Lithuania PM talks up 2015 euro goal
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Lithuania needs to adopt the euro to stay competitive and the country's political elite is united behind a plan to join in 2015, its prime minister said.
Echoing his counterparts in neighboring Latvia in talking up the benefits of a currency club that many in the region would prefer to boycott, Algirdas Butkevicius told Reuters in an interview: "We are going to join the euro zone in 2015."
The head of the central bank, Vitas Vasiliauskas, and President Dalia Grybauskaite had cast doubts on that date. But Butkevicius said that, despite the euro zone debt crisis, there was now broad agreement in Lithuania about joining.
Butkevicius, whose center-left government took office this month after elections in October, also said he hoped to cut the cost of the imported Russian gas that Lithuania relies on by 20 percent.
He said work would begin in January on planning the route to euro adoption.
"We have decided to create a special group for preparing some measures for implementing a plan on having the euro in Lithuania in 2015," he said by telephone from the capital Vilnius.
The Baltic state takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2013, and expects its economy to grow by about 3 percent during the year as a whole, one of the highest rates in the region.
An ambitious plan would be to enter the euro zone at the same time as Latvia, in 2014, Butkevicius said, but that would depend on inflation falling further so 2015 was more likely.
With opinion polls showing most voters in Lithuania's northern neighbor oppose joining the shared currency the year after next, the government there has launched a campaign to persuade them to change their mind.
To adopt the euro, a country has to meet economic targets on debt, budget deficits, inflation and long-term interest rates.
Latvia has said it meets those targets and aims in February to seek a European Commission assessment of its euro readiness, but plans no referendum on membership.
Butkevicius said Lithuania needed the euro to make the country more attractive to investors.
The third Baltic state, Estonia, joined the common currency last year.
Butkevicius's Social Democrats are the largest party in a coalition that also includes the Labour Party, the Order and Justice Party and the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania group.
The parties decided soon after taking office to raise the minimum wage to 1000 litas ($380) from 850 litas.
Despite the likely impact of that hike on the public purse, the prime minister has also said his government will run a tight fiscal policy.
The new parliament just approved a 2013 budget with a deficit of 2.5 percent of output, below the 3 percent limit allowed for adoption of the euro.
Another key budgetary issue will be persuading Russian gas giant Gazprom to reduce the price of its gas, the prime minister said.
Lithuania is dependent on Russian gas and its former center-right government ran a policy of increasing energy independence that led to legal clashes with Gazprom and led to criticism from Moscow.
Butkevicius said he continued to back the building of a liquefied natural gas terminal in the western port town of Klaipeda to provide competition to Russian gas, and said he would pursue talks with Russia on price cuts.
"The main problem is the very high price of gas, we would like to change the formula for calculating the price," he said. Lithuania currently paid 1400 litas ($540) per 1000 cubic meter. "We would like to buy gas maybe 20 percent cheaper."
He also planned a working group on that issue, as well as an inter-governmental meeting with Russian officials in the middle of January, he said.
($1 = 2.6113 Lithuanian litas)
(Reporting by Patrick Lannin; Editing by John Stonestreet)