• 2002-05-23
PRESTIGIOUS MOVE: Latvia offered to house Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on May 17 after the Czech Republic told the pro-democracy station to leave its Prague headquarters because of fears it may be targeted by terrorists. Prime Minister Andris Berzins has written to the U.S.-funded broadcaster, established during the Cold War, and offered it space in Riga's half-empty national television building, his spokesman said. "It would be good for our prestige as a democratic country," Arnis Lapins said. Berzins' invitation follows the appointment this week of Uldis Grava, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's marketing development manager, to head Latvia's national television network. Czech authorities have asked the station to move its headquarters out of Prague's former Parliament building because of concerns it could be a target for terrorist attacks after Sept. 11. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts its pro-democracy message across Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and estimates its audience at 35 million listeners. (Agence France-Presse)

EXAM SCAM: Lithuania's intelligence service has been called in to snag students trying to cheat on graduation exams that began nationwide on May 21. "Education Minister Algirdas Monkevicius has requested the Special Investigation Service and national police to report to him any cases identified of exam questions being sold," the ministry said in a statement. The measure is aimed at restoring confidence in the country's secondary school exams. In previous years offers have appeared on the Internet and among students for advance copies of the exams, but most are apparently scams as authorities have never uncovered the sale of real exam questions. A spokesman for the Special Investigation Service said that it has yet to receive any information on sale of exam questions. (AFP)

LOOSE CHANGE: Latvia stands to receive at least 142 million euros ($131 million) in net transfers from Brussels in its first year after accession to the European Union, a Finance Ministry spokeswoman said on May 21. According to preliminary forecasts, if Latvia's hopes of joining the EU in 2004 are realized it will receive 260-286 million euros in aid from Brussels, while paying 118 million into the EU's coffers in the first year of membership, said finance ministry spokeswoman Alda Sebre. Last year Latvia received a total of 98.8 million euros from the EU under various aid programs. Several candidate countries have expressed concern they might be net contributors to the EU budget following accession as some aid payments are delayed and they might not have sufficient projects prepared for EU funds. The ministry's forecasts will move the public debate on EU accession onto more concrete territory and away from the emotive terms in which such issues as the future of agriculture have been discussed, predicted Pauls Raudseps, a senior editor at the daily newspaper Diena. "Up until now the whole negotiation process was fairly opaque, to do with changes in legislation, changes we wanted to do anyway, but 100 to 200 million euros is not a bad bit of change, especially if you look at what the EU has done already," said Raudseps. (AFP)

HARD DEAL: Former prime minister of Belarus and opposition leader Mikhail Chigir went on trial on May 21 to defend himself against a range of accusations he said were a political maneuver orchestrated by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. "I am being pursued for political motives," Chigir told AFP. "I never had a problem with the law until I declared myself a candidate in the 1999 presidential election," he said. Chigir, who led the Belarusian government from 1994 to 1996, is accused of "negligence and insufficient exercise of official duties" in 1994 as head of Belagroprombank. He is also charged with tax evasion in 1998 and 1999, while working for a German company in Moscow. Chigir, 53, and other opposition activists attempted to organize a dissident presidential election in 1999, when Lukashenka's term was supposed to end. But the authoritarian leader extended his term as president until 2001 through a referendum never recognized by western governments. Lukashenka went on to win a September 2001 election that Western observers called riddled with fraud and misconduct. Chigir was imprisoned for eight months, but was released in December 2000 under heavy pressure from western organizations. The Supreme Court has ordered a new trial. Chigir's wife Yulia was given a suspended sentence for resisting arrest. His son Alexander was condemned last March to seven years of prison for "complicity in theft on a grand scale." (AFP)

LIFE'S A CIRCUS: Latvian President Vaira Vike Freiberga poured scorn on her country's judicial system on May 21, comparing court proceedings to circuses. The repeated postponement of court hearings due to the illness of defendants means that "courts become like a circus performance, making the entire judiciary system a joke," Vike-Freiberga told a meeting of MPs and heads of law enforcement institutions. Current arrangements fall short of "peoples' understanding of a just court," the Baltic News Service quoted Vike-Freiberga as saying. The European Union has repeatedly criticized Latvia's judicial system in the course of the country's preparations to join the bloc, which could come as soon as 2004. In the most prominent case, repeated bouts of illness caused the delay of the trial of Alexander Lavents for causing the collapse of Latvia's then-largest bank in 1995, resulting in a conviction only in 2001. A lack of judges also causes lengthy pre-trial delays. (AFP)