Mike Collier in Riga -
Latvians are nothing if not generous to friends and neighbours, as anyone who has been invited to attend the revels of the midsummer Jani festival will attest. But in midwinter it seems they are equally generous if the "Baltic States Infrastructure and New Energy Investment and Finance Summit 2010" held in Riga on February 3-4 is anything to go by.
Things got off to a suitably tub-thumping start thanks to an introductory peptalk by Riga's vice mayor, Ainars Slesers, who despite his lowly-sounding job description these days remains the country's most charismatic and controversial politician/businessman.
During his brief address, he did reveal one intriguing fact: that Riga is now consciously modelling itself on Frankfurt as a business hub. The thinking behind that is because it has an airport with good connections, some decent conference venues, plenty of banks and a multilingual workforce, what works for Frankfurt could work for Riga. The fact that there's also a large port and a city worth looking at is a sort of bonus.
Whether Slesers' plans pan out remains to be seen (Frankfurt also has roads you can drive on without destroying your suspension, for example), but from the moment he wished delegates a happy conference and dashed off to implement them, it seemed things were looking up for Estonia and Lithuania, while the Latvian hosts deciede to whack themselves repeatedly over the head with a frying pan.
Latvian Economy Minister Artis Kampars simply didn't show up for his keynote address - citing sickness half an hour before he was due on - and didn't bother to send an underling in his stead. Maybe Kampars was genuinely incapacitated, but the whispers over tea and biscuits tended towards a different theory. "He was scared," one well-placed Latvian told bne.
Gabriele Kotschau from the Council of the Baltic Sea States at least had a decent excuse not to attend, having experienced problems flying from Stockholm due to adverse weather conditions. That's one in the eye for the Frankfurt plan. With Kotschau due to chair the opening roundtable too, it was extremely good luck for the organisers that the slick and debonair Mantas Zalatorius from the Swedish Trade Council in Lithuania was able to step into the breach and make the best of a bad job with some very intelligent questioning. It might have been a good idea if Zalatorius had been strapped to his chair and made to compere the whole event given the sometimes bizarre helming of his successors. Book him early is bne's advice.
Kampars' absence started to make a bit more sense as Latvian Public Utilities Commissioner Ivars Zarins outlined how governments in Latvia like to treat regulators as scapegoats for their own failings. "If the regulator is performing his job well, no one is satisfied with him. That seems to be the situation we have," he said, before Latvian lawyer Maris Vainovskis outlined how he has fought against various attempts to introduce retroactive laws.
All in all, not a great morning for Latvia's image as an investor-friendly destination, and one that got worse for the second session when Estonia's minister for economy and communications, Juhan Parts, and Lithunaian Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas settled back into their chairs and proceeded to steal the show.
Parts waxed lyrical about Estonia's progress on the Estlink-2 electricity cable to Finland: "Estlink-2 is on track - thanks to [European Commission] support. It is in the process of public tendering and I hope that Lithuania and Sweden will manage their (Swedlink) cable, too. We can also pool our network in the Baltic countries and all that can happen in the next three to five years," he said.
Sekmokas was a bearer of equally good news and filled the conference in on how he'd finally managed to give plans for a new Ignalina nuclear power plant a much-needed kick up the backside, revealing that all concerned parties including a lead investor from the nuclear industry plus the governments of Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Latvia would be signed up to a binding agreement, "hopefully by the end of 2010 or in a worst-case scenario by early 2011."
The softly-spoken Lithuanian has already overseen the liquidation of the short-lived energy behemoth LEO LT by means of a "civilised agreement" and the introduction of an electricity exchange in Vilnius. He quietly trumpeted the achievement. "We do have a functioning electricity exchange. 43% of electricity in Lithuania was traded through the exchange in January. The price was well below the price set by the regulator. This shows the exchange is really working," he said.
As if keen to remind the audience that the Latvians hadn't quite given up on caving in their craniums with crockery, lawyer Janis Zelmenis presented a nice potted comparison of the business climates in the three Baltic countries that showed Estonia and Lithuania way ahead of Latvia on pretty much everything except corporation tax.
Hopefully Parts and Sekmokas have sent Kampars a get well card. They might double up and include a thank you note in the same envelope.
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