Lithuania Wants to Postpone the Closure of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant
On January 9, 2006, Lithuania’s Economics Minister, Kestutis Dauksys, told a news conference that his government wants to “negotiate with the EU about extending the operations of the Ignalina nuclear power plant,” reports UPI (1/10/06). Closing the Chernobyl-style plant by 2009 was a condition for Lithuania’s admission to the EU. Half of the plant already has been closed. However, Lithuania fears being isolated without a source of power if the plant is closed. Lithuania imports all of its gas and most of its oil from Russia according to BBC. Dauksys said that a new plan could by completed by 2013, but he thought it would be very difficult to persuade the EU that Ignalina should remain open beyond 2009. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas noted that a new nuclear facility could be built if Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, would join the project (The St. Petersburg Times 1/10/06).
EU Urges Washington to Extend Visa-Free Travel to Baltic Countries and Other New Members
The European Union has appealed to Washington to expedite efforts to extend visa-free travel to the Baltic countries and seven other new members, according to The Baltic Times (1/19/06). According to an European Commission report, the U.S. has made no progress in signing mutual agreements on the abolition of visas with EU newcomers. The Commission, the executive arm of the EU, would like to see progress by July, when a new report is filed. Washington has admitted the need to resolve the issue. Last year the U.S. and the Baltic countries set up working groups to discuss the issue. The Baltic countries meet most of the terms required for visa-free qualifications, but the percentage of visa rejections by the U.S. continues to be too high for U.S. officials to drop visa requirements. There are no visa requirements for U.S. citizens to visit the Baltic countries. A visa-free regime is one of the top priorities for the Baltic governments.
Another Latvian Unit Joins Peacekeeping Mission in Iraq
A Latvian unit of 108 soldiers departed on January 10 for Iraq to replace a Latvian unit already serving there, according to MOD. This is the seventh Latvian army unit to participate in the international mission in Iraq since 2003. The unit will train Iraqi solders in convoy operations and security and motorized patrols. The unit will be stationed in the city of Al Kut. The city is located on river Tigris approximately 100 miles SE of Baghdad. It is a port and a market center for grain, dates and vegetables. Latvia will also send some 30 soldiers to Afghanistan this spring to take part in the PRT program to help rebuild the country. The Latvians will serve under Norwegian command in Afghanistan. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, Latvian units are currently serving in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia.
Croatia, Azerbaijan Join Lithuanian Led Mission in Afghanistan
AFT (1/5/06) reports that Croatia and Azerbaijan will join the Lithuanian led NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan this year. Croatia signed an agreement with Lithuania to send 10–12 mine clearance specialists to work with the Lithuanian PRT in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has pledged to contribute six to eight military doctors to the team. Lithuania has also made an offer to Ukraine to join the team and is in negotiations with other European countries. Currently Danish troops and Icelandic civilian experts are serving with the Lithuanian led PRT in Ghor province alongside with 120 Lithuanian soldiers. Ghor is the largest and most inaccessible and dilapidated province in a mountainous region in central Afghanistan.
Israel Signs Tax Treaty with Latvia
On January 19, 2006, Latvia signed a treaty for prevention of double taxation with Israel. Jackie Matza of the Israel Tax Authority said that the treaty was an important stage in the progress of economic relations between the two countries, bolstering the certainty and stability required for international transactions. Like most of Israel’s tax treaties, the treaty with Latvia is based on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development model. Israel has signed a similar treaty with Lithuania (Globes1/22/06).
Proposed Latvian Restitution Law Would Return Jewish Properties
A proposed law in Latvia would return around 200 Jewish properties back to the country’s Jewish community. The Latvian government currently has possession of the properties according to Arkady Suharenko, of the Council of Latvian Jewish Communities. A 1992 law allowed for the restitution of religious property to Jewish communities. Thanks to this law, a number of historic Jewish properties were regained including Riga’s Jewish Theater and Jewish Hospital, several prayer halls and synagogues (JTA 1/22/06).
Estonia Might Introduce Euro Next Year
Estonia hopes to adopt the euro as of January 1, 2007, even if it does not meet the Maastricht inflation criteria, stated the former President of the Bank of Estonia. Last year inflation amounted to 4.1%, but it is expected to accelerate somewhat early this year. Lowering the rate of inflation is going to be slow as wages are rising fast. Lithuania with the lowest rate of inflation among the Baltic countries, 2.7%, also wants to convert to the euro next year, but is concerned about the Maastricht inflation limit. To comply with the limit, Lithuania must keep its inflation rate within 1.5% of the three best performing EU countries (The Baltic Times 1/12 and 19/06). Latvia plans to introduce the euro in 2008, but with a high inflation rate, it might not be able to do so. According to the Maastricht limit, Latvia may not exceed the limit within 2.5%. This year Latvia exceeded the index by 6% (Baltic Bsn Monitor 1/06, LETA 1/9/06). In all three countries, a major cause for the steep increases in consumer price indexes were increases in energy and food prices. In Latvia fuel prices climbed 19.4% last year.
Russia’s Ugly Show with Ukraine Is a Warning for the Balts and for Europe
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Alexei Sazonov acknowledged that politics played a role in the gas dispute with Ukraine, according to “The Los Angeles Times” (1/7/06). Most western political analysts and media concur with the Saznov’s statement. “The Voice of Germany” (1/6/06) stated: “One thing is clear. Dependency on Russian energy supplies means direct political dependency on the Kremlin. Those who issued warnings about Russia’s imperial reflexes now see themselves proven right.” Paul Belien writing in The Brussels Journal (1/4/06) writes, “It is important to stand by Ukraine and the other countries that lie between German and Russia. Rerouting Russian gas directly into Germany via the Baltic Sea, whilst bypassing Ukraine, Poland or the Baltics, should not be allowed.” Indeed, a direct Russian-German export route will make the East European countries dangerously exposed to potential Kremlin pressure. Moscow will be in a position to pursue what some experts call Russia’s “two-tiered energy policy” toward Europe: acting as a reliable supplier to the rich economies in the continent’s west while at the same time being able to arbitrarily raise fuel prices or simply cut off gas to its pesky neighbors in Europe’s east—if the Kremlin deems it politically expedient, writes Igor Torbokov in Eurasia Daily Monitor (1/21/06), Moscow’s deployment of the “energy weapon” dates from 1990, when it cut energy supplies to the Baltic countries in a futile attempt to stifle their independence movements. It was also used against the Baltic countries in 1992 in retaliation for demands that Russia remove its remaining military forces from their countries, notes Keith Smith in the “International Herald Tribune (1/17/07).
Russia to Build Natural Gas Pipeline on Top of Chemical Bomb Fields in the Baltic Sea
Newsweek International (1/23/06) reports that the proposed Russian-German deal to build a gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, running 744 miles under the Baltic sea, passes over two known chemical weapons dump areas in the Gotland and Borholm basins. Some 34,000 metric tons of captured German chemical weapons, mostly mustard gas and lewisite (both blister agents), and the nerve gas tabun were dumped in 30 yards deep water by the Russians after WWII. The gas kills everything it touches. As a result, all fishing boats in the Baltic are required to carry decontamination equipment to counter nerve gas. Environmentalists in Russia and the Baltic countries fear that construction could disturb the submerged and rusting shells and poison the sea. “It is very dangerous to build the pipeline in the Baltic,” warns Alexei Yablokov of the Russian Center for Ecology Policy. “The sea bottom is entirely covered with bombs. We should, at least, first make a map of where they are,” stated Yablokov. Large quantities of other explosives and munitions were also dumped in the Baltic Sea after WWII. No one knows where. The hazard of leaking shells probably will last tens to hundreds of years,” writes Czech scientist Jiri Matousek in a recent study of the Baltic. Baltic leaders are concerned that their two big neighbors do not care for their safety. Kremlin dismisses the objections of the Baltic and Polish people as Russophobia.
Balts Commemorate 15th Anniversary of Bloody January 1991
In January, thousands of Balts through out the world commemorated the 15th anniversary of a defining moment in recent Baltic history–the Bloody Days of January. Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia declared their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Over the next months, despite intense pressure and threats from the Kremlin, the Balts continued to press forward to freedom. Then in January 1991, Moscow ran out of patience. On January 13th Soviet Special Forces with tank support stormed the Vilnius TV tower and took the Lithuanian news service off the air, killing 14 civilians and injuring 700 people in the process. Thousands of Lithuanians took to the streets, others set barricades around public buildings to defend their newly declared independence. As word of the attack spread, 700,000 people (one third of the population) demonstrated in Riga in support of Lithuania. Expecting Soviet armed action in Latvia, protesters set up a network of barricades to deny the city to the Soviets. On January 20 the attack came; Soviet Special Forces and paratroopers seized the Interior Ministry building in Riga. Five civilians were killed. Eventually Soviet troops retreated, protesters triumphed and military rule was not imposed. Skirmishes with the Soviet government and troops continued. But Bloody January was a time when the self confidence of the Baltic people was awakened, and their will to be free was strengthened. After a failed Kremlin coup in August 1991, the Baltic countries regained their independence. (The Baltic Times, The Brussels Journal, Novosti Press, BBC).