Baltic Reports No 13 / September 23-29

  • October 7, 2019

Pan-Baltic

This week the three Baltic presidents gave speeches at the United Nations General Assembly. Each of them used the opportunity in their own way. Estonia’s and Lithuania’s leaders strived to impress US president Donald Trump. While in New York, Estonia’s president Kersti Kaljulaid thanked Trump for paying for Estonia’s defence infrastructure and later praised Trump in the media for being strict about NATO members’ promise to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. In his UN speech president Trump claimed that good leaders are patriots. Later Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda said that he agrees with the president of the US. The love of homeland “pushes us forward”, Nauseda explained. On the contrary, Latvia’s president Egils Levits put a lot of emphasis on multilateralism. In his UN speech he thanked all countries that did not recognize the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. Levits also shared his personal experience of working at two international courts and the importance of multilateral, inclusive and rule-based international order. After the Assembly session the three Baltic presidents attended a reception hosted by President Trump and his wife Melania. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been especially enthusiastic members of NATO, because the alliance and the US as the leading member are the best security guarantee for the three countries.

SOURCES: lrt.lt, theatlantic.com, baltictimes.com, lsm.lv, un.org,

Latvia

The Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks proposed that school children in Latvia should start learning how to handle crisis situations. These defence lessons, as he calls them, would happen once a month and would promote mutual trust and solidarity among the people. The minister made this proposal during debates at the Latvian parliament Saeima while discussing the new National Security Concept. The concept, which is created every four years, was approved by Saeima and will serve as the basis for drafting the National Security Plan. The concept emphasizes the role of strong public media in times when disinformation from the east is only getting stronger. Even though Russia is seen as the main adversary, the concept also mentions China’s intelligence service’s growing activities in the country. According to the concept, the state must also implement an inclusive minority policy by involving young people in the socio-political processes and decision-making. This has been a challenge for Latvia, because of the divide between Latvian and Russian speaking populations. 61 parliamentarians supported the concept, but most of the opposition deputies either voted against it or refrained from voting.

Starting from January 2020, everyone who is born in Latvia will be granted Latvian citizenship. The Latvian parliament has approved a draft law which states that there will no longer be a non-citizen status for newborns. Latvia and Estonia are the only two nations in the European Union that issued ‘alien’ passports to mostly Russian non-citizens after regaining of their independence. To receive the respective country’s citizenship, the ethnic Russians have to pass a language and citizenship exam, which has forced a deadlock between the non-citizen community and the local governments for decades. After the new law is in force, newborns in Latvia will be provided with Latvian citizenship if their parents have no plans to give their child another country’s citizenship. In reality, the legislative draft applies to a small number of children, because the number of registered non-citizen newborns has been around a few dozen in the past few years. The initiative comes from the former president of Latvia Raimonds Vējonis. He believed that the abolishment of the practice of giving non-citizen status to children is a symbolic step to help put an end to confrontation of different groups of Latvia’s society.

Public media, which is currently funded partially by the state and partially by advertising, is expected to leave advertising market in 2021. But there are concerns over whether the government will find extra 14 million euros every year to compensate the Latvian Radio and Latvian Television for their losses of advertising revenue. The current draft of state budget proposes only 5.5 million euros per year in the next two years. While journalists are raising concerns over how to proceed with their work, if the funding doesn’t come in, the polititians are blaming each other for this problem. The parliament is still trying to come up with ways of financing the public media, but no conclusion has been reached. Media experts have told Latvian Television that the uncertainty with public media’s future is another way to gain more political control over the media. The withdrawal of Latvian Radio and Latvian Television from the advertising market has been an issue for years.

SOURCES: lsm.lv, leta.lv, likumi.lv, bnn-news.com, lrt.lv

Estonia

Aivar Rehe, the former head of Danske Bank in Estonia, committed suicide in his backyard. The bank he was heading was closed this year. It was revealed that over 200 billion euros were illegally laundered through the Estonian branch of Danske Bank over a period of nine years. The main perpetrators were Russian and Azerbaijani Money Laundering operations. Rehe had been interrogated over the movement of illegal money, but he was never charged. He had been under media attention since the investigation started. Otherwise an open and chatty person, he withdrew more and more from the public eye and was hopping between different jobs. His shocking death resonated also in Denmark where a debate about vulnerability of bank employees started. Many Danish bankers complained about being threatened after the criminal money investigation started. In order to protect them, Denmark plans to allow investigating illegal banking activities without having to notify the clients. 

25 years ago, on a stormy September night, the ship named Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea. It was the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in Europe in the 20th century. Out of nearly a thousand people only 137 survived. The passenger ferry was sailing from Estonia to Sweden, and most of the victims were Swedes. A quarter of century later, the exact reason for the disaster is still unknown and there is mystery surrounding it. The international investigation that took place after the disaster was flawed. For example, nobody dived to the ferry to map and analyse the situation. What has made the search for truth even more difficult is the secrecy from the authorities. Many documents are still kept secret. There has been proof that Swedish intelligence transported military equipment on the Estonia ship. Tens of thousands of people who were affected by the catastrophe are still waiting for an answer, and many are calling for a new investigation. Ship Estonia still remains deep in the Baltic Sea, in international waters.

Estonia’s police is testing a new way to punish people for speeding. They make the offenders choose to either pay the fine or wait for up to an hour at the roadside. The waiting time is called “A Calming Break” and the time along with the number plate is displayed on a public screen where the cars are parked. Estonia’s police has been trying to reduce speeding for years. They have increased the number of patrols and speeding cameras on the streets, but people still drive faster than the speed limit allows in Estonia. The Police’s survey showed that the fines don’t affect Estonians, because they pop in their email box just like any other bills. Paying them is easy and quick. What really annoyed the speeding drivers is the time they had to wait for the policeman to file the offense. Therefore, the police launched this experiment to see if making people wait would be more effective. When it comes to traffic deaths, Estonia has showed impressive results. In 1991 nearly 500 people died on Estonian roads, last year, the number had dropped to 67, proportionally an average in the European Union.

SOURCES: err.ee, postimees.ee, ekspress.delfi.ee, independent.co.uk, nytimes.com, danskebank.com, Maanteeamet, Statistics Estonia

Lithuania

Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky is opening the first Jewish religious school in Vilnius. Many such schools and around a hundred Synoagogues were located in Vilnius before the Holocaust, when 90 percent of Lithuanian Jewry, often referred to as Litvaks, were murdered. Through centuries, the city was a major hub of Jewish religious, cultural and intellectual life. One of the most famous religious authorities, of Litvaks was world-famous 18th century Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as Vilna Gaon. Today, despite ongoing quarrels on local Holocaust collaborators, Lithuanian Jews are rebuilding their heritage. Lithuanian parliament Seimas has designated 2020 as the Year of the History of Jews of Lithuania and Vilna Gaon, because in 2020 the world will be marking his 300th birthday. Nowadays, around 3,000 Jews live in Lithuania and Vilnius has one functioning Choral Synagogue. This fall for the first time since WWII, a dozen of young religious scholars from all over the world will be studying Torah.

The city of Vilnius took down Soviet-looking banners that called for celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The white and red ads hanging over the streets of Vilnius reminded of gloomy history in the USSR and aroused public anger. Furthermore, Vilnius municipality officials claimed that organizers failed to obtain the necessary permits for the event. The Chinese embassy responded by saying that the planned event with fireworks is a cultural event. Their statement drew a comparison with the recent laser show celebrating the 100 years of restored statehood held by Lithuanians in China and suggested that such events should not be politicised. At the same time, the delegation of China’s National People’s Congress visited Vilnius to discuss economic relations. No information about the meetings has yet been released. Lithuania’s economic ties with China have rather been limited so far, because of concerns that they could also bring unwanted political influence. All the Baltic States are increasingly cautious about growing China’s power in the region.

Lithuanian and Belarusian intellectuals started a discussion on the burial of the national hero of both countries Kostas Kalinauskas. In 1864, he was one of the leaders of the so called January uprising against Tsarist Russia when he was captured and executed by Tsarist police. His remains, along with 20 other insurgents were found in Vilnius last Spring. This week, Lithuania’s government announced the official burial to take place in Vilnius on November 22. But Belarusian intellectuals called for Lithuanians to consider burying KaliNAUskaus in Belarus. They sent a petition to Lithuania’s parliament and organized a digital campaign to collect signatures online. Kalinauskas is an important figure in Belarusian national history, since he was one of the publishers of the first Belarusian-language newspaper “Muzhitskaya Prauda”. Nevertheless, Vilnius heritage is too important for Lithuanians to expect any flexibility even if it’s for such a noble cause as stimulating Belarusian ethnic pride. Kalinauskas is just one of the many historical figures important to multiple: Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish and Belarusian identities.

SOURCES: timesofisrael.com, lrt.lt, delfi.lt, belsat.eu, udf.by

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