The Baltics Today

The Weekly Crier (1999/09)

News Highlights from August—September 1999

* KGB files that dramatically exposed a number of Soviet spies were delivered into the hands of British intelligence in the Baltic states, according to media reports.
The Times of London said the documents were given in 1992 to Great Britain’s embassy in Riga—though other reports suggest it may have been their embassy in Tallinn. American embassies in the region reportedly turned away the KGB employee bearing the files, concluding his documents weren’t particularly significant.
The files turned out to be among the most important ever snared by a Western intelligence agency. They exposed an 87-year-old British resident, Melita Norwood, as a long-time Kremlin spy. After World War II, she passed on nuclear secrets, information that greatly boosted Soviets’ bomb-making capacity. Norwood, the daughter of a Latvian émigré, admitted spying and expressed no regret. She did it, she said, out of deep admiration for the Soviet system.

* When Finnish dock workers recently began boycotting Estonian ships, one of their demands was that Estonian shipping companies raise their sailors’ salaries from 500 to 2,500 dollars a month. They said the use of cheaper labor allowed Estonian ships to keep costs down and woo business away from more pricey Finnish shippers. The Estonian response? You couldn’t possibly expect us to pay Estonian seamen a higher salary than the Estonian president!
The rhetorical point was clear enough. But some have begun to wonder why, in fact, presidential salaries in the Baltics are so small. Both the Lithuanian president and the new Latvian president get generous pensions from their old employers in North America, where they spent most of their adult lives. Their predecessors and the current Estonian president, however, have been forced to live on incomes that are sometimes ten times less than their counterparts abroad. It could be worse, though: they could be president of Ukraine (see below).
The following are what Baltic presidents’ annual salaries are compared to other heads of state:
Country President’s Salary
Singapore…………….$465,000
Japan (PM)…………..$375,000
Russia………………….$320,000
Costa Rica……………$250,000
United States………..$200,000
Britain (PM)………….$165,000
*Lithuania……………..$35,000
Latvia……………………$25,000
Estonia………………….$18,000
Ukraine…………………..$5,000
*Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus donates his salary to charity; he receives a pension from the United States of 60,000 dollars a year.

* So much for the benefits of exercise. World Iron Man champion, Lithuanian Vidmantas Urbonas, was recently rushed to a hospital in critical condition after collapsing during an extreme-sports competition in Lithuania.
He fell ill after completing an 84-kilometer track race, the final stage of the three-race competition, known as the ultra-triathlon. Earlier in the two-day event, he swam eight kilometers and rode in a 360-kilometer bicycle marathon. Lithuanian doctors said the physical stress had damaged his heart, kidneys, and lungs.
Urbonas, the 1998 world ultra-triathlon champion and a top contender for this year’s championship, gained fame over the years for completing unorthodox, extremely demanding physical feats.
Earlier this year, he swam the length of Lithuania’s longest river, 450 kilometers, from the Lithuanian-Belarus border to the Baltic Sea. At the time, doctors warned that the week-long swim through the polluted Nemunas river could harm his health.

* A Latvian court found an 83-year-old ex-Stalinist agent guilty of deporting scores of Latvians in the 1940s and sentenced him to seven years in prison.
Prosecutors said Mikhail Farbtuh played a key role in the deportation of some 30 Latvian families to Siberia as a Soviet interior ministry official in 1941; his victims included women, small children and at least one infant baby.
Farbtuh protested his innocence, saying deportation orders with his signature were forgeries. He said he’d opposed deportations, and that he’d warned many friends and relatives about the action. Speaking to reporters after sentencing, he said he was surprised. “I was expecting something softer,” he said.
His is the second conviction of someone on genocide charges since Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Stalinist-era KGB boss Alfons Noviks was sentenced to life in 1995; he died in prison a year later.
In the years after the Soviet occupation in 1940, tens of thousands of people across the Baltic states were shipped in cattle trains to Siberia. All three Baltic states have actively sought prosecutions of those who participated in Stalinist crimes. Hundreds of cases are under investigation and there have been a dozen convictions. Judges have mostly handed down suspended sentences.
Russia has criticized the prosecutions, saying the men brought to trial were heroes who consolidated Soviet power during and after World War II. Baltic officials say the trials are primarily meant to shed light on the dark Stalinist era. They deny the motivation is revenge.

* Over 80 percent of software used in the Baltic states is illegally copied and further steps should be taken to tackle the problem, software companies said recently. Copyright laws meant to curb software piracy exist, but enforcement is scant, according to the Business Software Alliance.
Saving costs is a main motivation: pirated software can be purchased at outdoor markets for a mere 10 dollars compared to 2000 dollars for legal versions.
Failure to enforce copyright laws could undermine Baltic bids for European Union membership. EU representatives said rates of piracy have to come down, but added that Baltic governments understand the severity of the problem and are trying to address it. Average rates of software piracy in the EU are around 45 percent. China has one of the world’s highest rates of pirated software-of around 97 percent.

* Thieves robbed one million dollars from a tiny currency exchange in Tallinn in September—the single largest robbery ever in Estonian history.
The heist was made easier because a safe key had been left on a table next to the safe and an armed security guard had just stepped out for lunch. The three thieves leapt over a counter, bound a teller, then stuffed the cash in a suitcase and made their getaway in what appeared to be a taxicab. The young teller, who was the only employee in the office during the Sunday afternoon incident, eventually freed herself and called police.
Police said the private security guard should never have left his post, and he expressed amazement that so much money hadn’t been deposited for safekeeping in a bank. Some also suggested that the robbery could have been an inside job.

* Baltic economies are still struggling to overcome the effects of the collapse of the Russian market last year, but most economists say they can see light at the end of the tunnel. All three will have growth rates at or near zero for 1999. For Lithuania, that’s down from 5 percent in 1998; for Latvia and Estonia, it is a fall from around 4 percent. Shaken into action, many businesses have reorganized and forged their way into new markets in Western Europe. Those efforts should start to pay off within the coming year. According to the IMF, healthy growth should resume next year, with 2000 GDP rates near 4 or 5 percent in all three Baltic countries.

* Lithuania says it will close one of two reactors at its only nuclear power plant in 2005, an apparent effort to improve its chances of winning European Union membership.
The announcement followed months of pressure from EU officials, who say failure to close the entire Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear power plant could jeopardize Lithuania’s chances of membership.
Until the most recent announcement, Lithuania refused to commit to closing either of Ignalina’s Chernobyl-type reactors. Lithuania’s government did not say when or even if it would decide to close the second, newer reactor at the Ignalina plant, 130 km from Vilnius.
Ignalina provides 80 percent of Lithuania’s energy needs and officials have long argued that closing the plant in under ten years would be too costly, running into the billions of dollars. They said closing the first reactor alone would cost 2.5 billion dollars. Brussels is expected to keep pushing hard for the complete closure of Ignalina at the earliest possible date. The EU has said 2009 would be an appropriate shutdown date.

* Rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis in Estonia and Latvia remain high and require urgent government action, health officials said at a recent conference in Tallinn.
Drug-resistant strains account for over 10 percent of all TB cases in Estonia, and more than 20 percent in Latvia, specialists at the conference said. That coincides with high rates of all form of the disease. Overall, TB in Estonia has soared from 25 cases per 100,000 in 1992 to more than 50 cases per 100,000 last year; the 1998 TB rate in Latvia was 75 per 100,000, seven times rates in nearby Nordic countries.
Experts say drug-resistant TB evolved because of lax, incomplete treatment of patients in the past, which allowed stronger strains to develop, recur in the same patient and then spread to others. Growing poverty has also been a contributing factor. Unhygienic, overcrowded prisons have also become hot-beds of tuberculosis.
Doctors say TB remains active even after symptoms disappear and that treatment must continue for 18 months. The World Health Organization found that in some countries two-thirds of TB sufferers don’t complete their treatment properly. Estonia and Latvia have implemented prevention programs, including one where health workers directly watch that all registered TB patients properly take and complete their medication.

* Lithuania’s government has decided to rejoin Eastern European Time after switching to a time zone usually used by countries farther west prompted widespread discontent.
Advocates of last year’s change to Central European Time argued the move would signal Lithuania was in the Western camp and could boost its EU bid. Critics scoffed, saying integration wasn’t that simple. Others said putting clocks ahead of those of Latvia and Estonia ended up signaling Baltic disunity.
Leaders heeded polls showing 70 percent of Lithuanians wanted to abandon Central European Time. Many complained of sunsets in the afternoon in winter and sunrises a few hours past midnight in summer.
All three Baltic states mixed time and in 1991, when they left Moscow’s time zone and joined Eastern European Time. It was in part intended to symbolize their distance from their former Soviet rulers.

* A high profile Nazi trial in Lithuania has ended before it ever really began. A judge in September postponed the proceedings indefinitely, saying Aleksandras Lileikis, 92, was too ill to stand trial. He said the trial could resume if the accused’s health improved, but lawyers say there’s virtually no chance judges will ever restart the trial given the defendant’s age. Lileikis was charged with genocide for allegedly sending scores of Jews to their deaths when he headed the Vilnius security police during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation. He emigrated to the United States in 1955 and returned to Lithuania in 1996 as a U.S. court was moving to deport him. Lileikis appeared at the first day of his trial last year sitting in a wheel chair and wearing a neck brace. But after protesting his innocence, he began gasping for air and was rushed to a hospital. He never reappeared in court.

* Five years after the sinking of the MS Estonia in one of Europe’s worst ferry disasters ever, experts say Baltic ferries are significantly safer.
“These ships are much, much safer,” said Tuomo Karppinen, a leading Finnish expert on maritime safety. “The lessons of the Estonia have been learned.”
The Regina Baltica, which replaced the Estonia, has received high marks. A recent survey of 30 European ferries by the German Auto Club found the Regina Baltica to be among the safest. “Most crews can’t imagine that accidents can happen—we can imagine it very well,” said its technical director, Peeter Tees. “That makes us more safety conscious.”
The Estonia sank on Sept. 28, 1994, killing 852 of 989 people aboard. At the half-way point in its journey from Tallinn to Stockholm, storm-driven waves ripped off the 56-ton bow door. A key inner door was also flung open, the car deck flooded and the ship quickly sank. “The kind of accident on the Estonia can’t happen on this ferry,” said Regina Baltica Captain Alar Kask.
An accident commission blamed the Estonia’s German builder, Meyer Werft, saying the ferry’s bow-door locks were poorly made and too weak to stand the stress. The shipbuilder said poor maintenance of the locks was the cause, then claimed it might have been a bomb. Investigators scoffed at those theories. “The only theory missing is that it was caused by a UFO,” Uno Laur, chairman of the accident commission told Estonia’s Postimees.
The commission added that construction shortfalls on all such ro-ro ferries at that time made the accident worse than it might have been; it said the inner door should have been set farther from the bow so it couldn’t be jarred loose. Had the inner door stayed in place, the ferry probably would not have sunk.
The Regina Baltica’s bow has been reinforced, the inner door repositioned farther back, and air-tight doors were installed so water could never possibly leak from the car deck to the rest of the ship. New safety equipment includes heat-generating life-jackets, life rafts that right themselves if blown over and a multi-million-dollar, high-tech passenger evacuation system. “Many safety features aren’t required by regulators till next July, but we’ve had them for a year already,” said Tees. “We have to be two steps ahead other ferries, because of the Estonia.”

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