News Highlights from April 2-April 9, 2001
A bizarre theme park that mimics a Soviet prison camp has opened in Lithuania, delighting many visitors but prompting sharp criticism from some who say it belittles the memory of those who perished during the dark days of Stalin.
The 30-hectare Soviet Sculpture Garden at Grutas Park is surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, and dotted with some 65 bronze and granite statues of former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Organizers say itâ€™s the first and only theme park of its kind in the world.
Thousands of people gathered at the festive opening of the facility, which residents of the nearby village of Grutas, 120 kilometers south of Vilnius, have dubbed Stalin World. As guests entered the grounds, they were greeted by an actor dressed as Stalin smoking a pipe; a Lenin look-a-like, with a goatee and cap, also sat fishing by a nearby lake. Loud speakers blared out old Communist hymns and guests were handed shots of vodka and invited to eat borscht soup from tin bowls. Nearby Soviet-era propaganda read: “There is No Happier Youth in the World Than Soviet Youth.”
“It combines the charms of a Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag prison camp,” explained Viliumas Malinauskas, the park’s 60-year-old founder who won rights to use some 60 Soviet-era statues in a nationwide competition in 1998.
The park opened on April 1, April Fool’s Day, but is a serious business venture of Malinauskas, who owns a mushroom processing company and is considered on of the wealthiest men in the region. He said the fun-loving atmosphere showed Lithuanians were putting the tragic Soviet past behind them 10 years after regaining independence following the 1991 collapse of the USSR. He added that he wants to develop the site, in which his company has invested some 1 million dollars, into a major tourist attraction.
But not everyone is laughing along with Malinauskas. Some have bitterly criticized the park as tacky and an affront to hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians deported or shot by Soviet secret police; there are an estimated 60,000 survivors of deportations still alive in the country.
Many Lithuanians were particularly upset by plans to build a mock railway that would carry visitors in cattle wagons from Vilnius to Stalin World, a la a Mickey Mouse train ferrying tourists around Disneyland attractions.
“Imagine that in your country, one day armed KGB men come to your door. They beat your neighbor, rape your sister, your mother, kill your brothers. They exile your family,” said critic Leonas Kerosierius, quoted by the National Post newspaper. “And now someone is building monuments to these killers, these rapists? No country has ever built monuments for tyrants. Are there any monuments for Hitler or Goebbles?”
Malinauskas, whose own father was deported, insisted he isn’t bothered by the criticism, saying it’s good publicity for the grounds. He says he hopes to attract at least a million visitors a year to the park, which also includes a cafe, playground and a small zoo; entry tickets cost 2 dollars.
Lithuanian judges on April 5 found an 87-year-old former Soviet secret police officer guilty of participating in a massacre 60 years ago, though he’s unlikely to serve a life sentence handed down because he now lives in Russia.
Petras Raslanas was convicted of aiding in the killing of 76 civilians in the Lithuanian village of Rainiai in 1941, a year after Soviet forces occupied the country. Some victims were tortured, then decapitated, prosecutors said.
The in-absentia trial, which lasted just three weeks, is unlikely to result in Raslanas ever going to prison. He fled to Russia in 1992, and Russian officials have repeatedly refused to extradite him, saying he’s too ill to be tried.
Raslanas, who now holds a Russian passport, has denied the accusations. He reportedly lives in Balashikha, near Moscow.
Several relatives of those killed in Rainiai were present in the court room as the guilty verdict and life sentence were read out. Several reportedly broke down in tears.
The Rainiai massacre is considered one of the most notorious mass killings during Soviet rule in Lithuania, when tens of thousands of people perceived as enemies of the Stalinist system were arrested, deported or shot.
Legislation allowing trials without the suspect present was passed last year.
The Raslanas case was heard by the District Court in Siauliai, a city just east of Rainiai and some 220 kilometers north of Vilnius.
Juris Sinka, a colorful anti-communist member of Latvia’s parliament, has died while on a visit to Tibet in China, the press service of the Saeima legislature announced on April 4; he was 73.
Sinka, of the rightwing Fatherland and Freedom party and an outspoken advocate of Tibetan independence, died in the evening of April 3; the cause of his death hasn’t been released, though Latvian newspaper reports speculated he had a heart attack.
Sinka was with a delegation of four Latvian parliamentarians touring China at the invitation of the Chinese legislature.
A photo of Sinka, with flowers and a table draped in black ribbons nearby, was hanging in the main hallway of Latvia’s parliament during the week, and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga also expressed her condolences.
Sinka was born in Latvia during its first period of independence, which lasted from 1920-40. He fled to the West as a teenager when Soviet forces occupied the Baltic Sea coast nation at the end of World War II and later settled in Britain.
He studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University and worked in for the British Broadcasting Company in England from 1953-87.
Sinka returned to his Latvian homeland after it regained independence in 1991, and was elected to parliament two years later.
Latvian prosecutors have indicted another Stalinist-era secret policemen for allegedly taking part in mass deportations in the 1940s amid fresh Kremlin criticism about prosecutions of former Soviet officials.
Nikolai Tess, 80, was charged with genocide on suspicion he helped deport 138 people to Siberia in 1949, five years after Soviet forces occupied Latvia at the end of World War II, prosecutors’ spokeswoman Dzintra Subrovska said on April 3.
She said evidence against Tess included deportation papers signed by him. One victim was a five-month-old baby and another an 80-year-old woman; some of the deportees later died in the harsh conditions of exile, Subrovska said.
Tess, who holds a Russian passport, was formally charged two weeks ago, but the indictment was only made public Tuesday. Subrovska said Tess hadn’t been arrested, but is under round-the-clock surveillance by police.
Russia the day before repeated criticism of the proceedings against ex-agents, nine of whom have been indicted or convicted since Latvia regained independence.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement referred to Tess by name, and also mentioned Mikhail Farbtukh, an 84-year-old convicted and jailed in Latvia last year for participating in Soviet deportations.
The statement said Tess and Farbtukh were “helpless…disabled war veterans” who couldn’t be held accountable for actions that weren’t illegal at the time under Soviet law.
Latvians dismissed the criticism, saying the prosecutions were based on international law.
“How can you justify the deportation of children and old people? What did a five-year-old baby do to deserve being deported?” Subrovska said when asked about Moscow’s statement.
Latvian NHL star Sandis Ozolins is reportedly planning on opening a golf course in Riga. It would be the first golf course in Latvia since the country regained independence.
The estimated 5 million dollar facility would be built in the Mezaparks district of the Latvian capital, an area with large tracks of open land and forest that was first established as a residential area in the 1930s.
Estonia was the first to construct a golf course after the Soviet collapse near NiitvÃ¤lja, a small village about 30 kilometers outside Tallinn.
Last year, another Latvian NHL star, goalie Arturs Irbe, said he plans to open a stud farm on an 85-hectare seaside estate near Salacgriva, 75 kilometers north of Riga.
Estonia has launched a new investigation to determine if there is any foundation to allegations that an Estonian-born man living in Venezuela took part in Nazi atrocities 60 years ago, officials said on April 4.
The move is a response to calls by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Estonia to reopen an investigation of Harry Mannil, an 81-year-old who emigrated from this Baltic state to western Europe during World War II and now lives in Caracas.
Estonian investigators combed their files in 1995 looking for evidence implicating Mannil in the murder of civilians during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation but declared they found no such proof.
Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center, which tracks Nazi atrocities, said in a recent letter to Prime Minister Mart Laar that he believes the United States has documents proving Mannil’s guilt. He said Estonia should try Mannil if new evidence is uncovered.
Estonian police spokesman Henno Kuurmann said investigators would seek access to the alleged U.S. documents, though he said officials probably would not look through Estonia’s archives again.
The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn said it had received a request for information about the documents from the Estonians and forwarded it to Washington, but the embassy declined to provide more details.
Mannil, a retired businessman, said last month that the allegations were “absurd and completely unfounded.” He admitted working briefly for a security police unit during Nazi rule but said he never took part in human rights abuses.
The Wiesenthal Center in March handed a list to Venezuela of 14 Lithuanians, three Latvians and an Estonian who it said are suspected Nazis likely in Venezuela. Mannil was on that list, prompting the renewed scrutiny of his case.
After Estonia regained independence, it vowed to prosecute anyone who took part in Nazi crimes or in atrocities committed during five decades of Soviet occupation.
The Nazis killed some 1,000 Estonian Jews and 4,000 other civilians; most of Estonia’s 4,500 prewar Jews fled to Russia before Germany’s invasion.
Latvia has banned imports of second-hand clothing from countries suffering from outbreaks of foot-and-mouth as part of its effort to keep the disease at bay, officials said on April 3.
Authorities said they want to ensure the highly infectious virus can’t be brought into Latvia via infected clothes, though they acknowledged the measures were out of the ordinary.
Latvia imported thousands of tons of second-hand clothes last year. The largest single source was Britain, which has been hit hard by foot-and-mouth.
Officials said a plan is being considered by which the clothes could be disinfected as they arrive, possibly leading to a resumption of the imports.
Some observers worried that poorer Latvians who depend on cheap second-hand imports may see prices of the goods rise.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus on April 2 accepted the resignation of Health Minister Vincas Janusonis, who had been accused of engaging in unethical behavior before joining the government.
The 51-year-old, of the center-right Liberal Union, submitted his resignation saying only that he needed to quit to care for his ailing daughter.
An ethics board had launched an inquiry into Janusonis’s business activities before he became a minister, but it never publicly specified the allegations.
Two other ministers, Transportation Minister Gintaras Striaukas and Economics Minister Eugenijus Maldeikis, resigned recently under similar circumstances. They, like Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, belonged to the Liberal Union.
After assuming power following parliamentary elections last year, Paksas said that he wouldn’t tolerate unethical behavior by officials.
The Liberal Union is in a coalition with the center-left New Union, the smaller Center Union and Modern Christian Democratic Union. They have a slim majority in the 141-seat Seimas, controlling just 71 seats.
News Highlights from March 26-April 2, 2001
Riga’s city council on March 27 elected Gundars Bojars of the leftist Social Democrats as the Latvian capital’s mayor, seen as an important post for launching national political campaigns.
The Social Democrats scored major gains in local elections earlier this month, and said they’re now setting their sights on ousting ruling center-right parties from national power in 2002 parliamentary elections.
Riga, with a population of around 850,000, is the largest city in Latvia and a center of economic activity. It’s also the largest city in the three Baltic states.
Bojars, 34, is the son of Social Democratic leader Juris Bojars, who is legally barred from holding public office because he worked for the Soviet secret police, the KGB, during Soviet rule.
The younger Bojars was elected in the 60-seat city council with 31 votes; 26 went to outgoing mayor Andris Argalis, of the rightwing Fatherland and Freedom. Bojars also received the backing of the far-left For Equal Rights.
Some observers said the Riga victory spelled political trouble for the national government. But Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins, himself mayor of Riga before taking over the reins of national government last year, said he didn’t think the leftist victory in the capital would affect his hold on power.
Mayor-elect Bojars, whose party has advocated more state spending to help the poor, called on all parties to work together to improve the capital’s infrastructure, including pot-hole filled roads in many parts of Riga.
An Italian who had made headlines here by offering to pay 150 million dollars in cash for an Estonian railway being privatized has been arrested for allegedly setting two cars on fire.
Giovanni Sposato, 29, is suspected of torching the cars in a rage after an 18-year-old Estonian reportedly turned down his marriage proposal; if convicted of arson, he would face a maximum 10 years in jail, police said.
The flamboyant, mustachioed Sposato has been the focus of media attention for weeks, with many Estonians questioning his background and whether he has links to any of the bidders in the ongoing railway sale.
The freight railway on the auction bloc is valued at over 400 million dollars. The privatization has been plagued by lawsuits and controversy, with some Estonians also arguing that the vital asset should not be sold at all.
The otherwise small railway, which includes only 600 kilometers of main track, is considered highly lucrative because its tanker cars carry Russian oil products through Estonia in route for Western markets.
Spotsato had met with privatization officials at one point, but the government and the main players in the privatizationâ€”including British, American and Estonian businessmenâ€”have distanced themselves from the Italian.
Alleged Nazi Juozas Naujalis, a resident of the United States for over fifty years, has returned to his homeland after U.S. courts ordered his deportation, Lithuanian officials confirmed on March 29.
The 81-year-old, who served in the 2nd Lithuanian Schutzmannschaft Battalion during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation, flew to Lithuania on March 15. Lithuanian prosecutors made his arrival public this week.
In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with an earlier decision by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals’ to deport Naujalis, a retired Chicago-area machinist, because of his service in the infamous Nazi-backed battalion.
The appeals court concluded the group helped the Germans march victims to killing fields, forced them to lie in pits and then shot them. The battalion is believed to have murdered nearly 20,000 people.
Naujalis, who resided in Cicero, Ill., denied participating in atrocities. He said he only guarded railway stations, but U.S. judges rejected those claims.
Lithuanian Prosecutor Rimvydas Valentukevicius said an investigation opened against Naujalis last year was continuing and that he could be indicted. But he said the hunt for evidence that can be used in court will be “very difficult.”
“The U.S. courts only considered evidence that he served in the battalion. But we have to find concrete evidence of a concrete crime. We haven’t found that yet, but we’re still looking,” Valentukevicius said in a telephone interview.
Analysisâ€”There was a gnawing suspicion among people in the Baltic states, as elsewhere in the world, that George W. Bush might not be smart enough to be the American president and leader of the worldâ€™s only genuine superpower. While there also wasnâ€™t much passion here for Democratic candidate Al Gore during the U.S presidential election, most analysts concluded a Gore victory would better serve Baltic interests. Gore, the thinking seemed to be, at least knew where the Baltic states were. The fear about Bush was that, not only might he not know the Baltic states from a hole in the ground, he also hadnâ€™t appeared too enthusiastic about their drives to join NATO. At least in the early days of the Bush administration, however, Baltic officials have been pleasantly surprised with the unambiguous expressions of support for Baltic NATO membership coming out of Washington. Just how deep that American support runs and how hard the US will lobby for Baltic entry when push comes to shove remains to be seen. For Baltic leaders, itâ€™s still probably just a little too early to start singing their hosannas about George W.
Analysisâ€”Latvia and Lithuania will face increasingly stiff competitionâ€”also against each otherâ€”in the quest to keep Russian transit oil flowing through their ports. Some 1-2 percent of their annual economic growth comes from handling Russian oil, which passes through their ports en route to the West, and both nations say theyâ€™d like even more Russian oil to come their way. But the fly in the ointment could be what the Bloomberg business wire recently reported were increasingly realistic Kremlin plans to divert some of that oil from the Baltic states and to ship it instead through new Russian ports now being built; Moscow is also overseeing the construction of a 50-million-dollar pipeline to carry oil to the new ports, including one on Russiaâ€™s Baltic Sea coast. President Vladimir Putin, who says he has taken personal charge of the projects, complained that Russia currently loses 2 billion dollars a year in shipping duties to the Baltic states. Some analysts say that with world demand for oil as high as ever and with Russia trying to increase its oil production, there may be plenty of oil to go around for ports outside Russia. But fears are that Latvia and Lithuania, and also Estonia, will end up vying for pieces of an ever smaller oil-transit pie.
News Highlights from March 19 to March 26, 2001
The European Union said on March 23 that Lithuania must close its sole atomic power station by 2009, warning that a failure to commit to that date could jeopardize Lithuania’s bid for EU membership.
EU officials said the age of the twenty-year-old, Soviet-built reactors at the Ignalina power plant dictates they be closed before 2010. The EU has earlier warned that Ignalina poses an environmental threat to the region.
The government in January approved a plan to shut down one of two reactors at the power plant, but it hasn’t yet decided the fate of the second reactor.
The endorsement of the closure plan, initiated by an earlier administration, sets out a detailed schedule for switching off the first reactor at Ignalina, some 130 kilometers north of the capital, Vilnius.
The EU has repeatedly urged Lithuania to shut down the entire plant, but it hadn’t before suggested a deadline by which it would like that to happen.
Lithuania has said it wants to finish its current membership talks with the EU in 2002 and enter the powerful economic bloc in 2004.
International donors, mostly from the 15 members of the EU, have pledged some 200 million dollars to help pay for closing the first reactor. That’s roughly the amount Lithuania said it needed for the project.
Ignalina’s two reactors are the same type as those at Chernobyl, Ukraineâ€”site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986â€”though they have had safety upgrades since Lithuania regained independence.
The facility generates more than 70 percent of Lithuania’s electricity and does so more cheaply than other forms of power, allowing the country to keep its energy costs to consumers relatively low.
Many Lithuanians fear that closing Ignalina and developing alternative energy sources would be too costly, running into the billions of dollars by some estimates, and could damage Lithuania’s economy.
A Riga district court has rejected pleas that a jailed ex-police agent be freed because he’s too infirm to serve out his five-year prison sentence for committing Stalinist-era atrocities.
Mikhail Farbtukh, 84, was convicted in 1999 for helping to deport scores of people, including children, to Siberia in the year following the 1940 Soviet occupation of Latvia; many deportees died in the harsh conditions of exile.
A medical panel had recommended that Farbtukh, who began serving his term in Riga’s Matisa Prison last May, be released, saying he was so ill he could barely walk, couldn’t put on his own shoes and needed round-the-clock attention.
But judges ruled on March 23 that Farbtukh didn’t suffer from new ailments, a legal condition for early release, and that poor prison facilities also weren’t grounds for freeing a prisoner, explained court spokesman Leonards Pavils.
Proceedings were held inside the prison in Riga because Farbtukh was deemed too ill to travel to the nearby courthouse. As the hearing ended, Farbtukh protested, saying he would die in jail.
Defense lawyer Alexander Ogurtsov announced he would appeal the ruling, saying Farbtukh’s incarceration violated international law and amounted to torture.
Vitolds Zahars, director of Latvia’s Prison Authority, also backed Farbtukh’s release, saying the jail had neither the facilities nor manpower to care for him.
“He has paid his debt,” Zahars said last month.
Others said they backed the court ruling.
“These were terrible crimes. Just because they were done in the name of communism shouldn’t matter,” said Juris Sinka, a legislator from the rightwing Fatherland and Freedom party. “Why should I have sympathy for this man?
Farbtukh’s lawyers initially appealed to President Vaira
Vike-Freiberga for a pardon last October, but Latvian law requires that inmates serve at least half their terms before becoming eligible to receive presidential clemency.
Farbtukh and another man in Estonia, 76-year-old Karl-Leonhard Paulov, are the only two men known to be serving jail time for Stalinist-era repressions.
Russian officials have strongly criticized the prosecutions saying the Baltic states are exacting revenge on an ailing, elderly man.
(Also see JAILED, in the latest edition of CITY PAPER magazine, for further details.)
Lithuania on March 26 formally requested the extradition of Antanas Gecas, a Nazi war crimes suspect living in Edinburgh, Scotland, so that he can be tried.
Justice Minister Gintautas Bartkus signed documents asking for the 85-year-old Lithuanian-born man to be deported, and they were sent to London via diplomatic channels during the day, said ministry spokesman Nerijus Maliukevicius.
Efraim Zuroff of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center praised Lithuania for the move.
“I don’t think Gecas in his worst nightmares ever thought Lithuania would seek his extraditionâ€”but they have,” said Zuroff. “This is unbelievable.”
A Lithuanian court last month ordered Gecas’s arrest on suspicion he took part in executing Jews in Lithuania and neighboring Belarus during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation, when he allegedly was a lieutenant in the 12th police battalion.
Gecas, a retired mining engineer who later began managing a guesthouse in Edinburgh, denies the allegations. In 1992, he tried to sue Scottish Television for libel after it accused him of war crimes, but a judge ruled against him.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper recently quoted Gecas, who changed his name from Gecevicius after taking up residence in Britain in the late 1940s, as saying he feared extradition; it said he had two children and at least one grandchild.
“Every day I worry they may succeed in getting me deported and taking me away from my family,” he was quoted as saying.
Lithuanian prosecutors said they initially didn’t have sufficient proof to charge and try Gecas, but the U.S. Justice Department helped supply them with the necessary information to reopen the case.
Zuroff, speaking by telephone from his Jerusalem office, said that the new evidence appeared to include eye witnesses who said they were willing to testify against Gecas in court. He said he didn’t have further details.
The extradition request came a month after a former official in the Nazi-backed Vilnius security police, Kazys Gimzauskas, was convicted for participating in the Holocaust but deemed too ill to serve any prison sentence.
The Jewish organization that tracks alleged Nazis appealed on March 22 Wednesday to the Estonian government to launch a full-scale investigation of a suspected Nazi collaborator now living in Venezuela.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center named the suspect as Harry Mannil, an 81-year-old Estonian-born man who emigrated from this Baltic Sea coast nation to western Europe during World War II and later moved to South America.
Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office said in a letter to Prime Minister Mart Laar that he should “take whatever steps necessary to see to it (Mannil’s) case is fully investigated and that justice is finally achieved.”
In a telephone interview later in the day, Zuroff said he would like to see Mannil indicted and extradited to Estonia for trial following an investigation.
“It will be a great, unmitigated pleasure to see Mannil in the dock,” said Zuroff, arguing that evidence in war-era archives in Sweden and the United States showed Mannil had participated in Nazi atrocities.
The appeal to Estonia comes a day after the same Nazi-hunting group handed a list to Venezuelan officials of 14 Lithuanians, three Latvians and an Estonian who it said are suspected Nazis likely in Venezuela. Mannil was on that list.
Mannil denied reports he participated in atrocities during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation.
“This is absurd and completely unfounded,” he was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s Postimees daily newspaper.
Laar said that Estonia was committed to prosecuting anyone who took part in Nazi crimes or in abuses committed during Soviet rule. He indicted later in the week that Estonia would be willing to take a fresh look at the Mannil case.
“Estonia has said it will take to court anyone who took part in crimes against humanity,” he said. “But there need to be facts to do it.”
Hannes Kont, of the Estonian police division responsible for investigating war crimes, said officials combed archives here for evidence against Mannil in the early ’90s but uncovered no proof suggesting he’d taken part in Nazi crimes.
“We have the will to investigate all such crimes. We are very eager to do it. But we currently don’t have any new evidence on Mannil,” said Kont. He said Estonia would “obviously” investigate any new evidence that came to light.
Mannil has said he worked for a security police unit for just four months and never took part in human rights abuses. He said he fled abroad in 1943 because he refused to work with the Nazis and they were about to arrest him.
Mannil, said to be an avid art collector who has donated prewar
Estonian artwork to museums in Tallinn, could not immediately be reached for comment.
News Highlights from March 12-March 19, 2001
A gruesome killing in Latvia has put the spotlight on a club that reenacts medieval-era battles. Five of its members were arrested on March 13 for kidnapping a 15-year-old, then beating him to death with a stone.
It isn’t yet clear if there was a direct link between the activities of the club, called the Order of Ancient Curonian Knights, and the killing, which took place near the coastal city of Ventspils.
The victim had disappeared the week before, and his family had been contacted to pay a ransom. But police said they believed the killers only asked for a payment after the murder had taken place.
Following the arrests, police said they believed that the five suspects may have been involved in at least one other murder. Authorities said they were investigating that case.
Four of the men arrested were in their twenties and face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of murder. One 17-year-old would face a lesser sentence.
Estonia and Latvia said on March 14 that they have taken new measures to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease to their nations after France reported the day before that it had detected its first case.
The two Baltic states said they were banning milk and meat products, and all livestock from France. They had earlier banned beef and cow imports from France and other European Union nations to guard against mad-cow disease.
Lithuania said it already had bans in place on all livestock, meat and diary products from EU states, including France, and was taking no additional measures.
Estonia said vehicles crossing into the country must now drive through pools of disinfectant. All three Baltics already required international airline passengers to disinfect their shoes as they arrive.
The French announcement that it had been struck by foot-and-mouth confirmed fears the disease had reached continental Europe from Britain, and appears to have made other European nations, including the Baltic states, more vulnerable.
“There’s not panic in our office, but we want to be well prepared,” Enel Niin, an official at Estonia’s Veterinary Board, said Wednesday. She added, however, that farmers were nervous and “flooding our office with phone calls.”
Lithuania said it already started disinfecting incoming cars and trucks last week, and Latvia said it would implement similar procedures at its borders soon.
The thee Baltic states, especially Lithuania, have large farming sectors and officials say any outbreak of foot-and-mouth could deal a serious economic blow.
Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin has reportedly begun dating Latvian model Ines Misan, international media reported on March 12 citing a photo of the two holding hands in London.
Misan, 34, made society pages in 1997 when she broke up with Wall Street tycoon John Lattanzio; he then took her to court to get back an engagement ring and other jewelry worth over 500,000 dollars.
Misan, who once starred in a movie called “The Gold Mine,” was quoted as saying the suit was insulting.
“It’s like giving a child a candy and ripping it right out of his mouth once he’s sucking it,” she was quoted as saying at the time. “I get attached to gifts, especially diamonds. I’m a beautiful woman.”
Speculation about the Martin-Misan affair received widespread press coverage around the world. The New York Daily News headlined its story: “Ricky May be Loco for Latvian.”
Several hundred veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS gathered in Riga on March 16 but did not stage a controversial march that in previous years has angered Moscow and Jewish groups.
The men, in their 70s and 80s, insisted that they weren’t holding their annual meeting to make any political statement, but solely to remember 50,000 fellow soldiers who died in battle during World War II.
The Latvian Waffen SS, also known as the Latvian Legion, was a conscripted, front-line army. Veterans say it wasn’t the same thing as the notorious SSâ€”which carried out so many atrocities at Adolf Hitler’s command.
The veterans, some of whom carried canes or were bound in wheelchairs, gathered at the Dome Cathedral to sing and pray before dispersing, and then gathered again at a Riga war cemetery.
The march to an independence monument near the cathedral was canceled because the obelisk is under renovation and covered in scaffolding, veterans groups said. But they said they would march next year after work on the monument is completed.
Russia blasted the procession last year, saying it showed contempt for Soviet war dead. Latvia’s 11,000-member Jewish community said it was an affront to the memory of 80,000 Latvian Jews killed during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation.
This year, there was little pubic reaction to the low-key event. Moscow also didn’t officially comment on the commemorations as it had in the last couple years.
Many of the veterans say they were patriots fighting for Latvian independence against Soviet invasion, or that they were forced into fighting in the Waffen SS against their will.
In a statement earlier this week, veterans groups decried what they said were historical misunderstandings about them and called for a nationwide debate about the Latvian Waffen SS.
The government has distanced itself from the commemorative events, and lawmakers last year withdrew earlier recognition of March 16 as an official day of remembrance.
The Soviets occupied Latvia at the start of the war in 1940, Germany ruled from 1941-44, and the Soviets retook it in 1944. Latvia regained its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With Latvia sandwiched between the Nazi and Soviet armies, 250,000 Latvians ended up fighting on one side of the conflict or the other, usually after being conscripted. Some 150,000 Latvian combatants died.
Analysisâ€”The Baltic states, like many countries in Eastern Europe and around the world, have lived in the blissful delusion that AIDS would somehow pass them by. But recent figures, especially from Latvia and Estonia, show that the deadly AIDS causing virus is now very much a part of the fabric of Baltic life. So far, again to the quiet delight of many, HIV infection appears concentrated in drug addicts and poorer sectors of society. But no one doubts the disease has already jumped to non-drug users and is bound to begin spreading to more respectable circles. Lithuania has so far showed the most responsibility in confronting the problem. But anti-AIDS campaigns in Estonia and Latvia are barely noticeable.
News Highlights from March 5 to March 12, 2001
Leftist parties in Latvia scored decisive gains in March 10 local elections, including in Riga districts, demonstrating that they might also have sufficient support to win 2002 parliamentary elections.
The left, particularly the Social Democrats, capitalized on complaints from the poor and elderly that post-Soviet reforms haven’t benefited them. Left-leaning parties also decried whole-scale privatization of large state firms.
One rallying cry for the left, which says the government has devoted too much time and money on winning membership in the European Union, was: “Latvia First, The EU later,” the AFP news agency reported.
Some 60 percent of eligible voters across the country turned out to cast ballots for dozens of parties running for over 4,000 city and county seats, with most of the districts appearing to have been won by left-leaning parties.
In the Latvian capital, the Social Democrats and another leftist party, For Equal Rights, won a combined 27 seats on the Riga city council. The ruling People’s Party and Latvia’s Way secured just 11 seats between them.
For Equal Rights is considered a near-fringe group. The Social Democrats includes ex-communists but also more respected politicians who are considered heroes of Latvia’s independence drive from Moscow, like Dainis Ivans.
Ivans, who has also strongly criticized the fast-paced of reforms and what he says is the blind rush to join the EU, said that he thinks national power is now within reach of the left.
Many of the same centrist and center-right parties have dominated every Latvian government since independence, especially Latvia’s Way. Left-wing parties have never held the reins of power nationally.
“I think it is possible for us to carry this into something very close to an absolute majority in parliament,” Ivans was quoted as telling AFP after preliminary results from the local election started coming in.
National elections are slated for October of next year.
People in Estonia expressed shock at the March 10 killing of a top publisher, gunned down outside his home as his grandson apparently looked on. It was one of the highest-profile murders in the country in a decade.
Vitali Haitov, owner of Estonia’s largest Russian-language daily, read by the country’s 500,000-strong Russian community, was shot twice in the head on Saturday afternoon while sitting in his four-wheel-drive jeep in a posh Tallinn suburb.
Under a front-page headline, “Vitali Haitov Will Stay in Our Hearts,” the “Estoniya” daily, which he owned, praised him as a progressive media man who played a key role in boosting journalism standards in the Russian-language press.
“He was and will remain an influential figure in our community,” said an editorial in the newspaper, which devoted its first three pages to the murder. “This killing was cold-blooded and cynical.”
Police spokesman Indrek Raudjalg wouldn’t speculate about a motive for the murder of the 57-year-old Russian citizen and former Soviet naval officer. He said police still had no suspects and he refused to offer details about the case.
But the Postimees daily, citing witnesses and unnamed police, said two assailants were thought to be involved; one reportedly stepped from a car, shot the publisher’s Rottweiler dog, then opened fire on Haitov from pointblank range.
Newspapers published photographs of the crime scene, with Haitov’s bloodied body sitting erect and his head tilting back against the driver’s seat. A photo taken later showed Haitov’s wife weeping next to the body.
Many newspapers focused on reports that Haitov’s 9-year-old grandson was in the vehicle during the shooting. Just last year, the boy, whose name was given as Vitali, also witnessed his father being similarly shot and killed.
Marian Haitov, 32, was shot in the head outside his home while his son was waving to him from a nearby window, police said. No one was charged in that killing, though police said they suspected organized crime involvement.
Police have blamed several murders over the years on competing gangs fighting to control of lucrative organized-crime rackets, but killings of prominent businessmen have been extremely rare.
Friends adamantly defended Haitov as an honest man who had no links to organized crime. He was seen as a key leader in Estonia’s Russian community, which makes up about a third of the 1.4 million population.
“If somebody says his murder was linked to criminal elements settling scores, then this is nonsense,” Sergei Ivanov, an ethnic-Russian deputy in Estonia’s parliament, was quoted as telling Postimees.
Less than an hour before his murder, Haitov and his grandson were filmed sledding in a snow-covered forest near his house just northwest of the city center for a documentary being made about him, Postimees reported.
Documentary producer Vladimir Velman was quoted as saying Haitov feared for his safety and believed he was being followed. Body guards usually accompanied him, but he had told them they weren’t needed Saturday, the report said.
Postimees said Haitov, who also published a weekly called “Vesti Nedelya Plus,” had hired private investigators to find his son Marian’s killers. It speculated he may have been killed because he was getting close to locating the perpetrators.
The government and leading Estonian companies on March 7 announced an ambitious project which they say will aim to make Estonia one of the most cyber-savvy nations in the world.
The stated goal of the project is to have Estonia catch up with and surpass neighboring Finland in the number of people with Internet access per capita by 2003, said Linnar Viik, a technology advisor to the prime minister.
He said Finland currently leads the world in online access with just over 50 percent of its 5.2 million people regularly using the Internet. He said the figure for Estonia, with a 1.4 million population, was over 30 percent.
“With the powers and partners involved in this, it’s not a utopian dream for us to reach an Internet penetration of at least 65 percent in three years,” Viik said, adding that that percentage would probably be the highest in the world.
The main financial backer of the 15-million-dollar plan is Estonia’s largest bank, Hansapank, which is contributing 6 million. The government said it’ll give funds, but hasn’t set a figure.
Money will be used for education programs and also for purchasing computers, said Hansapank spokesman Ando Noormets. The average monthly salary is 300 dollars and most Estonians can’t afford to buy computers on their own.
Estonia already has 100 state-run Internet access points, and 150 more will be set up under the plan. Banks will also offer zero-interest loans to anyone buying computers and graduates from special Internet courses will be eligible to purchase computers that will be partly subsidized by project participants.
Noormets said computer companies IBM, Oracle and the Tallinn-based MicroLink are taking part and would decide later how they might donate hardware.
He said increasing Internet use would make the economy more efficient and also help companies like Hansapank to further boost their number of online clients. Already, 20 percent of its 1 million customers bank via the Internet.
After regaining independence, Estonia quickly modernized by implementing radical economic reforms. It already has one of the most developed Internet infrastructures in the ex-Soviet bloc.
Prime Minister Mart Laar often holds Cabinet meetings online, with all the ministers in different buildings, and he recently said his office will do away with paper records and only store documents in online data bases.
Some Internet enthusiasts here have suggested that the country should also change its name to reflect its high-tech ambitions, to
Parliament reelected Toomas Savi as Speaker on March 8, appearing to brush aside allegations he was involved with performance enhancing drugs when he was on the Soviet Union’s decathlon team over 30 years ago.
Savi, who is also considered a leading candidate for president in elections slated for later this year, denied any wrongdoing following reports he acted as a mediator in acquiring drugs for two Finnish javelin throwers in 1968.
The 101-seat legislature voted 51 to 9 to reelect Savi, of the center-right Reform Party. The Reform Party, the center-right Pro Patria and centrist Moderates form the coalition government and control 52 parliamentary seats.
Eesti Paevaleht reported the affair this week citing a Finn allegedly involved. Pauli Nevala was quoted as saying the Finns believed drugs had helped Soviet athletes and asked Savi to provide them with some during a Helsinki meet.
Nevala was quoted as saying that Savi gave them tablets of nerobil, an anabolic steroid which builds muscle mass, Eesti Paevaleht said.
The 58-year-old Savi admitted he gave the Finns the drug, but said that at the time they hadn’t been banned by sports authorities and wouldn’t be for another six years. He said he never used drugs to enhance his own performance.
“Toomas Savi has never given doping to anyone,” he told journalists, adding that doping was defined as taking substances that had been outlawed. He said steroids and health risks now associated with them weren’t well understood then.
Nevala was also quoted as saying he didn’t think Savi did nothing wrong.
Many Estonians seemed to accept Savi hadn’t acted unethically, while others said the events occurred so long ago and weren’t relevant to his career today.
The election to replace President Lennart Meri, who is
constitutionally barred from standing for a third term, takes place in August. Other contenders include Deputy Speaker Tunne Kelam and Moderate leader Andres Tarand.
The Baltic states have taken measures to protect against the spread of foot and mouth disease, including by having passengers arriving on international flights disinfect their shoes, officials said on March 6.
None of the three nations have reported cases of the disease, but officials said they were taking precautionary measures to reduce any risk it could spread to animals in the Baltic states, which have large farming sectors.
All passengers must step on disinfectant-soaked carpets and people coming from Great Britain must have their bags checked to ensure they’re not carrying foodstuffs.
The measures in Lithuania were put in place on March 5. Similar procedures began at international airports in Latvia and Estoniaâ€”though the steps only apply to flights directly from Great Britain in Estonia.
News Highlights from February 26-March 5, 2001
Ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned the Baltic states that their relations with Russia, already cool, could dramatically worsen if they succeeded in joining the NATO alliance, Moscow’s sworn Cold War enemy.
Speaking in a discussion recently taped in Moscow and aired on March 1 on Estonian state television, he said marginal improvements in Russian-Baltic relations would be dramatically reversed if the Baltics entered the alliance.
“I can’t imagine what would happen if NATO embraces you,” said Gorbachev, Soviet leader in the early 1990s when the Baltic states were struggling to break free from Moscow rule. “There will be no trust at all from Russia then.”
After regaining independence, the three Baltic states made NATO membership a top priority, saying they had a right to fully integrate with the West; they also cited security concerns vis-Ã -vis Russia.
But Moscow has expressed fierce opposition, saying Baltic membership would be seen as a threat to Russian security. NATO says its door is open to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania but that they’re not yet ready militarily to join.
Gorbachev said the Baltics needed to accept Russia was its neighbor and learn to coexist with it without NATO.
“Russia is huge, and that fact can never be changed,” he said.
Baltic leaders have denounced suggestions they could be locked out of the alliance from fear their membership might renew East-West tensions that were a hallmark of the Cold War.
“That would be outdated, pernicious and obscene,” Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Gorbachev’s comments come as the Baltic states mark ten years since their independence drive with Moscow entered its final stage.
The ex-Soviet leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, while celebrated in the West, has been strongly criticized in the Baltic states. Many people here accuse him of ordering bloody crackdowns in the region or for at least not doing more to rein in hardliners.
Former Lithuanian leader Vytautas Landsbergis recently called on Gorbachev to be indicted and tried for an attack by Soviet troops on the Vilnius TV tower in January, 1991, which left 13 independence demonstrators dead.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus will make a state visit to Russia at the end of March in a rare trip for a Baltic leader and one Lithuanians say could lead to improved relations.
The visit, slated for three days starting March 29, will only be the second by a Lithuanian president since the country regained independence. Then-President Algirdas Brazauskas traveled to Russia in 1997.
Bilateral relations have occasionally been strained, including over bids by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to join the NATO alliance.
The Kremlin also blasted recent Lithuanian demands that Moscow pay for environmental damage caused by the Soviet army during its five-decade occupation, and compensate Lithuanians deported to Siberia during the Stalinist era.
Adamkus and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to hold face-to-face talks, which could touch on the issue of Kaliningrad, a small Russian enclave cut off from mainland Russia and sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.
The European Union says it is worried about Kaliningrad’s future status after Lithuania and Poland join the EU as expected in several years. It fears the enclave could become a conduit for illegal smuggling and immigration into an expanded EU.
The two sides are also likely to discuss the delivery of Russian crude to Lithuania, which has occasionally been disrupted. Some officials in Vilnius accused Russia of using the cutoffs to apply economic pressure and force Lithuania to sell a stake in its giant oil refinery, Mazeikiai Oil, to Russia’s Lukoil conglomerate.
Adamkus and Putin were initially expected to sign an agreement formalizing their exiting borders. But some Lithuanians said Moscow appeared to be dragging its feet on the treaty and they doubted the Kremlin would be ready to sign it by the time Adamkus goes to Russia.
Two Latvians have given new meaning to the term cradle-to-grave welfare by lining their pockets with bribes extorted from grieving relatives desperate to secure suitable cemetery plots for their loved-ones.
Latvian newspapers reported that two workers at a state-owned cemetery were arrested for alleging running a scam in which they allotted undesirable grave sites to families and then forced them to pay more for better locations.
Plots at the Jaunciems cemetery in Riga are supposed to be free as a way to keep the already high price of funerals within range of Latvians that live on the average monthly wage of less the 300 dollars.
The employees, a manager and a grave digger, would allot plots next to garbage dumps or on the outer reaches of the cemetery, and then asked distraught relatives to pay more if they wanted something better.
The two face up to eight years in prison if convicted on bribery charges.
The Helsinki Stock Exchange plans to buy a majority stake in Estonia’s shares market operator to invigorate the Baltic state’s fledgling exchange. It may also seek ownership of the Latvian and Lithuanian exchanges in the future.
Helsinki Exchanges Group said on February 27 it signed a deal with the Tallinn Stock Exchange to build a “well-functioning securities market” and “increase the visibility of Estonian companies and liquidity in the trading of their shares.”
The Tallinn exchange group is the central operator of Estonia’s securities market and is owned mostly by local financial institutions. The share offering will be completed at a general meeting of Tallinn’s exchange on March 21.
The Helsinki Exchange Group could pay around 2 million dollars for controlling shares in the Estonian exchange, according to some estimates.
Tallinn would adopt Helsinki’s trading system, essentially making the two bourses part of the same network and giving traders with access to Finland’s exchange the same access to Estonia’s.
Helsinki is one of the world’s most international exchanges with foreign investors owning some 70 percent of its value. Trading more than doubled last year to an average daily volume of over 900 million, thanks in large part to Finland’s blue-chip Nokia listing.
Estonia’s exchange, like Latvia’s and Lithuania’s, is relatively modern and high-tech. But it has been casting about for ways to enliven its stock market since the Tallinn Stock Exchange was founded in 1995.
After a share price boom from 1996-97, prices plummeted within just a few weeks and have remained relatively flat since then. Average daily trading volumes were just 1.2 million dollars in 2000 and trading focuses mainly on two companies, Hansapank and Estonian Telekom.
Tallinn Stock Exchange head Gert Tiivas said he was confident the Helsinki link would attract new investors and boost liquidity. He said it was consistent with a strategy of wanting to integrate Estonia’s bourse with larger ones in Europe.
“For a small economy, it’s so hard to reach the critical mass to create good capital markets,” he said. “If this move doesn’t help, then we don’t understand anything about business and it’ll be time for someone else to take over.”
Last year, Tallinn’s bourse said it hoped to join the Nordic Stock Exchange, known as Norex, uniting the Stockholm and Copenhagen exchanges; it stops short of being a single stock market, but uses a common trading system and harmonized rules.
But Tiivas said talks on joining Norex, considered a bitter rival of the Helsinki Stock Exchange, “would obviously be stopped” if the Helsinki-Tallinn deal goes through as expected. Norex officials said the Helsinki-Tallinn deal took them by complete surprise.
In another apparent shot across the Norex bow, the Helsinki Exchange Group expressed interest in signing similar deals with the other two stock markets in the Baltic states, Latvia’s Riga Stock Exchange and the Lithuanian National Stock Exchangeâ€”though no time frames were given. The Latvian and Lithuanian shares markets operators have been holding talks with Norex to enter that alliance.
News Highlights from February 19-February 26, 2001
Authorities on February 22 kept combing the Lithuanian city Siauliai for rabies-infected mice that disappeared from a research laboratory, warning that they could infect other animals and create a health hazard.
Police said they believed the rodents, which were found to be missing five days before, were either stolen to sell as pet food for snakes, or that someone robbed the containers holding the 23 mice without realizing they were inside.
Police, veterinary officials and volunteers were checking open markets for anyone selling the white lab mice, which had been injected with blood from pets with rabies as a way to confirm the diagnoses.
Officials said that if the mice were released into the wild, cats could catch them and become infected; the pets, in turn, could infect their owners with rabies, which is often fatal in humans unless promptly and effectively treated.
Regulators scrambled to assess the planned merger of two powerful Swedish banking groups that, between them, own many of the largest banks in the Baltic states. The expected union of Swedbank and Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) raised concerns they could secure an overwhelming stake of the Baltic banking market and stifle competition.
Swedish banks, anxious to expand to markets outside their home bases, began snatching up Baltic banks in the mid-1990s. Governments here say the Nordic connection has helped modernize and consolidate what had been an all too fragmented banking sector.
That, in turn, contributed to stabilizing the Baltic economies as a whole.
But the marriage of Swedbank and SEB has thrown the banking market into some confusion, particularly in Estonia, where Swedbank is the majority shareholder of Hansapank-the largest and most profitable bank in the region; SEB owns Estonia’s only other major bank, Uhispank. Combined, they control almost 85 percent of Estonia’s banking market, which could give a reconstituted SEB-Swedbank a virtual monopoly.
Estonian officials, however, were quick to signal they wouldn’t let that happen. The finance ministry said competition laws would dictate that, if the merger got the required approval from Swedish and European Union authorities, the Swedes must sell one of their two Estonian banks. “One firm having such a huge portion of the market would be unacceptable,” said Finance Ministry official Daniel Vaarik. “A lack of competition would be bad for consumers. It could even hurt our investment climate.”
Speculation that the highly profitable Hansapank, considered the plum of Baltic banking, would be the one a merged SEB-Swedbank would keep sent its share price soaring; Hansapank’s sale could also be good for shareholders, since a buyer would be asked to pay 20-50 percent above its current stock market value. Analysts said the pan-Nordic bank Nordea-Swedbank’s and SEB’s main competitor-would be a likely buyer of any Estonian bank put on the auction block.
The SEB-Swedbank deal also raised competition concerns in Lithuania. The government promptly slammed the brakes on talks with the Swedbank-bank owned Hansapank, which was vying to buy Savings Bank; the state-owned bank controls 20 percent of Lithuania’s banking market. SEB already owns Vilniaus Bank, Lithuania’s largest commercial bank, and officials said they’d be damned if they were going to let one company rack up a 60 percent stake of their banking sector.
In Latvia, SEB and Swedbank control some 40 of the market between them. But while competition issues were also broached in Riga, officials said they didn’t see why the Swedes would have to reduce their combined share of Latvia’s banking pie. Some even said a stronger though not monopolistic foreign-owned bank would be good for the sector, offering, among other advantages, greater loan options for clients.
SEB-Swedbank would be the largest bank in the Baltic Sea region, with 11 million customers; Nordea has 9 million. Nordic banks say they’re consolidating with the aim of expanding even further afield into Germany and other EU countries.
A Vilnius district court on February 19 issued an arrest warrant for Nazi war crimes suspect Antanas Gecas, an 85-year-old Lithuanian-born man now living in Britain.
The move will allow Lithuanian officials to formally ask that Gecas, allegedly an officer in a Nazi police unit during World War II, be deported to Lithuania to face trial.
“This is a very important step in seeking his extradition” said Vidmantas Putelis, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. He said Lithuania expected to send an official extradition request to Britain within two weeks.
A case against Gecas, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, was reopened after the U.S. Justice Department supplied new evidence to prosecutors here. They had earlier closed their investigation, saying they couldn’t find sufficient proof.
Documents allegedly show that Gecas took part in killing Jews and other civilians in Lithuania and neighboring Belarus during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation when he was a lieutenant in the 12th police battalion, Putelis said. Gecas has denied the accusations.
The Monday ruling came a week after a former official in the Nazi-backed Vilnius security police, Kazys Gimzauskas, was convicted for participating in the Holocaust. But he was deemed too ill to serve any prison sentence.
The guilty verdict against the 93-year-old Gimzauskas, a former resident of the United States, was the first conviction of an alleged Nazi since Lithuania regained independence.
Estonian police said on February 21 that they have detained three suspects in the possible murder of Dutch businessman Pier Sienema, who disappeared while on a business trip to the Baltic state in December last year.
Police spokesman Indrek Raudjalg said the body of the 59-year-old hasn’t been found. But he said blood was discovered in the Dutchman’s Tallinn apartment and also in one of the suspect’s cars, and that he was presumed dead.
A court ruled that police could hold the suspects, who haven’t been charged, while DNA tests determine if the blood was Sienema’s.
Police refused to release the names of the suspects, though Estonia’s Eesti Paevaleht newspaper said one was Eduard Vintsevits, who represented Sienema in his real estate and tobacco interests in the country.
Speaking by telephone from a Tallinn prison, Vintsevits was quoted as telling the daily that he had nothing to do with the Dutch businessman’s disappearance.
Sienema arrived in Tallinn on Dec. 19 and was officially listed by police as a missing person 10 days later. After he went missing, his family posted a 3,000 dollar reward for anyone helping to locate him.
Sienema owned a jeans factory and a chain of women’s wear shops in Friesland, a province in the northern part of the Netherlands.
Estonians celebrated their country’s first ever world championship in Nordic skiing when Andrus Veerpalu won a gold medal in the men’s 30 kilometer classic style cross-country race on February 19 in Finland.
The Estonian beat out Norway’s Frode Estil by just 0.2 seconds, one of the closest margins in the history of the world championships.