A festive mood
The biggest Christmas tree in Vilnius was again the Vilnius TV tower—a 326-metre tall construction illuminated for the holiday season. In addition, artists built the first-ever ice sculpture park on Cathedral Square in the very heart of Vilnius.
Former president Algirdas Brazauskas was named person of the year, and the most important event in the year was the October Seimas elections, according to public opinion firm Baltijos Tyrimai.
Sadly, numerous tourists traveling to London for New Year's Eve were turned away by immigration authorities and, instead, drank champagne either in buses on the way home or in the French port of Calais.
Strangely, just after midnight on 1 January, someone played the Russian national anthem—which is the same as the Soviet national anthem—at full volume in the former trade union palace. Protestors claimed it was an insult to the state and called for the State Security Department to investigate the case.
Sadly, many people were injured by fireworks, Among the injured was a ten-year-old boy from Kaunas.
Central bank to keep its old boss
In February, the term of the head of the Lithuanian central bank expires. A decision has to be made now over the future of Reinoldijus Šarkinas, who has held the post since 1996. President Valdas Adamkus proposed Šarkinas for a second term, after a conversation with Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas and Seimas Chairman Artūras Paulauskas.
He argued that the reappointment of Šarkinas will help to preserve the stability of the state finance system and the effectiveness of the Lithuanian central bank. Šarkinas has held top financial jobs since 1990 and is the only central banker who has been in the office for a full term.
Recently, he proposed legal amendments to increase the central bank's independence and announced that the re-pegging of the litas to the euro will be reconsidered in the second half of 2001. His reappointment has been criticised as a conservative move.
WTO membership and Mažeikių Nafta
In the final days of last year, Lithuania was finally admitted to the World Trade Organisation, and, in the first days of the new year, it has to face the consequences. The government announced that, in accordance with WTO regulations, it would cut the petrol import tariff, currently at 15 per cent, to the required ten per cent.
Immediately, Lithuanian petrol monopolist Mažeikių Nafta fiercely objected to the decision; the upcoming visit by its top executives will undoubtedly cause some intense fighting with the government.
Shadow cabinet at work
This week, the Social Democratic shadow cabinet met for the first time. It considered its programme details, which shadow leader and former president Algirdas Brazauskas was not willing to disclose. He only remarked that the programme will be ready by mid-February and that this is the opposition's obligation under the Seimas statute.
There are fifteen members in the shadow cabinet, and their portfolios correspond with government ministry structures, with an additional person in charge of information technologies. The shadow cabinet plans to meet every week and provide a viable opposition to Rolandas Paksas's government.
The audit of SoDra, the state insurance fund, has revealed many faults with its activities. Among them, a subscription for the magazine Esu (I am), which cost SoDra about LTL (Lithuanian litas) one million (USD 250,125) per year.
The audit also pointed out structural problems in the organisation of work contracts, technical equipment and information systems. As a result, Deputy Director Andrius Grigas resigned. Other audit results are still being processed.
It has also been revealed that SoDra took over many assets at rates higher than their market values and, thus, suffered about LTL 30 million in losses.
New EU negotiators
After Vygaudas Ušackas resigned as chief Lithuanian negotiator with the EU, Petras Austrevičius was appointed to replace him and head the European committee that supervises the preparation process. Vygaudas Ušackas will most likely become the Lithuanian ambassador to the US in the next few months.
So far, Lithuania and the EU have preliminarily closed seven negotiation chapters, while negotiations continue over the next eight. It is hoped that the remaining 13 chapters will be opened during the Swedish presidency in the first half of the year—including the most controversial chapter, agriculture.
Hansapank wins privatisation bid
The privatisation commission for Lietuvos Taupomasis Bankas (Lithuanian Savings Bank) has proclaimed Estonia's Hansapank the winner of the privatisation contest for the state-owned bank.
It also reduced the minimum price for state shares. According to unofficial information, it now stands at LTL 150 million—down from LTL 200 million. Although Hansabank is the only buyer, the government negotiating team said that it would not give in and that it wants the announced price increased.
And in other news...
- The fastest growing enterprise last year was Panevėžys-based vacuum tube producer Ekranas, whose annual turnover was up 150 percent. The price of its shares immediately went up to LTL seven.
- The beer market has expanded by 13 per cent in the last year, from 178 million litres produced in 1999 to 201 million litres in 2000.
- Klaipėda University celebrated its tenth anniversary last week.
- Agriculture Minister Kęstutis Kristinaitis evaded resignation after the prosecutor-general decided that he did not violate the law ten years ago by selling land to the father of his friend. The Seimas Ethics Committee said that his behaviour was unethical.
- In the new year, the Administrative Reform and Local Government Ministry was dissolved, leaving 97 civil servants without work.
- The recently renewed electricity export to Belarus was halted shortly after the new year, as the partners did not pay in advance.
- Lithuania and Latvia signed land border demarcation agreements.
Inga Pavlovaitė, 5 January 2001
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Baltic News Service (BNS)