminal said he was going with a fellow inmate to a cafe, but has since disappeared. This is his second AWOL already.

And others...

Latvia's honorary consul in Venezuela, Irene Sadde, delivered from the Latvian government a check as relief aid from the horrendous mudslides and flooding at the end of the past year. The check, for USD 20,000, was presented to Venezuelan Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel.

Latvia's top football, club Skonto Riga, surprisingly trounced one of the most powerful teams in Europe, Ukraine's Dynamo Kyiv by five goals to nil.

Exchange rates
As of 28 January 2000

currency Latvian lats(LVL)
1 US dollar 0.59
1 British pound 0.96
1 German mark 0.30
1 euro 0.58

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

Prepared by Mel Huang, 28 January 2000

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles

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