Parliament rejects bill on pork quotas

  • 1999-01-28
  • Steven C. Johnson
RIGA - An attempt by Latvia's Social Democrats to put the pork issue back on the table was instead relegated to the chopping block: the Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the party's proposal to re-introduce quotas on Baltic pork imports.

The quotas in the bill mirrored those withdrawn by Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans' government earlier this month: quotas of 45 tons of pork and 13 tons of live pigs per month from Estonia and seven tons of pork and 22 tons of live pigs per month from Lithuania and high tariffs on any goods that exceed the limit.

The government withdrew its own quota proposal after weathering criticism from its two Baltic neighbors and the IMF, all of whom said the move would be a violation of the Baltic Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in 1997. The Latvian government had maintained that the measures were needed to protect local producers who were being edged out of the market by cheap Estonian imports.

All members of the Social Democrats' faction voted in favor of the bill but were only joined by three MPs from For Human Rights in a United Latvia, the former National Harmony Party. MPs from the remaining parties, including most members of For Human Rights, either voted against the bill or abstained.

For Fatherland and Freedom, one of the three government-forming parties, had initially flirted with supporting the Social Democrats' bill, but the party split between voting 'no' and abstaining when the Parliament voted last week.

"After meeting, our faction decided to wait for the Ministry of Agriculture to work things out," said Anita Brence, a member of the party's board. "Then, we can see how grounded these ideas are and what mechanisms will be prepared to cope with the problem."

The Ministry of Agriculture decided to replace the government's quota proposals with a one-time subsidy for local farmers. From now until May 1, any farmer whose annual revenue is more than 30,000 lats ($52,650) will receive 8 lats per pig sold, provided the meat constitutes as "high quality pork," said Valdis Dzenis, a spokesman for the ministry.

The government has also submitted to the Parliament proposed anti-dumping laws that would prohibit foreign producers from unloading products on the Latvian market at an excessively low price, said Baiba Lazane, foreign policy adviser to the prime minister.

The Social Democrats have been extremely critical of subsidies - "A one time subsidy to a farm is not a solution to the problem," said MP Leons Bojars - and have even suggested the right thing to do would be to place a temporary ban on pork imports altogether, though most admit the Free Trade Agreement will not allow such a move.

But if subsidies is what it wants, Bojars said the government should be ready to go the distance.

"Latvia should advertise its producers. Products are the first thing that show that this is a developed country," he said.

The party may be able to console itself with a ministerial portfolio, however. While the government rebuffed them on their proposals to protect the local agricultural market, it has all but rubber-stamped the appointment of Social Democrat MP Peteris Salkazanovs as agriculture minister, a position vacant since the minority government was formed in November.

After a month of delay, For Fatherland and Freedom agreed to support Kristopans' appointment of Salkazanovs for the post. The coalition agreement says all factions must approve participation by members outside the government.

"This is a serious thing, if a bit belated," Social Democrat faction head Egils Baldzens told the Baltic News Service. "We are not afraid of the political responsibility."