News highlights from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
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News Highlights from October 1999
* The last active Russian soldier in the Baltic states, part of an occupying force that once numbered over 500,000 men, crossed the Latvian border October 25 and returned to Russia.
The soldier was part of a Russian detachment overseeing the dismantling of the Skrunda radar base in western Latvia. The radar, the last Russian military object in the Baltic states, was turned over to Latvia the week before.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were forcibly annexed during World War II and only regained their independence in 1991. During Soviet rule, scores of major military bases were set up all across the three Baltic states.
The last Russian troops left Lithuania in 1993, and from Estonia in 1994. Latvia grudgingly agreed to let Russia keep the Skrunda radar; the Russians switched it off in 1998, then had 18 months to dismantle it.
Some deactivated officers who worked at Skrunda and married Latvians were granted residency permits and allowed to stay in the country.
The final end of what Balts considered a hated Russian occupation comes as the Baltic nations step up their efforts to join the NATO military alliance, something the Kremlin vehemently opposes.
Moscow says itâ€™s alarmed by the prospect that NATOâ€”its Cold War enemyâ€”could one day begin using air and naval bases in the Baltics that Russians built and only recently abandoned.
In the region, Russia still has a strong military presence in Kaliningradâ€”a Russian enclave along the Baltic Sea coast, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
* Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus on October 29 nominated Andrius Kubilius, of the Conservatives, to lead the third government in six months.
The 42-year-old, a deputy speaker of parliament, replaces Rolandas Paksas, who resigned earlier in the week over his opposition to a major deal to sell the state oil company, Mazeikiai Oil, which has since been signed.
Paksasâ€™s surprise announcement that he would refuse to sign the deal, which would eventually give the U.S.-based Williams International a majority state, prompted a revolt within his own party and Cabinet
According the agreement, Williams is to pay 150 million dollars for an initial 33 percent of Mazeikiai Oil, and invest hundreds of millions of dollars more modernizing the concern in coming years.
The government is to pay 350 million dollars to cover a capital deficit. Paksas said he didnâ€™t object to the sale in principle, but argued the debt payment would bust the national budget, which is already out of balance.
Despite his opposition, his ministers voted 11-3 to accept the sale, and pressure grew on Paksas to resign.
The new government is expected to maintain the pro-market, pro-West policies adhered to by Paksas.
Mazeikiai Oil is a cornerstone of the Lithuanian economy, accounting for some 10 percent of economic growth. Backers of the sale say the investment by Williams would revitalize the loss-making concern.
Backers say the American link also would lessen a dangerous economic dependence on Russia, which now provides the bulk of crude oil.
Advocates argue that Russia fears losing influence in Lithuaniaâ€”both economic and politicalâ€”and that it has actively tried to undermine the deal with the Americans.
But itâ€™s strong sentiment against the sell-off at home that has been most pronounced. Nearly 80 percent of Lithuanians say they support Paksasâ€™s position against the deal, according to recent polls.
Some nationalists say controlling shares of key industries should remain in Lithuanian hands. Many other agree with Paksas that the whole deal is badly thought out and potentially damaging to the economy.
Analysts say the popularity of the ruling Conservative party, already low, is likely to fall further for pushing the oil deal through. The issue could emerge as a major issue in upcoming national elections, slated for late 2000.
* Estonia has for the first time decided to impose trade tariffs, a concession to the European Union critics say could undermine the nationâ€™s reputation of having one of the worldâ€™s freest trade regimes.
After Estonia regained independence in1991, radical reformers unilaterally slashed all trade barriers-an eight year, zero tariff policy that thrilled free-market purists but outraged many local producers.
But to meet EU demands for tariffs as a condition of membership, and also heeding complaints from farmers about cheap imports, parliament in October adopted a law establishing trade barriers.
The new law applies to non-EU nations, though not to countries which have free trade agreements with Estonia. That means countries like Russia, the United States and Canada would be subject to the new tariffs.
Government spokesman Priit Poiklik said the protectionist measures are modeled after the EUâ€™s and would take effect Jan. 1, 2000. He said it would be a step towards full integration into the EUâ€™s customs union.
â€œI certainly wouldnâ€™t say this means we will stop having a very liberal economy,â€ he said. â€œBut protective tariffs are part of the EUâ€™s ideology, and we have to fit into that, and we will.â€
Estonia says joining the EU is a top priority, arguing membership will not only open up new markets but also greatly enhance the security of the small nationâ€”still worried about threats from its giant neighbor, Russia.
Estonia last year became the first ex-Soviet republic to start formal talks on EU membership. It says it should be ready to join by 2003.
But Estonian-based businessmen say they fear the whole EU drive is pushing this ex-communist state into being less, not more market oriented.
John Ferguson, an American who heads a leading equities fund in Tallinn, said many investors have been drawn to Estonia by its simplified taxes, minimal red tape and zero tariffs.
â€œUnlike the EU, Estoniaâ€™s been fantastic about keeping bureaucrats out of the economy,â€ he said. â€œWhat makes businessmen nervous is that these tariffs, while limited, could be the start of a creeping bureaucracy.â€
Government spokesman Poiklik insisted any downsides of tariffs would be offset by access to EU markets and greater security.
â€œEstonia will gain more than it loses by being in the EU,â€ he said.
* A former Soviet operative has been found guilty of fifty-year-old murdersâ€”part of a campaign, already in full swing in all three Baltic states, to bring agents of Stalinist-era repression to justice.
Karl-Leonhard Paulov, 75, was convicted October 26 of murdering three Estonians hiding in the forest from Soviet authorities in the 1940s. He was given an eight year jail sentence, but, because so much time had passed since the crime, judges ruled he wouldnâ€™t have to serve it.
Tens of thousands of people took refuge in Baltic forests in the years after the Soviet takeover in 1940. Many sought to avoid deportation to Siberia, while others took up arms to actively resist the Soviet occupation.
As a young agent, Paulov was ordered into the forest to gain the confidence of forest refugees, then to capture or kill them. Prosecutors said he ended up shooting two of the men mentioned in the charges in the back.
Paulov, looking frail and clutching a cane, told the court heâ€™d acted in self-defense. After the verdict, he said he was glad he didnâ€™t have to go to prison. But he said he feared prosecutors would appeal to have him jailed.
â€œThis has all hit me very deeply,â€ Paulov, who has cancer, was quoted as telling Estoniaâ€™s Eesti Paevaleht daily. â€œI canâ€™t sleep at night.â€
Combined, there have been a dozen convictions on charges related to Stalinist-era crimes in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. After regaining independence, all three promised to bring Stalinist agents to trial
Baltic officials say the trials are meant to shed light on the Stalinist period. But Moscow has criticized them, saying Baltic governments are trying to exact revenge on ailing, elderly men, many of whom hold Russian passports.
Relatives of Paulovâ€™s victims said they were disappointed judges refused prosecutor demands for him to serve his sentence. But they said they were happy Paulov had been forced to account for the murders.
â€œLet God punish him further,â€ Oie Kurg, one of the relatives, was quoted as telling Eesti Paevaleht.
* Controversial businessman and political leader Mait Metsamaa was shot dead in Tallinn on October 12 in one of the highest profile murders in Estonia in recent years.
Metsamaa, 43, was shot several times in the head in an apartment stairwell; police have made no arrests and were appealing to the public for leads in the case.
Metsamaa was a recent deputy mayor of Tallinn and was a key figure in the main opposition party in parliament, the Center Party. He was also a leading businessman.
Metsamaa recently became the focus of intense media attention after a car he was driving in July swerved into oncoming traffic, killing two people. Police said he was speeding at the time, and he faced criminal proceedings.
The incident prompted public outrage, with many Estonians saying the accident and earlier traffic violations by Metsamaa illustrated arrogant disregard for the law by many public figures.
* Russian power stations have the millennium computer bug under control and wonâ€™t cause disruptions in the three Baltic states or other ex-Soviet republics, a top Russian energy official said in Tallinn.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have largely reoriented to the West, but their energy distribution systems, or grids, are still interconnected with Russiaâ€™s.
Baltic officials fear that no matter how well prepared their own utilities are for the 2000 changeover, Y2K glitches in neighboring Russia could still trigger power outages at home.
But Anatoli Chubais, head of Russiaâ€™s United Energy System and a recent Kremlin advisor, sought to dispel those fears.
â€œThere will be no such electricity disruptions,â€ he was quoted as telling Estoniaâ€™s Postimees daily, adding that Russiaâ€™s utilities have spent half a year testing software and replacing Y2K-prone computers.
Chubais said he invited Estonian experts to Russia to verify Russian energy firmsâ€™ Y2K readiness. He said the countries could also have observers at each otherâ€™s power stations on New Yearâ€™s Eve.
Chubais, who was in Tallinn in October for a private energy conference, also met Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar to discuss the Y2K-energy issue.
Laarâ€™s press chief, Priit Poiklik, said Chubaisâ€™s assurances wouldnâ€™t affect existing contingency plans, which include Estonia quickly cutting free of the common grid at the first sign of trouble around New Yearâ€™s.
â€œThis problem has worried us a lot,â€ he said. â€œThis concern has forced us to be ready for any Russian disruptions, and we will be.â€
While Estonia can separate from the common grid and distribute electricity from local sources, Poiklik said the move would be costly. He also said Estonia canâ€™t remain detached from the Russian grid indefinitely.
All three Baltics have taken steps to end their dependence on Soviet-era distribution systems, drawing up plans to link to Nordic and Polish grids.
Estonia is slated to finish laying a power cable under the Baltic Sea to Finland by 2002, enabling it to deliver and receive electricity from Scandinavia.
â€œThis potential Y2K problem with Russia drives home the need for more alternative energy sources,â€ said the Estonian government spokesman. â€œThe more alternatives, the more secure we are.â€
* Latvian authorities on October 29 arrested a former Soviet security agent for participating in mass deportations in the 1940s.
Janis Kirsteins, 72, was detained by police and charged with genocide. He is the third person indicted on similar charges this month, and the eighth in recent years.
The report didnâ€™t say how long Kirsteins would remain in police custody. In most other cases, the suspects have been released pending trial.
There have been two convictions in Latvia: Alfons Noviks, who died in 1996 while serving jail time, and Mikhail Farbtuh, who recently was convicted and sentenced but still is free pending appeal.
Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, says it is determined to bring those responsible for Stalinist crimes to justice. Baltic officials say prosecutions are mainly meant to shed light on the Stalinist era.
But Moscow has criticized them, saying the Baltic states are trying to exact revenge the suspects.
* Russia handed control of a key radar facility over to the ex-Soviet republic of Latvia on October 21, formally ending its resented, half-century military presence in the Baltic states.
After a hand-over ceremony at the Skrunda radar base, 100 kilometers west of the nationâ€™s capital, Riga, Latvians hailed what they said was the official end of a military occupation that began during World War II.
â€œThis is a very important day for Latvia,â€ said Latvian foreign ministry spokesman Janis Silis, speaking by telephone from Skrunda. â€œThis marks the point when all Latvian territory is finally under our complete control.â€
The ceremony, at which Russian officers were also present, was the first time Latvian officials and media were allowed onto the base, which was strictly off limits to non-Russian military personnel until the hand-over.
From 1971 until the radar was switched off last year, Skrunda was a key component in Russiaâ€™s air-defense network, responsible for scanning the western skies for any incoming missiles.
Soviet soldiers entered Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1939, forcibly annexing the three Baltic states a year later. Scores of major military bases were established and hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in the region.
In the years after the Baltic states regained independence in 1991, virtually all Russiaâ€™s bases were abandoned and its troops withdrawn. But as part of a its pullout treaty with Moscow and at the urging of Western governments, Latvia grudgingly agreed in 1994 to let Russia operate the Skrunda radar for four more years.
Russia switched the radar off in 1998, then had 18 months more to dismantle it. Octoberâ€™s hand-over came four months prior to the deadline, a sign of how well the treaty was adhered to, Latvian officials said.
â€œThis shows Russia and Latvia can cooperate with each other. Russia did a good job,â€ Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins was quoted by his press service as saying in Skrunda.
Russia has scrambled to find a replacement for Skrunda. Moscow said Thursday it would step up efforts to complete a new radar station in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, which borders Latvia to the east.
â€œRussia sees as inadmissible any unilateral reduction of its defense capabilities,â€ the Interfax news agency quoted a Russian foreign ministry statement on Skrunda as saying.
Many Latvians saw the Skrunda base as the last relic of a hated fifty-year Soviet occupation. Some people living in the area of the base also claimed the electromagnetic rays emitted from the facility were a health hazard.
Latvia has not decided what to do with the dismantled, 40-hector base, which includes warehouses, apartment blocks and even a kindergarten. One proposal was to turn it into a low-security prison.
* A journalist slipped undetected into Estoniaâ€™s parliament with a replica pistol to illustrate lax security in the wake of killings in the Armenian legislature, local media reported October 29.
In the Thursday incident, the Eesti Paevaleht correspondent also went to the prime ministerâ€™s office, located in the same building. A picture of the journalist waving the gun by the premierâ€™s door appeared in the daily.
The reports didnâ€™t give the journalistâ€™s name, and did not indicate whether police were seeking to press charges against him.
Gunmen entered Armeniaâ€™s parliament on October 27 and opened fire on lawmakers, killing the former Soviet republicâ€™s prime minister and seven other officials and legislators.
Eesti Paevaleht, one of Estoniaâ€™s two leading dailies, reported that their correspondent easily stepped around a metal detector and used a magnetic pass not belonging to him to enter the building.
In addition to the fake pistol, made to scale with metal, the journalist also carried empty bullet casings into the building, the report said. The journalist also existed the building undetected.
Parliament security, apparently interviewed before being informed about the breach, said such an incident could not occur.
â€œSecurity checks everyone entering for weapons,â€ head of parliament security Ivar Prits was quoted as telling Eesti Paevaleht. â€œIf anyone waved a gun at the prime ministerâ€™s door, the person wouldnâ€™t get any further.â€