Opposition parties to NRG: Keep out

  • 2000-07-27
  • Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN -The voice of Estonia's opposition parties seems to be growing louder by the minute in their fight to stop the tentative partial sale of Estonian Energy to the American NRG company.

Whether it will matter, ultimately, is another matter.

Said Center Party MP Sven Mikser, "We hope it's not too late, that this deal is yet reversible."

The opposition parties, as well as Estonian Energy's supervisory council, insist that the present terms of the contract make the country's sole energy source a kind of slave to the American investors, and may eventually lead it into bankruptcy. The terms give NRG a 49 percent stake in the state-owned Narva Power Plants Ltd., while 51 percent of the shares would remain in the hands of Estonian Energy, which would be required to buy electricity from the power plants at above the market price for the next 15 years.

Opponents claim the fixed price is too high, that it conflicts with EU directives and could damage the country's bid for accession.

Mikser added that he feared the number of jobs lost in the power plants could be greater than the government has projected, if the agreement is signed.

The opposition parties are organizing a rally against the privatization deal in front of the Parliament building on July 25 the same day they have proposed an extraordinary session of Parliament to vote for a referendum to be held next February on privatization.

However, the motion presented to Parliament by opposition members carried only 26 signatures, while 51 are needed in order for the speaker to call an extraordinary session.

The parties are determined none-the-less to build public support and visibility down to the last minute. The Center Party, the Estonian People's Union, the Estonian United People's Party and the Christian People's Party published large, full-color ads in the country's largest daily, Postimees, and in the tabloid SL Ohtuleht, inviting people to the demonstration. The ads depict a man sitting in a bare room with his hands tied behind his back, facing a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. "This is what we wanted?" reads the text below.

In addition, the parties sent a letter on July 20 to U.S. Ambassador Melissa Wells to declare they would not share responsibility for the agreement between the government and NRG.

The Estonian People's Union, led by the party's general secretary Lea Kiivit, has also campaigned fiercely against the deal since June 21, managing so far to collect more than 32,000 signatures.

"Electricity is important for everybody," said Kiivit. "When these infrastructures are privatized to foreigners, it means that if anything happens, some accident, they may just leave. All risks are left to Estonia, not to those who privatize."

But Estonian Energy's Estonian director, Hillar Lauri, was quick to point out that things haven't exactly been wonderful under the state's control.

He noted that since 1992, electricity prices have been raised seven times - today, they are 500 percent higher.

"There is this view that the quote-unquote Americans will come in and raise the prices. It seems to me that people are forgetting the past," he said.

Lauri reminded that the oil shale plants desperately need to be renovated in order to align with the aims of the environmental treaty Estonia signed with Finland in 1993. The treaty, which Lauri called the driving force of the privatization deal, requires that sulfur dioxide levels are cut by 80 percent from 1980 levels by the year 2005.

Yet there have been no major investments in the country's oil shale plants since 1993.

Lauri stressed that expecting the plants to continue functioning without them would mean that the emissions standards could not be met by the 2005 deadline, and the plants would eventually be forced to shutdown.

"It's like saying a car can keep running with no oil changes or maintenance. You have to invest in it to keep it going," he said.

Lauri also minimized claims that the already depressed Ida-Virumaa region will be dealt yet another blow by cutting jobs requisite in the current terms of the deal.

To compensate, NRG has established a five-year social fund which provides an extra layer of cushioning on top of protections Estonian law and collective agreements already afford the workers, he said. The social fund will shell out $1 million a year to 2,500 power plant workers and 7,000 miners for things such as job re-training and courses in English and Estonian. For the first four years, large construction projects in the power plants will also create about 400 temporary jobs, he noted.

A final decision from Estonian Energy on the privatization is expected by Aug. 3, and Lauri suggested the contract would be approved with the terms of the contract in the government's decree left as is.

The reaction of the locals in the Narva region seems to be mixed.

Dmitri Ponov, news editor at Raadio FM 100 in Narva, was optimistic about the deal, and said the local residents are basically in agreement.

"My opinion is if Americans are here it will be great," he laughed.