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As the curtain falls on 2012, we take a final glimpse at the year’s big stories. From the stellar achievements of our athletes on the global stage, to the Baltics’ impressive rebound on the economic front, with another changing of the guard in government, to the low-lights of more political scandal, we saw it all. Here’s how events unfolded.
Kanepi powers her way to biggest title of career
Estonian Kaia Kanepi has fired an early warning shot at her opponents to begin 2012, winning the season-opening Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournament, writes The Brisbane International in Australia. Following on from an injury-riddled 2011 in which the public was only offered brief glimpses of what the 26-year-old could truly offer at the back end of the year, the Estonian has now shown that her injury problems are behind her and she is a genuine force to be reckoned with on the women’s circuit in 2012.
It was not just the fact that the world number 34 (Kanepi’s ranking at the beginning of the week) won the tournament; it was the fashion in which she went about doing it, disposing of much higher ranked opponents by playing with sheer power rarely seen in the women’s game since the Williams’ sisters were in their prime and still seemingly cared about playing tennis.
Following on from making her first ever WTA premier final in Moscow, Russia in her last tournament of 2011, the Estonian looked at best shaky as play got underway in Brisbane.
The fire that shocked Lithuania
On Jan. 26, a huge fire started in the museum of sacred arts, which is situated in the architectural ensemble of St. Mary the Virgin Church and the Bernardine Monastery in Tytuvenai, a district of Kelme. Rimantas Zaromskis, the parson of St. Mary the Virgin Church who lives in that architectural ensemble, woke up at four in the morning due to noises caused by the fire. Fire-fighting brigades of three neighboring districts doused the fire for seven hours.
During the fire, there was speculation that the damage could be some 15 million litas (4.3 million euros). “I’m thinking that we’ll need to stop some renovation work in other places and re-direct the money to Tytuvenai,” Diana Varnaite, director of the Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture, said, crying. The monastery and church buildings were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are of great historical value. The facade and interior of these buildings are a combination of Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo styles, which is unique in Northern Europe.
However, the damage was not as big as it seemed to be during the fire and now the damage is estimated at several million litas. The buildings were insured.
Latvia rejects Russian in landmark referendum
Latvians have overwhelmingly rejected Russian as a second language in a controversial and highly divisive national referendum.
The motion, which would have changed the country’s constitution to make Russian an official state language, was shot down by a vote of 74.8 percent to 24.8 percent with less than half a percent undecided.
More than 71 percent of the electorate took part in the referendum, marking the largest voter turnout in the country since voters elected the country’s first post-independence government in 1993.
“The referendum’s record-high voter turnout and convincing results against Russian as the second state language irrefutably indicate that Latvia’s constitutional values – democracy, rule of law, human rights, territorial integrity and Latvian as the only official language – are the foundations of our country and our society’s unity,” Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said in a statement published on his website.
Don’t resign, says Ansip
Estonian prosecutors last week launched a probe into allegations that the country’s governing center-right Reform Party, received donations from murky sources during the pre-election period in 2009-10, reports AFP.
“The investigation was launched in line with the criminal code chapter about legislation and restrictions put on the economic activities of political parties,” stated prosecutors in a statement.
The probe comes on the heels of allegations published in a Postimees broadsheet by Silver Meikar - a Reform Party member and ex-member of parliament - claiming he funneled over 7,300 euros of unknown origin into party coffers. He alleged last week in Postimees that the actual sums involved are much higher, as “dozens of fellow party members both from parliament and elsewhere were involved in similar money-laundering.”
Overwhelming support given for nuclear plant
Lithuania’s parliament has approved the building of the projected Visaginas nuclear power plant (NPP) and the concession agreement with the Japanese company Hitachi, reports ELTA. A total of 63 MPs were in favor of the draft amendments to the Law on the Nuclear Power Plant, 11 voted against with 33 abstentions. Applause followed the MP’s decision.
The Social Democrats opposed the Visaginas NPP project most of all in the May 17 vote.
Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas said that the new plant will secure Lithuania’s energy independence, attract the biggest investment in Lithuanian history, create jobs and increase the country’s GDP by over 30 billion litas (9 billion euros).
It has been estimated that the Visaginas NPP project’s value amounts to 17 billion litas. Lithuania’s share in it will be 6 billion litas. It is planned to start building the plant in 2015, and launch it in 2020-2021.
Krugman in center of austerity debate
Estonian President Toomas Ilves lashed out at Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman for questioning the Baltic nation’s economic recovery as an austerity success story, reports Bloomberg. Estonia’s recovery from a “depression-level” economic slump in 2008-2009 has been a “significant but still incomplete recovery,” the ultra-liberal Krugman wrote in his New York Times blog on June 6. “Better than no recovery at all, obviously - but this is what passes for economic triumph?”
The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania suffered the world’s deepest recessions after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008 burst a debt-fueled property bubble, shut off credit flows and curbed export demand. The three countries reduced spending and raised taxes by as much as 15 percent of their gross domestic products in 2009-2010. Estonia was the only country in the euro area to report budget surpluses for the last two years.
“Let’s write about something we know nothing about and be smug, overbearing and patronizing,” Ilves, a graduate of Columbia University, then wrote on his Twitter account. “Guess a Nobel in trade means you can pontificate on fiscal matters and declare my country a ‘wasteland,’” he added.
Keep the motor running, says Rimsevics
One of the biggest challenges for Latvia and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis (Unity) will be joining the eurozone in 2014, and if the prime minister fails to do so, it will be a huge blow to his political image and will lead to questions regarding his legitimacy, political scientist Ivars Ijabs says, reports LETA.
“Dombrovskis’ government is stable because since 2009, when he took over as prime minister, we have not seen any serious alternative for who would have the desire to head the government. There could be people who object to Dombrovskis for one reason or another, but I do not believe that any other candidate would garner a majority in this parliament,” the political observer emphasized.
Ijabs points out that one of the biggest challenges for Latvia and Dombrovskis will be joining the eurozone in 2014. “We have all dreamed of joining the eurozone since 2003, when the lats was pegged to the euro. If we fail to introduce the European single currency, this would be a huge blow to Dombrovskis,” Ijabs added.
Lithuanian stuns swimming world
Fifteen-year-old Ruta Meilutyte has established her place in Lithuanian folklore, winning gold in the women’s 100m breaststroke at the London Olympics. The Baltic State’s youngest competitor in London this year, Meilutyte, stormed home in her signature event, the 100m breaststroke, to become just the fifth athlete in her country’s history to produce a performance good enough to register the playing of the Lithuanian national anthem at the Olympics.
Her victory was championed as one of the feel good stories in the pool in London as the British media, who were desperate for a good news story following the below-par performances of their own swimmers, jumped on the success of Meilutyte.
Much of the British media was quick to point out that Meilutyte trains in Plymouth, in the south of England, with The Independent running the title, “Plymouth’s Ruta Meilutyte wins shock gold (but it’s not for Great Britain)”, whilst the Mail Online opted for “Plymouth schoolgirl wins swimming gold... but it’s for Lithuania.”
Strike gathers public support
The first day of a strike by doctors that started in Estonia on Monday passed peacefully, but the involved parties forecast no quick end to it. On Monday, planned outpatient appointments were stopped in the Tartu University Clinic, North Estonian Regional Hospital, East Tallinn Central Hospital and West Tallinn Central Hospital. Staff in the hospitals said that people were initially peaceful and supporting and there are few who were not aware of the strike, Public Broadcasting reported.
Next week, however, the strike can reach the hospital in-patient departments, meaning that no new patients would be accepted, reports Postimees.
Lithuanians turn left after first round of elections
As widely anticipated, the political sentiment in Lithuania clearly swung left in the first round of the October general election with two leftist opposition parties, Labor and SocDems, securing a clear lead ahead of the second round.
The result is likely to oust the conservative government of Andrius Kubilius that is publicly accused of intensifying the nation’s deepest recession, triggering record-high unemployment and a mass exodus of workers.
Together with the Order and Justice party, the two leaders are already talking about a coalition that may in the end attract another small party, such as the more left wing Polish Election Action or the more right leaning Liberal Movement.
Michal steps down amid weakened Reform Party
After more than six months from the beginning of the party funding scandal, Minister of Justice Kristen Michal announced on Dec. 6 his decision to resign from his position. “I am resigning to protect the Estonian Reform Party and the functioning of the government. It is my personal decision,” he stated.
This is the direct aftermath of the Silvergate scandal, when Reform Party members, with Michal at the head, were accused of using money from unknown sources for financing their party. Although the verdict was in the end not guilty, it still raised some serious questions. From that moment on, support of the Reform Party has steadily declined.
At their peak, almost 40 percent of the voters supported the party. According to TNS Emor, this support has now collapsed to 21 percent. At the moment, the most popular party is the Social Democratic Party having the support of one-third of the voters. After them comes the Center Party, with the support of 24 percent of the electorate