Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 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 4 December 1999

Mel Huang

Political and Foreign Affairs

The Saeima passed the controversial new language law, which regulates language use in some areas of the private sector. In areas of importance, such as health and public safety, Latvian is mandatory. The law is a watered down version of the one passed in the summer, which President Vaira Vike-Freiberga vetoed. The nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom party abstained from the vote. The new law has the support of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner Max van der Stoel.

At the same session, the Saeima decided to extend the controversial import tariffs on pork. Neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania have been livid over the tariffs, saying they are a violation of the Baltic Free Trade Agreement. Now that Estonia is also a member of the WTO, officials say they will file a protest. The European Commission also issued negative comments about the tariffs, which will continue until December 2000.

Prime Minister Andris Skele led the Latvian delegation to the Helsinki European Council meeting. Among the bilateral meetings scheduled are those with Estonian and Slovak leaders.

Politicians are livid about the oil spill at Lithuania's controversial Butinge Oil Platform. Environmental Minister Vents Balodis said Lithuania would be responsible for all damage to Latvian property, and green protestors have turned to the EU to have Butinge shut down. So far, none of the slick has drifted far or caused any noticeable damage.

British Minister for Social Security Angela Eagle visited Latvia. During the visit, she met with Welfare Minister Roberts Jurdzs and others, and stated that she supports the levelling of retirement ages for men and women.

The joint parliamentary Baltic Assembly met in Riga during the previous weekend. The group discussed ways to promote Baltic co-operation and passed several joint resolutions on agriculture and lobbying efforts in the US. They also called on Russia to start talks to end the fighting in Chechnya.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas visited Riga to discuss various bilateral issues with his Latvian counterpart, Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins, as well as with Prime Minister Andris Skele and other officials.

Head of the Latvian Privatisation Agency Janis Naglis hinted that he wants to leave his post. Immediately, Prime Minister Skele voiced "understanding," though it is well known they are political opponents. Other politicians called the resignation story groundless.


Economy and Business

There was a large jump in inflation, as the consumer price index rose by 0.8 per cent in November.

The Riga Bourse approved the list of companies for the new joint Baltic blue-chip list. Balta, oil transit firm Ventspils Nafta, banking giant Unibanka, and gas utility Latvijas Gaze will be Latvia's four representatives for now. Qualification for the list consists of both capital and liquidity requirements.

Hansabanka has moved to purchase 100 per cent of the regional Ventspils Apvienota Baltijas Banka (The United Baltic Bank of Ventspils). The move is supported by local officials. This is yet another new part in the empire of Estonia's Hansapank, which in turn is controlled by a Swedish parent bank.

Along the same lines, the Central Bank was not playing games when they said banks without the minimum asset requirements will be shut down in early January. As the euro is now weak against the Latvian lat, it could become a game of exchange rates since the minimum requirement is EUR five million. Currently, four banks - Trasta Komercbanka, Ogres Komercbanka, Latvijas Tirdzniecibas Banka and Baltijas Starptautiska Banka - are under the limit, with Latvijas Biznesa Banka surviving due to the exchange rate.


Social and Local Interest

Mass murderer Aleksandr Koryakov was sentenced to life in jail. The Vidzeme Regional Court handed down the sentence after he was convicted of murdering three nursery school girls and their teacher in February. He confessed that he had committed the crime, and regretted he could not kill more people. The prosecutor wished she could have asked for the death penalty, but it has been outlawed in Latvia.

The Riga office of the International Organisation for Migrations said that about ten per cent of ethnic Russians in Latvia want to emigrate back to Russia. The office said that the main hindrance is the lack of funds to find adequate housing in Russia. That number would entail about 60-70,000 people.

Polls show that the People's Party of Prime Minister Skele remains the most popular, with 19.2 per cent support, followed by Latvia's Way at 11.7 per cent and the Social Democratic Workers Party at 11.5 per cent.

However, it does not bode as well for Skele, as his popularity mark is at
-13.6 per cent
. The most popular minister is Defence Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis at 36.9 per cent and the most unpopular is Welfare Minister Jurdzs with -20.5 per cent.

Also, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga reclaimed the top popularity spot with a 56.5 per cent support rating, followed by Riga Mayor Andris Berzins and Central Bank head Einars Repse.

Protests are mounting over war crimes suspect Vassili Kononov. Kononov has said he was not a participant in a well-known murder of nine Latvian partisans, and he has documented that to historians. The Latvian Embassy in Moscow was also partly defaced with graffiti concerning the case.

And competition between taxicab companies is turning ugly. There have been several incidents of cabbies being attacked and taxis being firebombed. Law enforcement officials blame the problems on two competing companies.


And Others...

The horrendous storm that passed through the Baltic Sea created havoc in Latvia, especially on the coast. The fishing trawler, Sniegs, was lost at sea and the six member crew was presumed lost as well. A Swiss boat also capsized off the Latvian coast, killing one crew member.

On 6 December, the Christmas Tree at Dome Square was turned on. This starts the week of festivities in Riga and the official beginning of the Christmas rush.

And, on 9 December, the historic Town Hall Square and House of the Blackheads were re-dedicated. Both were destroyed during World War II, but now the town centre has been fully restored to its former glory. The historic sites date back to the 14th century.

Exchange Rates
As of 10 December 1999

currency Latvian lats (LVL)
1 US dollar 0.58
1 British pound 0.95
1 German mark 0.30
1 euro 0.60

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

Prepared by Mel Huang, 10 December 1999

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles

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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