Books on Latvia
Update No: 319 - (26/07/07)
Vike-Freiberga bows out in referendum row
Latvia's president ended her eight years in office on July 7th by overseeing a
referendum aimed at rebuking the government for trying to pass legislation she
says would have threatened national security. After casting her ballot,
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga urged Latvians to vote and send a signal to the
centre-right government that it went too far with the draft amendments.
The reforms would have given lawmakers and their assistants access to
information on criminal investigations, including sensitive national security
cases. Vike-Freiberga argued the proposed changes violated norms of NATO member
nations and could have hurt the country's standing in the alliance and in the EU.
The government passed the amendments in March, overriding a presidential veto in
February. But instead of signing the measures into law, Vike-Freiberga used a
little-known clause in the constitution that allows the head of state to put
legislation to a referendum. No other Latvian president had used the power.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis argued that the amendments were necessary to
improve coordination among national security institutions. Confronted with the
president's opposition, parliament recalled the amendments in late March, though
it was too late to stop the referendum. Still, Vike-Freiberga and others fear
the government might try to resurrect the legislation under the new president.
Vike-Freiberga's second four year term ended at midnight July 7th. She was
replaced the next day by Valdis Zatlers, a surgeon with no political experience
who was elected by parliament in May.
Zatlers names his man
Incoming Latvian President Valdis Zatlers made his first major move on the
political scene by appointing the head of his private office before actually
taking over. He knows that Vike-Freiberga is a hard act to follow. She was a
great success in the job and has a high reputation in the West. A top
international appointment could be hers if she wants it. She has hinted that she
might even return to the domestic political scene (see end-interview below).
The new president's right-hand man is Eduards Stiprais, currently serving in
Brussels as Latvian ambassador to the European Union, a post he has held since
December 2004, though he has been mainly based in the Belgian capital since
The appointment emerged during the course of a TV interview with the
president-elect, who revealed: "I have reached agreement with Eduards
Stiprais that he will be head of the chancery. He is a very good candidate, he
has diplomatic experience from the beginning of the restoration of Latvia's
independence... and has excellent knowledge of Europe. But most important of all
- he is politically neutral."
The media was quick to pick up on that last phrase, speculating that it signals
Zatlers' intention to re-assert the independence of the presidency. Though never
straying into overt party politics, the final months of Vaira Vike-Freiberga's
presidency have been notable for an increasingly tense stand-off between
parliament and president over a number of issues.
Stiprais is 38 years old, married, and originally from Riga. Educated at Riga
Secondary School No 84 and the University of Latvia faculty of economics, he is
fluent in Russian and English as well as his mother tongue, he began his
diplomatic career in May 1991 as a trainee at the Ministry of Social
Maintenance, rapidly working his way up through the ranks.
To the neighbours
Latvian President Valdis Zatlers has continued his whirlwind introduction to
international statesmanship with state visits to Estonia and Lithuania on
consecutive days. This was a very logical move to consolidate the Baltic states'
relationship, of which Latvia as the middle one is the lynchpin. Estonia looks
north-west to Finland, with which it has close linguistic and cultural ties, and
to Scandinavia beyond, while Lithuania looks to Poland, with which it was once
united in a Catholic Commonwealth, until the three partitions of Poland put an
end to it, Russia being the main villain of the piece.
Latvia is the vital meat in the Baltic sandwich, therefore. First on his
meet-and-greet list July 12 were Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. All was emollience and light. "We had an
excellent meeting," Ilves told journalists afterwards. "This proves
that relations are becoming stronger. We both agree that Latvian-Estonian
relations are very special," said Ilves.
Zatlers responded by confirming that that Latvian and Estonian presidents will
meet more often in future, which means a great deal more hot air being spoken.
In like vein: "The impression [we gained] was very good," Ansips told
journalists after the meeting with Latvian president. "I am sure the
Latvian people have a very good president. He knows how people live, what their
problems are. It seems that he is in the right place," said the Estonian
When asked why he chose Estonia as the destination for his first foreign visit,
Zatlers said that it is an old tradition of Estonia's president to visit Latvia
first. "This demonstrates that we are the closest neighbours and we have
common interests," he explained.
One of the main topics of the talks was of a more substantial kind, the
construction of the new power plant in Ignalina, Lithuania. Questions of energy
supply are never frivolous. The old nuclear plant there is of the Chernobyl type
and is being decommissioned in 2009.
A new modern type one is to replace it.
"Both parties stated that their positions coincide," spokespeople for
the Estonian government said. "For instance, both consider it important to
move ahead with the project as quickly as possible, settle questions relating to
the construction of the nuclear power plant by consensus, and protect the
interests of minority stakeholders."
Speaking about the Latvian president's visit in general, Ansip said it is not
only a sign of the good relations between two neighbours, but a significant
signal of the importance attached to Baltic cooperation.
On to Lithuania
Then it was time for Zatlers to head south to pick up a change of clothes
before continuing his shuttle diplomacy July 13th in Lithuania with his
counterpart there, Valdas Adamkus. "It is important to develop a dynamic
policy, and good relations are the basis of such a policy. They have been
defined today," Zatlers told journalists after meeting with Adamkus in
Adamkus voiced confidence that the two presidents had managed to establish close
ties. "We had a very warm and pleasant meeting," he said at a news
conference, adding that his new Latvian colleague left an impression of being an
expert in Latvian affairs.
However, there was one note of not so minor discord, Zatlers admitted,
concerning the issue of a definitive Latvian-Lithuanian marine border treaty.
"I believe that the issue is at an impasse. It is a high time to resolve
it. It seems a bit archaic that problems remain unsolved for years on end,"
Adamkus also voiced hope that the issue would "move from deadlock."
But "Lithuania, for its part, has done everything it could. I hope we will
find a solution," Adamkus speculated, notably giving no ground whatsoever.
Lithuania ratified the marine border treaty with Latvia that was signed in 1999,
but in Latvia it has remained in a state of suspended animation, largely as a
result of geological reports suggesting that undiscovered oilfields may lie
within the proposed border zone. Latvian fishermen have also voiced concern that
they may lose access to their traditional fishing grounds.
The border treaty isn't the only thing to remain unresolved as a result of
Zatlers' visit to Lithuania - debate also continues to rage over the Lithuanian
spelling of his name. One group favours 'Zatleras' while another prefers 'Zatleris'.
A straw poll of Lithuanian media outlets showed that the latter was currently
the favourite - though by no means universal - choice.
Comeback for Vike-Freiberga?
Vaira Vike-Freiberga will remain on call even after she departs. During a
series of press interviews to round off her tenure as Latvia's president on July
5th, Vaira Vike-Freiberga hinted that her departure may not be as complete as
her opponents would wish. Asked in what circumstances she would consider a
return to the political scene, Vike-Freiberga refused to rule out a comeback.
"If a disastrous deviation [from current progress] were to occur at once, I
would feel it my duty to get involved. I am not sure if I would do it by
establishing a political party, but I would not deny such a possibility,"
"The challenge of establishing a political party is getting yourself a
team, selecting people you can fully trust and being different from the ones
already in existence… I would not willingly do something like that. It is not
my idea of an easy old age," she added with a laugh.
The president also signalled that she would remain on call, presumably in case
her successor Valdis Zatlers has any questions during his early days in the job:
"I am someone who can be woken in the middle of the night at the push of a
button and asked any question. They can be sure to receive an answer,"
Earlier in the day, Foreign Ministry official Normunds Penke admitted that his
department would like to use the popularity of Vike-Freiberga to promote Latvia
abroad even after the expiry of her term of office.
Outlining what she views as the current priorities of government, Vike-Freiberga
said: "The government must take action to reduce inflation and we have to
continue reducing the current account deficit. These two are the most important
Retaining a level of popular support most politicians can only dream of and with
a reputation at home and abroad as a first class stateswoman, any move by
Vike-Freiberga into the party political system would have opponents quaking in
They'll be hoping that no "disastrous deviations" crop up in the near
future to lure Vike-Freiberga back from writing her memoirs.
First oil production in Latvia's Kuldiga District may start this autumn
The first oil wells could start functioning this autumn in Latvia's Kuldiga
District where geological prospecting had already been initiated in early 2007,
a Latvian newspaper reported on May 16th, cited by Rian.
According to research conducted long ago in the Soviet Union, there could be oil
reserves in the western Latvian province. The Russian-language Chas newspaper
said Latvian company Alina would deal with geological prospecting and
installation of drilling equipment, which would enable the production of a mere
1.5 tonnes of crude a month. The next step in developing Latvian oil deposits
could be drilling and geological prospecting on the Baltic Sea shelf. The small
ex-Soviet state, which joined the European Union three years ago, has estimated
crude reserves of 100 million barrels onshore and 360 million barrels offshore.
This volume would satisfy the world's oil needs for only five days, but it could
provide for Latvia's daily 40,000-bbl demands for 30 years, it was reported.
Experts assess the capacity of ground and sea-based wells at 10,000-15,000
Baltics need investment to avoid electricity crisis
The Baltic states need to make additional investments to avoid a looming energy
crisis. "In 2010, if we don't make additional investments, the Baltic
states will become an energy-deficit region," Deutsche-Presse-Agentur (dpa)
quoted Anicetas Ignotas, undersecretary of state at Lithuania's economics
ministry, as saying.
The heart of the problem is the Soviet-era nuclear power station at Ignalina in
eastern Lithuania. According to official figures, in 2005 the 1500-megawatt
plant supplied almost three-quarters of Lithuania's total electricity output,
with enough left over to export some to Latvia.
But under the terms of Lithuania's EU accession treaty, the plant, which was
built to the same design as the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor, must be closed down
by the end of 2009 - almost a decade ahead of the date which its builders had
In February 2006, the governments of the three Baltic states agreed to jointly
construct a new nuclear power plant at Ignalina.
The decision was one of "huge strategic importance for the whole
region," Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said.
But such a plant is not expected to open before 2015 - leaving the Baltics
facing a potentially critical shortfall. "The shutdown will destroy the
current balance of energy supply in the Baltic states," admitted Ugis Sarma,
head of the energy department at the Latvian economy ministry.
In the last year, each country separately, and all three together, have sought
ways to bridge the energy gap.
Much of the attention has focused on linking the Baltics' energy grids into
European networks. Until recently, the trio formed an energy island within the
EU, with no physical links to the West.
In December 2006, that isolation was broken as a 350-megawatt cable, Estlink,
was opened between Finland and Estonia.
The move proved the value of Baltic cooperation, but it should be followed by a
link between Sweden's national grid and either Latvia or Lithuania, dpa quoted
Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis as saying.
Also in December, the Polish and Lithuanian governments agreed to construct a
bridge between their power grids - paving the way to Polish participation in the
new Ignalina project. But cross-border linkages are seen as, at best, a partial
solution. All three countries are now planning new conventional power stations
in an effort to boost their energy independence.
Estonia is planning to build two oil-shale power stations, to replace two which
will be closed in 2015, while Lithuania plans to increase its capacity for
gas-powered heat and power generation. And Latvia is debating the construction
of a coal- or gas-fired plant, with coal at present apparently the more likely
But these plans are still in their infancy. The Polish-Lithuanian energy bridge
is not expected before 2011, while the Swedish-Baltic link and the Latvian and
Estonian power stations exist only on paper.
And with Ignalina due to close down in 2009, the Baltics may find it hard to
stop their tumble into the energy black hole.