TALLINN - More than 1,000 demonstrators gathered in the rain outside Parliament on July 25 to protest the potential partial sale of Narva's power plants to the U.S. company, NRG Energy, while inside the Parliament building an extra session to discuss putting the issue to referendum failed when members of the ruling coalition did not show up.
Opposition leader Edgar Saavisaar of the Center Party led the demonstration, which was 1,000 strong by police estimates and 2,500 strong by the event organizer's tallies. Meanwhile, all 47 opposition members of Parliament waited in the session hall for the headcount to reach 51, the amount needed for a quorum. Members of the coalition government had a free choice to attend, but not one came, saying there was nothing to discuss.
"We thought it was a mark that they are afraid of the people and of the people's questions," commented the opposition's Evelyn Sepp, adviser to the Center faction, about the decision to stay at home.
Coalition members said a discussion on the issue, if one happens at all, should be held off until the terms of the deal with NRG are agreed upon and made public.
"The time for discussions is not the best now, because there is too little information," Jurgen Ligi, head of the coalition's Reform party faction, said. Ligi added that he doesn't expect the protest or referendum petition campaign that the opposition is vigorously pursuing to result in any serious legislative debate. He said that the coalition does not believe it is Parliament's place to intervene in the deal.
"It's not a question of referendum, it's a decision for the specialists," he said, adding that the issue is too complex for the public to decide. The opposition, which has been collecting signatures to put the issue to referendum in February, continued to seek signatures at the protest.
As of July 27, they had 60,000 signatures, said Evelyn Sepp, adviser to the parliamentary Center faction. The opposition, comprising the Center Party, People's Union Party and United People's Party, hopes to get 150,000 signatures by August or September.
Sepp said the opposition is planning another protest for Parliament's extraordinary session on August 7.
Demonstrators say the sale of 49 percent of the shares of the large state-owned power plants to a foreign company would add to a long list of national assets that the government has sold off to profit-seeking foreigners without the people's consent.
The sale, they say, would ultimately result in higher electricity prices, an inability to compete in the energy sector, and a threat to Estonia's entry into the European Union.
Ligi said the question posed on the petitions is misleading, and he pointed to reports that were made last week of fraudulent signature gathering.
He said that the selling of Estonian assets to foreign capital has been a positive development for Estonia. The list of assets sold in this manner includes companies that "started from zero" and have become successful enterprises, he said.
Government leaders from Ida-Virumaa county, where Narva's power plants are located, support the government's decision to sell the shares, said advisor to the Ida-Virumaa county government, Peeter Kaldur.
After discussions with Narva officials and bosses of energy worker's unions, officials decided that the deal with NRG "may not be the best solution, but it is the working solution." The sale is necessary to get needed investment in Estonia's energy infrastructure even if it means an increase in energy prices, Kaldur said. "There are no other options."
"In our local situation, having a high rate of unemployment, higher social problems and Russia as our neighbor, we need to make a decision," said Kaldur.
Opposition leaders are concerned with the number of workers that will be laid off in depressed region if NRG gets the shares in the company. But, Kaldur pointed to the terms of the contract that require NRG to set up a $5 million social fund for Narva power plant employees and Narva area help programs.
The terms also specify that NRG maintain 1,700 jobs in power plants this year. Currently 2,200 people work at the Narva plants.
But Villu Reiljan, chairman of the opposition's People's Union Party, and one of the leaders at the demonstration, said the deal is good for NRG, but not for Estonia. Under the terms of the contract it will close Estonia's electricity to European markets for 15 years.
The terms include an agreement to invest $360 million into the power stations and $80 million into the modernization of mines, plus an agreement that the stateís Estonian Energy will buy electricity at a fixed rate from NRG for the next 15 years.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Vahur Soosaar said the ministry does not see the deal as an impediment to Estonia entering the EU.
"As far as EU legislation has been concerned, it is unspecific and still developing in certain fields," Soosaar said.
Meanwhile, NRG has announced that it will decide if it will on accept the governmentís terms sometime this week.
In addition, Prime Minister Mart Laar announced on the day of the protests that the government will not back down on its terms for the sale, despite the talks with NRG breaking down earlier this month. If the U.S. company is unwilling to accept the terms, the agreement will not be made, he said.
Also this week, the Baltic News Service reported that opposition leaders accused U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of interfering in Estonian privatization issues. Albright was accused of being a pawn of the U.S. energy lobby after she sent a letter to Laar earlier this month congratulating Estonia for its decision to sell the Narva power stations to the United States.