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Europe

Latvia Lunges towards EU Accession

Latvia has made much progress in shaking off its Soviet legacy and transforming itself into a democratic republic determined to get into the EU. But corruption and bureaucracy remain some of the niggling problems.

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Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has much to smile about

An unusual picture of a girl slapping Prince Charles’ face with a red carnation in Latvia flashed around the world in November last year.

Apart from that striking image - a war protestor demonstrating against Britain’s role in the Afghanistan - which briefly catapulted Latvia into the news, the tiny Baltic country sandwiched between Lithuania and Estonia in north-eastern Europe doesn’t usually draw the attention of the western media.

But as a candidate country striving for accession to the European Union and to the NATO within the next few years, several powers within Europe are interestedly following developments in the former Soviet republic, which gained independence in 1991 and has a population of 2.4 million.

Latvia, a country of many "firsts"

Several expert reports suggest that Latvia has come a long way since its bid to join the EU in 1997.

The country, a parliamentary democracy is today led by a pro-Europe Prime Minister, Andris Berzins, who heads a four-party centre-right coalition.

One of his main priorities is to secure EU membership for Latvia, which he believes will bring the country welfare and security.

Latvia also holds the special privilege of having the first woman President in eastern Europe - Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who was elected in 1999. Latvia was also the first Baltic country to join the World Trade Organisation in 1999.

Watching out for its minority community

Latvia has also fulfilled two key reforms in compliance with EU regulations.

In October 1998, the country voted in favour of citizenship amendments that would make it easier for Russian-speakers living in Latvia to gain citizens’ rights. The referendum which was termed "historic" meant that it would change the lives of the country’s estimated 500,000 ethnic Russians who were practically stateless since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Latvia was rewarded for its attempt to integrate non-citizens into society with much praise from the EU, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other European institutions.

In another move forward, the Latvian Parliament voted in April 1999 to abolish the death penalty, making it the last of the three Baltic states to do away with capital punishment.

Latvia still needs to get act together on some issues

But despite the progress made by Latvia in closing the gap to EU membership, the EU believes that Latvia still needs to get its act together on certain issues before it can enter the European fold. In 1998 the EU dashed Latvia’s hopes when it passed the country over for the so-called fast-track "first-wave" membership.

The main sticking points remain Latvia’s economy, which fell into disarray after it broke away from Russia in 1991.

Latvia has made rapid progress from a Soviet Command economy to the free market and has earned praise from the EU for weathering the Russian economic crisis. Latvia’s most important trade partners are Germany and the European Union.

But main EU concerns remain concerning fiscal issues and the slow pace at which the Latvian government is privatising its remaining large state-owned companies. Another concern is Latvia’s impediments – which includes heavy-handed bureaucracy - to entrepreneurial and investment activities.

Other issues which the European Commission will be following closely are Latvia’s reportedly shortfalls in dealing with large-scale corruption and promoting language teaching among non-Latvian speakers.

The issues of protection of intellectual property, dealing with organised crime, smuggling, human trafficking and the rather slow implementation of judicial reforms and reforms in public administration are likely to be taken seriously by the EU while monitoring Latvia’s progress.

A glowing report from the European Commission

In spite of touching upon these points, the European Commission has by and large delivered a glowing Annual Enlargement Report 2002, which could see all three Baltic States completing negotiations by 2003.

Of special importance to Latvia is the relatively positive message from the EU about its treatment of its large Russian minority populations, a demographic legacy of the Soviet era.

"The acknowledgement by the Commission that Latvia fulfils all the OSCE guidelines as regards citizenship and naturalisation is of particular political importance", Andris Berzins, Latvian Prime Minister was reported as saying.

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