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E' SUCCESSO NEL BALTICO NEL 2007

YEAR IN REVIEW 2007

The Baltic Times

Without meaning to sound too cynical, we could honestly say that the most positive thing about 2007 – as far as the Baltics are concerned –  is that it’s finally over. It opened with a warm, drippy winter that threatened to kill off the local ski industry, and ended on a high note, with the Baltics joining the Schengen zone. In between there was a labor crunch, fears of hyperinflation and a hard economic landing, riots, political crises, and too many scandals to count. To mark the passing of 2007, The Baltic Times has put together this very brief sketch of the year’s more memorable events for each of the three countries.

Estonia’s year of the bronze

Without question one single event in Estonia – easily the biggest story to come out of the nation since its 1991 independence – overshadowed all others in 2007: the Bronze Soldier riots of April 26 - 27.
Even as early as January political forces were lining up on both sides of the issue, with Savisaar and the Center Party wanting to keep the Soviet-era war memorial in its place, and Ansip’s Reform Party wanting to move it out of the center of Tallinn. Local extremists were also vowing to get involved if the politicians’ will didn’t match their own agenda.

When the March 4 parliamentary elections rolled around – proudly the first in the world to use Internet voting – Reform squeaked through with enough points to dump the Center Party from its coalition, and Savisaar took up his old seat as the mayor of Tallinn.

The Bronze Soldier storm finally broke on April 26 when, seeing the beginning of archeological work to dig up the graves at the Tonismagi site, protesters came out in force. It’s hard to say whether the two days of rioting that followed was more connected to politics or alcohol. It’s also hard to say to what extent Russia played a part, either by direct instigation or simply by fanning the flames with false media reports. What’s clear is the result – one dead, dozens injured, hundreds arrested, thousands of euros in damage from looting, and a huge backslide in ethnic relations.

In early May the media’s focus had shifted to the unprecedented cyber attacks against the nation’s IT infrastructure, and the antics of Nashi, a pro-Putin youth group, who had surrounded the Estonian embassy in Moscow. Later in the year the losses from Russian import and export embargoes would be tallied up, along with those from jittery tourists who stayed away.

Those events were briefly pushed off the news pages on May 18 when a carousel ride at the Tivoli Tuur fun park in Rakvere went up in spectacular flames. Several people were hospitalized, but nobody suffered lasting injuries.

Estonian residents then had time to either grumble or cheer as new laws went into effect on June 5 to make the nation’s restaurants and bars smoke free. Suddenly patios and doorways became the coolest places to hang out.

Midsummer celebrations were tempered by the news on June 23 that two Estonians, Sgt. Kalle Torn, 24, Jr. Sgt. Jako Karuks, 33, were killed in Afghanistan by a missile.

Later that summer Lennart Meri’s cousin Arnold caused a stir by being charged with genocide, while Franz, a 20-year-old polar bear at the Tallinn zoo, was killed in an escape attempt.
Since then the Estonian government has refused to allow the Nord Stream gas pipeline project to conduct survey of seabed in its economic zone. Yet another sign of continuing bad relations with Russia.

Lithuania: less bread, more circuses

Several continuing themes, not connected with one another, dominated headlines throughout the year in Lithuania. Apart from the endless negotiations over the new Ignalina nuclear power plant, there was also the question of construction near a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, battles between gay rights organizations and the city of Vilnius over the latter’s banning rallies, and worry about the number of Lithuanians not returning from work abroad.

Controversial figure Viktor Uspashkich, who had been hiding out in Russia from fraud charges, got his political start early in 2007 by announcing he would will run in the nation’s Feb. 25 municipal elections. He was unsuccessful, but dramatically returned to Lithuania Sept. 26 to run in a parliamentary by-election. He was arrested on arrival at the airport and later put under house arrest (where he now remains). Again he lost the election but in November the millionaire politico was returned to the helm of the Labor Party, which he had founded in 2003.

March brought in two major sewage spills in western Lithuania, two deadly residential fires and the sad story of two boys from the Kelme region, an 8-year-old and his 12-year-old brother, whose strangled bodies were found on the banks of the Krazante river. The boys’ mother was eventually detained in connection with the deaths.

A political era ended May 19 when Algirdas Brazauskas, the last leader of Lithuanian Communist Party, stepped down from his role as the chairman of Lithuanian Social Democratic Party.
While Lithuanians sweltered in the summer heat, police had to use tear gas and rubber bullets to quell a riot that broke out at a July 8 soccer match in Vilnius’ Vetra stadium. Hundreds of Legia Warsaw fans had rushed the field, breaking fences and throwing stones.

Order was maintained though on Aug. 26 when prominent Lithuanian parliamentarian Emanuelis Zingeris saved an Italian student from skinhead attack.
On Nov. 12, both Lithuania’s interior minister and chief of police resigned over a traffic incident in Skuodas, in which a police officer hit and killed three ten-year-old boys. A new interior minister, Regimantas Ciupaila, was sworn in Dec. 18.

In Latvia, scandals were all the rage

If there’s a positive spin that can be put on the high volume of scandals that hit Latvia in 2007, it’s that they show someone is finally fighting corruption, and that the people are no longer willing to sit back and take politics as usual.

While the country had barely finished mourning two soldiers killed in Iraq by roadside bomb on Dec. 27, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was thrown into a pitched battle with the government over “emergency” amendments to the laws on security. The July 7 referendum she eventually got set up on the issue failed but was still seen as a massive public vote of no confidence in the government.
Politics was forgotten on March 1 when a fire killed 26 residents of a convalescent home in western Latvia, highlighting the country’s poor fire safety record.

The beginning of the year also heralded success in establishing a border treaty with Russia.
On March 14, Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs was arrested on charges of bribery, money laundering and tax evasion. There were rumors that 31 members of Saeima were on his payroll.
Spring ended with a bang – literally – as a May 21 car bomb failed to kill the director of the State Revenue Service’s customs related crime unit.

Ten days later Valdis Zatlers, an orthopedic surgeon who admitted to not paying taxes on cash gifts from patients, was elected president in a parliamentary ballot.

A gay pride parade was held in Riga on June 3 without too much trouble and amazingly Ligo (Midsummer) passed with no drunk driving deaths.

In August journalist Lato Lapsa unveiled transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations among prominent figures of the Latvian judiciary system from 1998 to 2000.

The next scandal stars Indulis Emsis, a former PM and member of Greens and Farmers Union, and one of the most influential figures in Latvian politics. Shortly after taking office Emsis lost a briefcase containing $10,000 in the Cabinet of Ministers building. He is under suspicion of having accepted unreported cash income and giving false information to law enforcement institutions. Republika.lv speculated it could have been “hush money” related to the Lembergs case.

The biggest scandal of the year of course started in September when Prime Minster Aigars Kalvitis suspended the head of the anti-corruption bureau, KNAB, who just happened to be investigating Kalvitis’ own party’s elections spending. The resulting outcry, in the form of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets, led to Kalvitis’ Dec. 5 resignation. 


ODD   STORIES

To pee or not to pee
Much Latvian media attention was given this year to cases in which British nationals were caught urinating on the Freedom Monument or on its square. The first actually happened in 2006, for which the culprit was fined 810 lats (1,152 euros). On March 16 a second arrest was made – this time the Brit was caught urinating on Freedom Monument Square while posing for his friends’ cameras. Ironically the incident coincided with the launch of the British Embassy’s “Responsible Tourism” campaign, which urged British citizens visiting Latvia to behave, observe the law and avoid urinating in public. This time the man was fined 45 lats (64 euros).

Drunkard claws his way to the top
A drunken man climbed up the cables of Riga’s Vansu Tilts (Suspension Bridge) on April 15 and refused to come down unless given a sandwich. Authorities were forced to stop all traffic to the bridge for hours and remove the man with a cherry-picker. The man was charged with disorderly conduct and then taken to a psychiatric ward.

Beware of edgy giraffes
Stories involving exotic animals are usually good value for “odd story” hunters, though it’s hard to laugh at the plight of 22-year-old student Ruta Greiciute, who ended up in hospital on May 6 after her late-night date with Solutas, a 9-year-old male giraffe at the Kaunas Zoo, ended in disaster. She and three friends, evidently under the influence of alcohol, got into the zoo after hours and somehow managed their way over a four-meter fence and into the giraffe enclosure. By the time rescue workers pulled her free, Ruta had suffered fractures of the cheekbone, nose and collarbone, all from Solutas’ kicks. Newspapers speculated Solutas may have been on edge because of noisy student parties nearby.

The blind driver of Tartu
This summer The Baltic Times reported that police in Tartu stopped a drunk driver in the early hours of Aug. 5 only to discover that he was, in fact, blind. They noticed the disability when he had trouble seeing the breathalizer they were trying to give him. It turns out 20-year-old Kristjan was being guided by a teenage passenger, who was also drunk. In our next issue we had to report that Kristjan had been caught driving a second time, guided by friends, in the nearby village of Torvandi. Even stranger, it  turned out he was actually the owner of the AUDI 80 in which he was caught.

Deep in the merde
A French citizen was rescued from a Vilnius apartment on Oct. 16 where he had been handcuffed to a radiator for several days after being robbed by a woman he met on the Internet. According initial reports, the French national met the Lithuanian woman online and came to Vilnius for the weekend. The girl invited him into an apartment, where she and a friend deprived him of his cash and credit cards, and then handcuffed him to the apartment’s radiator. On the morning of Oct. 16, the Frenchman tore the radiator off and started yelling for help from the window. When water starting to pour from the broken pipe, neighbors thought the commotion was a fire and called the fire brigade, who rescued the captive.

Pubblicato il 20/12/2007 alle 14.20 nella rubrica Diario.

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