Weekly News Update: August 6th-12th, 2018

Election deadline passes

First, the deadline has oficially passed for parties wishing to take place in the 13th Saeima (parliament) elections in October. 16 parties will be included, the most since 19 parties participated in 2006, and the order of the parties on the ballot was decided by lottery on Friday. The order will be as follows:
1. Latvijas Krievu savienība (Latvian Russian Union)
2. Jaunā konservatīvā partija
3. Rīcības partija
4. Nacionālā apvienība
5. “Progresīvie”
6. Latvijas Centriskā partija
8. “No sirds Latvijai”
9. “Saskaņa”
10. “Attīstībai/Par!”
11. Latvijas Reģionu apvienība
12. “Latviešu nacionālisti”
13. “Jaunā Vienotība”
14. “Par alternatīvu”
15. “KPV LV”
16. Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība

Forest fires die down

Inhabitants of the village of Stikli were finally able to return to home Wednesday after firefighters ended their fight against the Valdgale fire which had been burning since July 17th. According to the firefighter service (VUGD), no more open fires were openly burning, although peat was still smoldering deep in the bog. Observers from the State Forest Service will continuing monitoring the area until at least autumn, when the rainy season will finally put out the burning peat. The forest is still indefinitely off-limits to recreational visitors such as hikers and mushroom pickers, so please plan your forest excursion elsewhere!

School closures continue

The painful process of school reorganization continues. This summer, 25 secondary schools will be closed and another 25 will be merged due to new regulation regarding minimum class size. In cities, the minimum size for the entire 10-12th grade group is 138 students, with at least 25 students per grade. In the area around Rīga the minimum is 120 total and 22 per class, in smaller towns and countryside areas 54 total and 20 per class, and in areas where the next nearest secondary school is more than 25 kilometers away 33 total and 12 per class. The Ministry of Education says that the new regulations are necessary in order to increase teacher’s salaries throughout the country, but critics worry that the closure of schools will accelerate the decline of the Latvian countryside. In response to criticism, Minister of Education Kārlis Šadurskis (from the party “Vienotība”) has indicated a willingness to further modify the regulations.

Bizarre soccer drama in Ventspils

FK Ventspils made the extraordinary announcement that their 20-year-old Nigerian superstar striker Adeleke Akinyemi had been kidnapped, and that the club was being asked a ransom for his return. The club on Wednesday asked for assistance from both Latvian State Police and from FIFA. Akinyemi, who is under contract with Ventspils for four more years, had been missing since at least Monday when he did not appear at the Latvian quarter-finals match in Liepāja. However, Akinyemi announced on Friday that he would return to Ventspils this coming Monday, and that the bizarre incident had been due to a contract dispute which seems to have been resolved.

Passenger train connections between all Baltic capitals?

Big news for passenger rail transport in Latvia! In addition to the purchase of new electric trains mentioned in last week’s update, Latvijas Dzelceļš (Latvian Railroads) is currently accepting bids from companies to electrify railroad lines between Daugavpils and Jekabpils, Rezekne and Jekabpils, and Jekabpils and Riga. BUT in even bigger news, Ukrainian Railroads has announced that they plan to extend their Kiev-Riga line set to open on September 22 all the way to Talinn. If the plans go through, this will be the first time this century that all three Baltic capitals are connected by a single passenger train service. The planned service is unrelated to the Rail Baltica project to connect the Baltic capitals with western Europe’s high-speed standard gauge railway network.

Pensions will increase, but public workers' salaries will not

The government has announced that while state pensions will increase by an average of €18 this October, there will not be enough money in the budget to fulfill salary raises for medical, justice, and education professionals employed by the state that were promised in signed agreements to the corresponding unions. However, 88 municipalities throughout the country have agreed to help finance local-level salary increases for teachers.

Fight for Latvia's information space

On Thursday, the government announced new measures in order to strengthen the country’s information space, including the building of two new broadcast towers near the borders of Russia and Belarus where certain areas of Latvia are not currently covered by terrestrial (free) media broadcasts, and only get terrestrial broadcasts from Russia and Belarus. The measures will also include the building of new transmitters throughout the country that will allow for HD broadcasts of certain channels, a new media platform that will help fight fake news, and the inclusion of media literacy and critical thinking in the national education standards.

Renewable energy subsidy program to end

Prime Minister Maris Kučinskis has submitted a report required by Saeima regarding the “OIK” program in which electricity and heat cogeneration taxes are used to subsidize renewable energy. According to the report, at least ten OIK licenses were improperly given to firms which should not have qualified. The government is currently planning to phase out the unpopular and controversy-plagued program.

Inflation decreases

The state’s Central Statistical Bureau reports that inflation decreased in July, with average overall consumer prices dropping by 0.8% compared with June. Average consumer prices are up 2.4% compared with July of last year, but inflation so far has been slower than last year.

Government officials warned about taxi service

Latvian government officials were warned by the “Cert.lv” IT safety institute this week not to use the new Yandex.taxi app service which began operation this year in all three Baltic countries, as the app supposedly sends a suspicious amount of personal information to IP addresses in Russia. As expected, representatives from Yandex.taxi have denied that any improper data collection has taken place.

Family doctors to be required in own region

The Ministry of Health has announced that after proposed law changes that could be adopted as soon as September 1st, it will be required for people using the state’s health system to have a primary care doctor in the same region as their official declared address. For those of you who are part of the state health system, you should pay attention to whether this will affect you (although it is unlikely).

Legionnaire Facebook page taken down

According to The Baltic Times and LETA, Facebook has taken down a page dedicated to the Latvian Legionnaires, a group of nearly 100,000 conscripted soldiers who served in the German SS Waffen during World War II. The issue of Legionnaire remembrance is an extremely complicated and emotional issue in the region, since only less than 20% of the group were actual volunteers and the rest were given a choice to either serve or be sent to concentration camps. The group were exempt from the Nuremburg Trails, but the March 16th event remembrance event organized each year by the “Nacionālā apvienība” (National Alliance) party (who are part of the current government) is not officially recognized by the Latvian government, and protests are organized by the “Latvijas Krievu savienība” (Latvian Russian Union) party. Legionnaire remembrance is also used by the Russian government as evidence of fascism sympathizers in the region. The page takedown comes in the wake of recent removals of numerous “hate group” pages from the social network. Administrator Māris Jurciņš has still not received any reply from Facebook about the status of his page.

Free plastic bags to be banned

Good news for the environment, but bad news for plastic bag lovers… From the beginning of 2019, stores throughout Latvia will not longer be allowed to provide customers with free plastic bags. The measures have been approved in order to decrease the use of environmentally-unfriendly plastic bags.

Government solidarity with Georgia

Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs (from the party “Vienotība”) traveled to Georgia this week to mark the ten year anniversary of the conflict with Russia in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The minister also wrote a Twitter message decrying “continuous illegal activities,” while an official statement by the Ministry asked all sides in the conflict to “engage constructively in the Geneva talks on conflict resolution.”

Song and Dance Festival director dies at age 62

Uģis Brikmanis, director of this year’s Song and Dance Festival concluding concert “Zvaigžņu ceļā, passed away on Thursday at the age of 62. Brikmanis was a highly active leader of Latvia’s culture scene, and directed many Song and Dance Festival concerts as well as Riga’s 800th anniversary in 2001 and various theater performances throughout Latvia and Lithuania. For an overview on his life’s work (in Latvian), click on the second link below.

Farmer accused as Russian spy

Latvian citizen Jurijs Stilve, was given a three-year suspended sentence on Monday for espionage. According to Latvia’s Security Police, the farmer from the Alūksne region (close to the Russian and Estonian borders) had been collecting information about military infrastructure and passing it on to Russian agents.

State Environmental Service director under investigation

Inga Kolegova, current head of the State Environmental Service, has been charged by state prosecutors with failure to disclose more than €300,000 in business deals dating back to 2013. Kolegova owned 50% of the wood processing company “Pallogs” with her brother, and there are suspicions that they improperly used company dividends to pay undeclared and untaxed wages to employees. Kolegova does not plan on stepping down during the investigation.

Likeņdārzs opening concert and Simtgades zaļumballe

Two major cultural events took place on Saturday evening. First, Likeņdārzs, the massive crowdfunded monument park in Koknese that has been under development over the last 10 years officially opened on Saturday with a massive opening concert. At the same time, the massive "Simtgades zaļumballe," a traditional outdoor ball to celebrate 100 days before Latvia's 100th birthday, took place in many locations all throughout the country. For those of you who would like to keep up with other 100th anniversary events, you can check out the English version of the Latvija 100 website here:
And finally, for those of you who are living outside of the country... it finally cooled down this weekend! Temperatures only reached around 21 today, and in the near future it looks like rainy, autumn-like weather is on the way.