Baltic Reports No 6 / August 5-August 11 2019

  • August 19, 2019


Prospective Baltic European Commissioners met with the President-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen for the first time this week. Leyen and Estonia’s candidate Kadri Simson mostly spoke about climate issues like reduction of CO2 in the EU, an important topic for Leyen. Simson is a member of the governing Central Party and the previous Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure. The vice-president of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis was re-appointed to be Latvia’s candidate. He was the Prime Minister of Latvia until 2014 and a member of the New Unity coalition. Lithuania endorsed Virginijus Sinkevičius, the current Minister of Economy and Innovation. He was chosen by the Lithuanian government from the three male candidates despite Van der Leyen’s suggestion to appoint a woman. The new Commission will start working in November, the responsibilities of the commissioners are expected to be distributed around September.

Lithuanians and Estonians, together with Danes, trust the European Union most amongst member states, the new Eurobarometer survey shows. More than 70% of Lithuanians and 60% of Estonians have a positive image of the EU. In Latvia, the figure is also high – half of Latvians trust the EU. In comparison, the Latvian parliament Saeima was trusted by only every fifth of respondents. The survey showed record-high support for the euro and climate change, which is becoming the second top concern, after immigration, amongst all the member states.

Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it is working toward a coordinated EU policy of not recognizing Russian passports issued to residents of occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Lithuania’s officials added that the country will take unilateral action if the initiative fails. Earlier this week, Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs already made a similar decision. Estonia’s decision to not recognize the passports issued by Russia to the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions after April 24, 2019, if the owner of the passport was previously not a Russian citizen. This became effective immediately on August 5. This comes as a response to Russia’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, including issuing illegal documents of the Russian Federation to Ukrainian residents in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Previously, all Baltic States decided not to recognize the passports of the Russian Federation issued in Crimea and Sevastopol after March 18, 2014, if the user of the passport was previously not a Russian citizen. In June 2016, the European Commission and the European External Action Service, while acknowledging that the recognition of travel documents is a national competence, issued guidelines recommending the non-recognition of Russian passports issued in Crimea.



On the eve of the new school year, the policymakers in Lithuania started to work on a new plan to increase education spending. The ruling coalition declared that improving teachers’ salaries will become their top priority already two years ago, but nothing has changed. This time the group led by opposition Social Democrats initiated a cross-party agreement to increase education spending up to recommended 6% until 2030. The initiators offer to connect the education spending to the DGP. However, there is no general agreement on this proposal between the parties. In the meantime, teachers’ wages remain the lowest among the OECD countries. They earn between 500 and 600 euros per month, and the education budget is less than 5% of GDP. Consequently, the results of Lithuanian school graduates are getting poorer each year. In 2019, almost every fifth of school graduates failed the final mathematics exam. Lithuania is also slipping down the PISA rankings which compare secondary education systems in 70 countries by measuring the scholastic performance of their 15-year-olds. Lithuania ranks well below its Baltic neighbors as well as Russia and Poland. For the first time this summer, many schools in Lithuania experience a significant shortage of teachers for the upcoming school year.

In July, Lithuania closed down the historical Vilnius Lukiškės Remand Prison. Excursions are now being organized to its former building in the center of Vilnius, located just 100 meters from the Lithuanian Parliament. Since the closure, Lithuanian authorities are cheerfully discussing how it will become a popular tourist attraction, will be used for a startup space or even a five-star hotel. However, the joy of moving the prison out of the valuable historical site in the center of Vilnius does not reflect on the real conditions of Lithuania’s prisons. Lukiškės prison was closed down after years of criticism from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. In its most recent report, the Committee found that Lithuania continues to violate the rights of prisoners, the biggest concern being extreme physical and psychological violence by prison employees. The Committee also reported extremely high levels of violence, sexual abuse, intimidation and exploitation among prisoners. Overcrowded cells continue to be one of the main causes of violence among prisoners. Around 700 of the widely spoken Lukiškės Remand Prison inmates were transferred to other facilities and the transfer is only to aggravate the overcrowding issue in Lithuanian prisons.



The owner of Estonia’s oldest and most nationalistic newspaper Postimees announced it will sell Russian TV channels advertisement in Estonia. One of the channels in the list is a widely viewed Russian language Channel Pervi Baltiskii or PBK in short. Previously, Postimees has referred to PBK’s content as propaganda that aims to manipulate public opinion. Therefore, not surprisingly, Postimees journalists protested against their own company’s move. Two days later, the board admitted that they had made a mistake and agreed to eliminate PBK from the contract. However, Postimees Grupp will continue to sell the advertisement of the other Russian TV channels, like NTV Estonia and REN-TV Estonia. Estonia’s media experts have said that these outlets deliver just as much Russian propaganda as PBK.

The Estonian government will open a digital registry for doctors’ appointments next week. This will allow Estonians to register their visits to any medical specialist anywhere in the country online.  The new system allows patients to register to only one necessary appointment at a time, which should shorten the waiting time, because at the moment patients schedule several visits by calling to different hospitals, but then don’t actually show up to all of their appointments. The Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik said that the waiting time for the patients will hopefully become shorter thanks to the new registry. For years, Estonians have been complaining about long waiting times before medical appointments, they can sometimes be as long as many months. Doctors believe that the registry will make the procedure more convenient for the patients because they can simply log in to the registry using their mobile phones or ID cards and make appointments, but it won’t change the waiting time for them.



The internal affairs sector is in critical condition and currently needs an additional € 88 million funding, the Minister of Interior Sandis Ģirģens stated in an interview with the public media. In Latvia, the internal affairs department has not been adequately funded for several years. The Minister pointed out that in 2019, without the European Union funding, the internal affairs budget is going to be 400 million, but in the next two years, it is expected to fall to 354 million, which is not enough to fund the whole sector. The minister proposed to divert half of the proceeds seized by law enforcement agencies and the prosecution to increase the funding. Objections have been received to such a plan from the Ministry of Finance, but the solution is still to be found. 

The former President of Latvia Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was interviewed by the BBC as part of a series of programs «Her Story Made History».The radio documentary was called «From Child Refugee to President». In the documentary, Vīķe-Freiberga recounted her childhood and life in emigration, as well as her experience being the first female Latvian president. During Vīķe-Freiberga’s two terms Latvia joined both NATO and EU. Her second presidential term ended in 2007, a couple of months before her 70th birthday. After leaving the post, she remained active in international politics. Vīķe-Freiberga helped found the Club of Madrid, which unites former leaders aiming to enhance democracy. She also has a particular focus on women’s empowerment and remains an important public figure in Latvia. 


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