Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 21
15 November 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 news from Latvia
since 6 November 1999

Mel Huang

A Riga court convicted ten former OMON troops for their role in the bloody crackdowns of 1991. The ten former officers of the Soviet Interior Ministry elite units were all given suspended sentences from one to four years, and most also received probation for up to three years. The incidents for which convictions were handed down include the OMON raids on the headquarters of the Latvian National Front and the Latvian National Independence Party, the main building of Latvian Television and many other spots in and outside Riga. Neither side announced if they planned to appeal the verdict.

Securities officials from Utah uncovered a bogus investment scheme that funnelled as much as USD 160 million to Latvia. Several people have since been charged for duping people in 34 states with exorbitant returns, such as an investment of USD 50,000 turning into USD 50 million. The FBI is investigating the money laundering.

The Saeima defeated a resolution condemning Russia's campaign in Chechnya, as opponents say it was too "biased."

On the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari hosted four of his colleagues - presidents Lennart Meri (Estonia), Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Latvia), Valdas Adamkus (Lithuania), and Aleksander Kwasniewski (Poland) - in the university town of Jyvaskyla for commemorations (see this week's Amber Coast for a related story). All the leaders remembered fondly the watershed event, but warned against a future Cold War and possible new divisions in Europe.

Prime ministers from the Nordic and Baltic countries gathered in Stockholm for a one-day meeting of the "5+3" group. The focus of the meeting was EU enlargement and bilateral co-operation. The group, which is comprised of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden, expressed satisfaction at the recommendations of the European Commission to start membership talks with all prospective members. The next annual meeting will be held in the Estonian resort city of Parnu.

Separate from that meeting, Prime Minister Andris Skele paid a visit to Stockholm - his first since taking back the job of PM. Skele discussed bilateral ties and EU issues with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson and a host of other top-ranked officials. Skele also met with King Carl Gustav XVI .

More press ravings about the so-called paedophilia scandal, as the Office of the Prosecutor General hinted at a link with officials in the President's Chancellery. Prosecutors reaffirm that the officials are not involved in paedophilia, but are examining their ties to the beauty pageant industry, which they claim is directly involved in the scandal. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was livid over the accusations against her staff. She even banned the secretary of the National Security Council, Janis Ulpe, from a meeting of the Council when they discussed the paedophilia scandal because one of the investigative prosecutors working this case is Biruta Ulpe, Janis Ulpe's mother.

A Latvijas Fakti poll shows that Riga Mayor Andris Berzins is the most popular politician in Latvia with a support rating of 56.4 per cent. He is followed by President Vike-Freiberga at 46.1 per cent and Central Bank head Einars Repse with 45 per cent. The most unpopular politician is still former Soviet-era boss and anti-independence activist Alfreds Rubiks, who boasted a -32 per cent rating.

Three large European banks have expressed interest in being the strategic investor of the revitalised Pirma Latvijas Komercbanka (The First Commercial Bank of Latvia). Only one of the three, Norddeutsche Landesbank, has made their intention public. The German bank also opened a branch office in Lithuania this week.

In October, Latvia's consumer price index hopped up by 0.7 per cent.

Power utility Latvenergo was named the largest company in the Baltics.

The central city of Jelgava banned all alcohol retail sales from midnight to seven in the morning in the ongoing struggle against alcoholism. Jelgava joins the northern city of Valmeira in this restriction, which is allowed under a provision in the alcohol distribution law giving municipalities the right to restrict alcohol sales hours. Drinks will still be served beyond these hours in bars, restaurants and cafes, however.

Unemployment in October dropped 0.2 per cent to 9.3 per cent throughout the country. The worst jobless rate remains in the Rezekne region, where the unemployment rate is officially 28.3 per cent. The jobless rate in Riga is 5.1 per cent.

Despite talks between union officials and the government, it appears that teachers will hold a one-day strike on 16 November in protest of low pay. Throughout the past week, teachers picketed the cabinet building. Talks between union chief and Prime Minister Skele did not resolve the main issue of pay rises.

Despite Latvia only having 30 per cent of the fuel necessary for the winter, officials said not to worry .

A report from the Finnish Social Ministry shows that Latvian women, on average, get 30 per cent less wages than men, with the discrepancy lower than Estonia's 37 per cent but higher than Lithuania's 23 per cent. The same study showed that those under 30 years of age made, on average, the highest wage of any age group.

Officials believe between four to seven individuals in Latvia are infected with the HIV virus each day.

On 11 November, Latvia celebrated "Lacplesis Day," which marked the founding of the Latvian army 80 years ago on the heels of independence. A military parade with pomp was held in Riga, and the honour guards returned to the Freedom Monument after months of restoration work on the landmark symbol of Riga.

Former Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans went on a verbal tirade against Prime Minister Andris Skele yet again, saying he would not support the government next year. He added that there are no personal problems between them, and that when Skele leaves the PM job they can go "drink a shot." But he snickered that he objected to the head of the government being busy "getting rid of the maggots from his chocolates," a clear reference to Skele's ownership of the confectionery Laima (via his Ave Lat conglomerate) which experienced a similar problem.

Exchange Rates
As of 14 October 1999

currency Latvian lats (LVL)
1 US dollar 0.58
1 British pound 0.95
1 German mark 0.31
1 euro 0.61

Prepared by Mel Huang, 12 November 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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