• 2002-08-15
Weeds overrun Kaunas

A cash crunch in Lithuania's second largest city, Kaunas, has left some of its parks overgrown with weeds - including cannabis plants, officials said.

"Cannabis spreads quite fast, and it has been growing here for some years already because the city does not allocate enough money to cut it," the city's top environmental specialist, Arunas Mockaitis, said.

The city is short of some 400,000 litas (115,000 euros) to mow grass, forcing it to leave several parks untended.

Several patches of cannabis have sprung up, one of them bigger than a tennis court, but the plants are not yet large enough to be used as a drug, officials said.

Police said they were unaware the illegal drug was growing in the parks but have now launched an investigation. (Agence France-Presse)

Lawmaker indicted

Prosecutors have handed down an indictment against Social Democrat lawmaker Imants Burvis, who they say pocketed $15,000 that a donor intended for the party.

Spokeswoman Dzintra Subrovska said Burvis had been charged with abusing his official status for personl gain and misappropriation of funds. If convicted, he could face between five and 15 years in jail.

The scandal was at the center of a split in the Social Democrat party last year. Burvis and other MPs left to form the Social Democrat Union. He is on the party's list for elections this October. (Baltic News Service)

Fighting impotence

Lithuania's first penile prosthesis operation was performed at Vilnius University Hospital's Santariskes Clinic last week, the first attempt to surgically treat impotence in the country.

The daily Respublika reported that the patient had bought a penile implant worth 3,600 litas (950 euros) from a U.S. company, a purchase covered by the state patients' fund.

Dr. Balys Dainys told the newspaper that the operation was necessary because the patient's impotence was a type that could not be treated with drugs such as Viagra.

Dainys said roughly 200 men out of 1 million suffer from complete impotence in Lithuania, a figure in line with averages abroad. (BNS)

Corruption cooperation

The Estonian tax and customs boards will sign an agreement this week committing them to a more effective fight against tax evasion, smuggling and other customs violations.

The pact gives each agency access to the other's databases to make it easier to track leads electronically and to bring the two agencies closer together, a customs board spokesman said.

The agreement also regulates cooperation among regional offices of each agency. (BNS)

Privatization fraud

Estonian security police officers have traveled to the Netherlands to question Antonio Angotti, the Italian citizen suspected of committing large-scale fraud in his bid to buy shares in Estonian Railways.

Dutch police detained Angotti in June.

Authorities allege that Angotti used false papers and an assumed name to win the right to buy a 66 percent stake in the railway in 1999. He is also accused of submitting false data to support an Estonian residence permit and not disclosing his conviction for money laundering in the United States.

He got into trouble only when the firm he represented had difficulty paying for its shares in the railway. He fled Estonia in 2001. If tried and found guilty in Estonia, he could face up to two years in jail. (BNS)

Army competition

More and more Estonians are being rejected for army service because the number of conscription-age young men exceeds the military's needs, said Defense Minister Madis Mikko.

The situation has led to better conscriptees, since those with higher education and more drive are doing military service, he said.

An increasing number of high school graduates are volunteering because they are eager to get their military service out of the way before university, said Mikko. Those who go straight to university are allowed to delay military service during their studies.

The Defense Ministry will call up 3,350 conscriptees this year, 200 fewer than in 2001. (BNS)

Search goes on

The third attempt to find a director for Latvia's new anti-corruption agency has drawn 17 applications, including one from a pensioner and another from Armands Stendzenieks, on trial for large-scale embezzlement, the corruption prevention council reported.

Other applicants include representatives from the border guard, prosecutor's office, state police and customs as well as one judge.

Council executive Rudolfs Kalnins said the public would have 10 days to debate the merits of each candidate.

Latvia's last attempt to find a director for the anti-corruption agency fizzled when the top candidate, deputy security police chief Didzis Smitins, was disqualified amid conflict-of-interest allegations.

Smitins was later cleared of suspicion by prosecutors. (BNS)

Estonia enacts Holocaust Memorial Day

By Sara Toth, TALLINN

Beginning next year, Estonian school children and government officials will dedicate Jan. 27 to remembering victims of the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.

The government approved legislation for the remembrance day Aug. 7, amid requests from Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal's Jerusalem office, that Estonia recognize its role in the Holocaust.

But a government spokesman said the law was not influenced by Zuroff's campaign to prosecute Estonian Nazi criminals.

"We do our own thing," said Daniel Vaarik, a spokesman for Prime Minister Siim Kallas. "This bill had been in the process of the Estonian government for more than one year." The government began working on the bill in late 2000 after the education minister attended a European conference on Holocaust remembrance, he said.

The government selected Jan. 27 because it marks the day in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland.

This is also the day the European Council recommends as a memorial day.

Several, but not all, European Union countries have passed laws dedicating this day to Holocaust victims.

"There are many things we need to know about our history, and to join Europe we need to learn about the common things in European history. The Holocaust is one of these things," Vaarik said. "That is part of the reason we have selected this day."

Members of Estonia's small Jewish community praised the government's action.

Although the official day may not change the way Jews remember Holocaust victims, it will help educate people, said Cilja Laud, a leader of Tallinn's Jewish Community Center.

About 2,000 Jews now live in Estonia. Jewish communities have had their own remembrance days ever since the end of World War II.

"We keep our memory from generation to generation," Laud said. "But this is a very important step for the Estonian government. It is important for all people in Estonia, not only Jewish people."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem also complimented the government's decision, but again urged Estonian authorities to continue to look for Nazi criminals who may still be living in the country.

"We hope that the programs conducted in conjunction with Holocaust Memorial Day will strengthen the appreciation by Estonians of the great significance of the Holocaust in the annals of mankind as well as in the history of Estonia," said Zuroff.

"This understanding should also apply to the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice, and we urge the Estonian authorities to renew their efforts to bring Estonian Nazi war criminals to justice while they still can be held accountable for their crimes."

During the German occupation of Estonia, Nazis murdered about 1,000 Estonian Jews and an unknown number of Jews deported here from other countries.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and a history commission established by former Estonian President Lenart Meri claim that Estonians serving in the German army contributed to the slaughter of Jews. But Estonia has never prosecuted any suspected war criminals.

Many Estonians were offended by Zuroff's recent offer of a cash reward for information that leads to the arrests of Estonian Nazi criminals.

They say the country had no choice in its role during World War II. Thousands of Estonians were forced into service with the German army when the Nazis invaded the country in 1941, ending the first brutal Soviet occupation. When asked about Estonia's role in the Holocaust, many people also bring up the issue of Soviet crimes and say these affected more people than Nazi crimes.

Because Estonians suffered from the Soviet and Nazi regimes, the government has suggested that school children remember all victims and not draw any distinctions between them. The bill also suggests learning about other days, including mass deportations of Estonians to Siberia.

"For our country it's a very important thing, so we can make sure that these things don't happen again," said Vaarik. "And we need to see all these crimes with equal attention."

But the government will not dictate exactly how schools will remember the day.

"Every teacher will best decide how to talk about it," Vaarik said.

And the government does not have any specific plans yet for how it will mark the day, he added.

Estonia is now the fourth EU-candidate country to enact an official day to remember Holocaust victims. In the early 1990s, Latvia and Lithuania passed legislation marking Holocaust remembrance days. On these days, government representatives participate in ceremonies and flags fly with black banners.

Lithuania, Latvia and the Czech Republic also have official remembrance days.