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Estonian prime minister links privatization with NATO

  • 2001-08-30
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - In the face of strong opposition, Estonia's government decided on Aug. 23 to push ahead with privatization of Narva Elektrijaamad, which operates power plants and the oil shale company Eesti Polevkivi in the Narva region in the country's north-east.

At an extraordinary parliamentary session Prime Minister Mart Laar said Estonia's hopes of joining NATO were at stake in the sale to the U.S. power company NRG. "The NRG deal couldn't lead us to NATO, but thwarting it could badly shatter U.S. support for our aspirations."

The government earlier decided not to call an extra session of the ruling coalition council as requested by the Moderate Party, one of the three coalition partners. But it agreed to show MPs the sales contract between the Estonian energy company Eesti Energia and NRG, with the signatories' agreement.

Laar said the privatization would bring much needed international expertise and capital to Narva and would help maintain employment levels. Not only would NRG be able to address the environmental problems with which the plants are associated, the deal would also enhance Estonia's security, he said. "We must maintain our ability to provide our own electricity. It is no secret that investments like this bring soft security guarantees - we are dealing with a major company from a big country that is very friendly toward Estonia."

Villu Reiljan, chairman of the opposition Estonian People's Union faction, said the deal had nothing to do with security and was economically unsound. "It is a danger to the Estonian state and nation. There are no reasonable motives for it."

Toomas Varek, chairman of the Estonian Center Party faction, also in opposition, echoed these comments. The plants should have been sold in an open tender and the price should have been higher, he said. "An insurance company has estimated the value of this oil shale at 16 billion kroons ($941 million), but we get 1.2 billion kroons for a 49 percent stake in the power plants and 500 million kroons for the Estonian Oil Shale." He called for further debate in Parliament.

Elaborate arrangements have been made for MPs to see the contract. They have until Sept. 7 to visit the guarded room where it is held, having first signed a pledge that they will keep what they see secret. They may only discuss it with the contracting partners and other MPs. They can use dictionaries to help them scrutinize the 600-page English-language contract, but taking notes or using a translator are forbidden. Gunnar Okk, chairman of the board at Eesti Energia, told the daily newspaper Postimees these procedures would ensure the deal was as confidential as any other which needed to be kept out of sight of competitors.

But Reiljan and Varek were scathing. Neither had gone to see the contract in person. "You can see it but must not think about it," said Reiljan.

Varek said he decided against visiting the room when he found translators were banned, and he would have to swear secrecy. "I refuse to waste my time. Our best linguists are working on it."