Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999

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 Latvian news since 9 October 1999

Mel Huang

*NOTE: The News Review for Latvia will go on a temporary hiatus and should return in early November.

Latvia rejoiced as the European Commission recommended the start of negotiations with Latvia and another five candidates. Latvia's progress report was rather positive, though there was some criticism in key areas. One issue cited by the report is the fate of the now-dangling language law. The report puts Latvia on the top half of the newly-promoted group, alongside Slovakia and Malta (EC Report summary).

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga visited Iceland to take part in the conference "Women and Democracy at the Dawn of the New Millennium." At the conference the president praised US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and first lady Hillary Clinton for their efforts in promoting women's issues. Vike-Freiberga also met with Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and Prime Minister Davith Oddsson and discussed increasing bilateral ties as well as NATO enlargement.

The Latvian Electoral Commission officially said the referendum petition against new provisions in the pensions law was successful and set the date of 13 November for the referendum to be held. The controversial government-sponsored amendments, which would raise retirement age to 62 and restrict payments for working pensioners, passed easily in the Saeima, but the opposition called for a petition drive. The petition drive needed 10 per cent of Latvia's voters to sign - or 134,195 individuals - which it exceeded with 184,383 signatures (about 13.7 per cent). The Commission asked for LVL (Latvian lats) 822,750 to hold the referendum. The plebisite would ask if people want to revoke the changes to the law.

However, the negotiations for a compromise version of the pension law collapsed when the opposition walked out. Why? The three-party ruling coalition is attempting to pass a watered-down version of the pensions law on its own before the referendum. That would no doubt become a constitutional crisis, and there is little chance the President will sign that bill. The coalition said they are offering "their alternative" to the opposition's referendum to the public.

From this, the government drafted an amendment to the 1999 budget which takes into account the extra spending (such as for the referendum) and lower-than-expected revenues. However, this would push the deficit to 4.6 per cent of GDP (up from 3.9 per cent), which would infuriate the Central Bank and may violate an agreement with the IMF.

The Tautas Fronte (National Front) finally disbanded officially. The organisation was the leader of all the protests during the "singing revolution" which led to the restoration of Latvian independence. The movement nearly collapsed soon after the restoration of independence, when many of its leaders formed the party Latvia's Way.

The failed Rigas Komercbanka (Riga Commercial Bank) has been revitalised under the new name Pirma Latvijas Komercbanka (First Latvian Commercial Bank). The bank, which has escaped from an insolvency process, will open for business in a few weeks according to officials.

The fourth suspect in the case of the murder attempt of a financial police officer was apprehended in Germany.

Unemployment took a large drop to 9.5 per cent in September, but the jobless rate in the eastern Latgale region still sits over 20 per cent.

Alfreds Rubiks, former anti-independence leader, joined the Latvian Socialist Party. Rubiks was jailed for a few years for leading an anti-independence movement during the beginning of the decade. Rubiks was the former Soviet-era Communist boss and mayor of Riga.

Malta's Foreign Minister Joseph Borg visited Latvia to discuss bilateral relations and the EU. Both countries proclaim that they are front-runners among the newly-promoted group for EU negotiations.

There are 360 registered prostitutes in Riga, and 80 are suspected of carrying various VDs, including 2 who are HIV-positive.

Exchange Rates
As of 14 October 1999

currency Latvian lats (LVL)
1 US dollar 0.58
1 British pound 0.96
1 German mark 0.32
1 euro 0.62

Prepared by Mel Huang, 15 October 1999

News Sources

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



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