RIGA - News in the Baltic states is a curious thing. It can sometimes be extremely repetitive, with the same old dramas endlessly being played out (new government coalitions, tensions with Russia etc.), but the region constantly throws up surprises as well. In the waning hours of 2006, The Baltic Times looks back at some of the most significant and interesting events of the year.
Tallinn had a busy year socially, playing host to Queen Elizabeth II, George Bush and the heavy metal group Metallica, among others. Estonians were keen on the queen, cramming into Town Hall Square to wave flags and sing for her. But Bush's brief pre-Nato summit visit didn't go down well one bit thanks to security controls that choked the city. Residents of one suburb were ordered not to look out their windows, public transport was shut down and major city streets were closed to protect "the world's most threatened man." Metallica, on the other hand, received a royal welcome after choosing Tallinn as the venue for its only north European concert in July. The concert took place in the Song Festival Grounds and attracted over 78,000 people 's the biggest single gathering of people in the nation's history.
Last spring, border guards spotted a brown bear drifting across the Gulf of Riga on a break-away ice floe. The intrepid bear landed on the tiny Estonian island of Ruhnu, perhaps for a summer holiday to escape the stress of the Latvian forest. The Ruhnu bear became a celebrity in Estonia and a tourist attraction for the island. Plans to remove the bear were abandoned after it skillfully evaded hunters' tranquilizer darts. At the end of summer, the bear abruptly disappeared and it was presumed that it swam the 40 kilometers back to Latvia. Zoologists ordered tests of bear droppings from the Latvian coastline in an attempt to check its 'DNA passport.'
Pubs and bars in Tallinn erupted in shouts of celebration after Toomas Hendrik Ilves defeated the ageing Arnold Ruutel in the October presidential elections. Ruutel's re-election had appeared a fait acompli thanks to the political wranglings of several parties. Yet the Electoral College chose the youthful and outspoken Ilves by a narrow margin. With his perfect American-accented English and foreign background, Ilves was seen as a great international spokesman for Estonia. During the state visit of George W. Bush it was quipped that there may be difficulties in differentiating between the American president and the president of the United States of America.
Latvia hosted the two biggest international events in its history, the World Ice Hockey Championship and the NATO summit. In both cases it can definitely be said they seriously overdid it. The ice hockey championship occasioned rampant price gouging which backfired in the end by causing people to stay away in droves. But that passed almost unnoticed compared with the NATO summit, which saw Riga transformed into a vast security zone. Every policeman in the country was drafted to help line the streets. They were paid a special rate of some 6 lats to stand there for 24 hours, in stark contrast with the 38,000 lats awarded in bonuses to 90 Foreign Ministry officials. But numbers aside, both events were of course a brilliant success and a major PR coup for Latvia.
Latvia joined Estonia and several other EU countries in banning smoking in all public places in 2006. The move took many people by surprise as no one could figure out how MPs could actually profit from this piece of legislation. But the new law has certainly had a dramatic effect. It's now possible to breathe in many of Riga's restaurants, bars and cafes. Eager not to be seen lagging behind, Lithuania is set to follow suit next year.
Political history was made in Latvia when the country found itself with the same prime minister after Latvia's 9th parliamentary elections. Aigars Kalvitis of the People's Party thus spared his colleagues in Brussels the hassle of learning yet another tricky Latvian name. How long the coalition he leads will last is another question.
Lithuania was told in May that it wasn't yet ready to adopt the euro. The European Commission and European Central Bank said that the country met all the Maastricht criteria except for that of inflation, which is slightly above the required limit of 2 percent. For a country officially at the geographical heart of Europe this was no doubt a blow to its pride, but Lithuanians are determined to compensate for the setback by doing especially well in European basketball.
After years of talks, Lithuania announced an extremely ambitious energy program with Poland which will see the construction of a high voltage network that will integrate the Baltics into the EU's energy-sharing system. There was also a verbal agreement between the Baltic states to include Poland in the construction of a new nuclear plant that is estimated to cost up to 4 billion euros and to be ready by 2015. In an exciting year for new energy projects, Estonia and Finland also launched an undersea power cable, Estlink.
It was the coldest of times and the hottest of times in the Baltic states with weather records being set all year round. 2006 started out with record lows that by the summer turned into record highs, leaving people with distinctly mixed feelings about global warming. The year ended in a similarly topsy-turvy manner with December being the warmest on record. Perhaps people will finally start taking the threat of global warming seriously now and start doing their bit to help.