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Vol 3, No 15
30 April 2001
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News from Latvia News from Latvia
All the important news
since 21 April 2001

Ieva Raubiško


President receives NATO assurance in Washington

During Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga's highly successful visit to Washington last week, US President George W Bush assured her that his administration would continue Euro-Atlantic integration and support the Baltic states' NATO membership.

In the presence of Vice-President Richard Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bush voiced his satisfaction with Latvia's achievements in the past few years.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell later assured Vīķe-Freiberga that Russia's objections would not hinder Latvia's entrance into NATO. "I told her that Russia will never be given a veto over who is, or is not, part of NATO," Powell told reporters after the meeting.

Vīķe-Freiberga, the first president from an East European country to meet with President Bush, and an emerging leader of the second NATO enlargement wave, said the American confirmation of the open-door policy was a great achievement for Latvia and other NATO hopefuls. But, she added, Latvia should continue working hard to meet the accession criteria in order to get an invitation to NATO in 2002.

The Latvian President met with 29 senators and congressmen, who expressed their support for the Baltic States' integration into NATO. Among them were Senators Gordon Smith, John McCain, Richard Durbin, Joseph Lieberman, Jesse Helms and Hillary Clinton who, along with 11 other senators, had earlier signed a letter urging President Bush to support NATO enlargement. To secure the US Senate vote in favor of the Baltic states' joining NATO, the votes of another 50 senators will be necessary.

Still, there is already strong American support toward NATO's Baltic enlargement; moreover, Balto-skepticism is now losing ground among Western European allies, The Wall Street Journal remarked on Friday. "Support is now growing also among the alliance's European partners for issuing membership invitations to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at next year's allied summit," the Journal reported.


Latvia's defense, economic development impress NATO envoys

While the President was pushing the NATO cause in Washington, Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš briefed NATO officials in Brussels on Latvia's defense achievements. NATO ambassadors said Latvia's defense and macroeconomic development (with the fastest growing gross domestic product (GDP) and the lowest inflation rate among the Baltic states) was impressive.

Bērziņš and Defense Minister Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis, who later joined the President's team in Washington, took part in the North Atlantic Council meeting, where the main questions coming from the ambassadors of the bloc's 19 states concerned Latvia's relations with Russia, public integration, naturalization and privatization.

The Baltic states are increasingly viewed as equal partners, and their defense sector reforms are getting positive marks, Bērziņš said after a meeting with NATO Secretary General George Robertson.


Shipping privatization's fourth failure

Privatization of the Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO) failed for the fourth time in five years when neither of the two bidders for the state's 68 percent stake in LASCO paid the required pre-auction security deposit of USD five million (Latvian lats 3.1 million) by the 27 April deadline.

The government had short-listed two unnamed bidders to participate in the LASCO stake auction, scheduled for 11 May. The cabinet approved a starting auction price, which was kept confidential, but local media reported it as ranging between USD 95 and 130 million for the 136 million-share package.

Latvian Economy Minister Aigars Kalvītis blamed the failure on political bickering. "I do not think it [the reason for not paying the deposit] was the price. It was definitely not too low, as my opponents have been indicating. The main reason [for the non-payment] was the negative, unwelcoming political atmosphere," Reuters quoted Kalvītis as saying.

Kalvītis will have to face a second confidence vote this year over the government's handling of the LASCO sell-off, possibly as early as 3 May. The opposition Social Democrats, pushing for the vote, have said the sale of LASCO contradicts the country's economic interests and its shipping policy. Kalvītis said the cabinet would now look into both reasons for the sale's failure and ways of selling the company--the world's third largest shipping firm in terms of oil product handling in 1999.

LASCO said on 26 April that its first quarter 2001 net profit came to USD 12.4 million compared to USD 0.8 million in 2000 year-on-year.


Latvian oil tender draws great interest

The Ministry of Economy said the tender for oil exploration and extraction licenses in Latvia's territorial waters in the Baltic Sea drew great interest from foreign companies. Last week's tender presentation in London attracted more than 20 companies and specialized media representatives.

The tender for the first licensing round will be in 2002.


New probe into anti-Semitic article

The Prosecutor General last week ordered a lower-level office to reopen the investigation into a magazine article blamed for inciting racial hatred against Jews.

The Riga City Prosecutor's office opened a criminal case last year against the Kapitāls magazine over an article titled "Jews Rule the World," but dropped it in February citing lack of evidence. The Latvian Jewish community appealed the Riga Prosecutor's decision.

The publication of the article last year prompted protests from the Jewish community and the Israeli, US and French embassies in Riga, and resulted in the editor-in-chief's resignation.


Prisoners' rights highlighted

A high number of cases pending trial and long periods of incarceration following arrests are on the list of human rights violations in Latvia. This could be a hurdle to overcome in Latvia's efforts to join the European Union, according to Nils Muižnieks, head of the Latvian Human Rights and Ethnic Studies Center.

To reduce the number of people awaiting trial in confinement, most detainees under pre-trial arrest, except those deemed dangerous to the public, should be released, the center concluded after completing its annual report on human rights problems.

The report showed another alarming tendency—increased activity of extreme nationalist groups. This signals an insufficient integration of minorities into society, Muižnieks said.


And in other news...

  • Latvia demanded that the owners of the Lithuanian Butinge oil terminal pay LVL (Latvian lats) 62,200 (USD 99,000) in environmental damages resulting from the oil spill at the Lithuanian terminal earlier in the year.
  • The medical and social workers trade union agreed to call a strike on 5 July if the cabinet fails to find the LVL 3 million (USD 4.7 million) necessary to increase nurses' salaries by LVL 25 (USD 39.6) a month this year.
  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a new 20-month, $42 million stand-by loan facility for Latvia, to support the government's economic program for 2001-2002.
  • Ventspils port company Ventspils Nafta (VN) announced a LVL 13.3 million (USD 21.15 million) profit for last year. VN net turnover last year amounted to LVL 47.9 million (USD 76 million), with the VN concern turnover reaching LVL 85.9 million (USD 136.3 million).
  • National television (LTV) announced an operating profit for the first time since 1995. The estimated profit in 2000 is more than LVL 150,000 (USD 238,000). Meanwhile, Latvian Radio ended last year with losses of about LVL 84,000 (USD 133,000), 40 percent less than in 1999.

Ieva Raubiško, 27 April 2001

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