LATVIA: Civil society’s concerns grow over closing space

(CIVICUS Monitor) As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, in the last two years civic space in Latvia has been “deliberately” restricted. Civil society and the media are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to policymakers, while there has been a growing number of attacks against organisations working on controversial topics. According to one Monitor source in the country, the government is taking similar measures as those being implemented by the governments of Poland and Hungary, albeit with a much more covert or “smart” approach.

Civil society organisations report that it has become almost impossible to schedule meetings with members of the government or even to receive answers to questions they submit. Making contact with government officials is also difficult. At the beginning of 2018, the government introduced an unofficial rule that any points of discussion for a meeting with a cabinet minister must be communicated to the government in advance.

Vilification and misrepresentation of civil society, especially of groups working on sensitive issues, is also ongoing, and is often carried out by representatives of the radical right National Alliance (NA) Party. For example, in mid-March the NA called on the Minister of Education not to cooperate with Latvian think tank PROVIDUS in the design and implementation of a new educational curriculum due to what the NA refers to as the group’s “immigration propaganda”. PROVIDUS works on “evidence-based policy and the development of open society values” and focuses mainly on “good governance, anti-corruption and migration”.

Attacks against NGOs working on controversial issues are not only coming from the National Alliance. For example, environmental NGO Dzīvnieku brīvība (Freedom for Animals), which had previously been denigrated by members of parliament, was recently targeted by the Latvian Agricultural Organization Cooperation Council, which represents farmers and is financed by the government. At the end of February 2018, Dzīvnieku brīvība was accused of preaching veganism in the schools and was labelled “blatantly demagogic”. Maija Krastiņa, a board member of the organisation, said that the NGO addressed the students about the issue of protecting animals and the environment. She stated:

Without imposing a particular lifestyle and without calling for veganism, young people were educated about the adverse environmental effects of animal production, in particular, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and other gas emissions, land use, fossil fuels and disproportionate use of water“. (Translated from Latvian)

She added that this attack against Dzīvnieku brīvība should be perceived as targeting any environmental organisation educating the public on environmental protection and global warming.

While the perception of closing civil society space is widely held among Latvian civil society, some still the hope that the government will be open to discussing the state of Latvia’s democracy ahead of the elections scheduled for Autumn 2018. Such discussions may be possible through the positive work of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edgars Rinkēvičs, who often speaks up in support of civil society in Latvia and is acting as a bridge between civil society and other branches of the government. The sector would welcome the establishment of some type of civil society organisation or platform that could provide a central contact point for organisations trying to address the government. This proposal was informally raised in March by members of the administration but there have been no subsequent developments.

Peaceful Assembly

According to sources in the country, for several years the government has been resistant to working with civil society on the rights of LGBTI people in Latvia. The appointment in 2014 of Dzintars Rasnačs from the National Alliance Party as the Minister of the Justice led to a further erosion in the relationship between the LGBTI community and the government.

Despite this unfavourable national context, civil society groups have developed a very positive partnership with the municipality of Riga and the police of the city, ahead of the Baltic Pride event scheduled for June 2018. This constructive relationship was developed over the two last years, with police demonstrating a positive attitude toward the demonstrators and taking great care in providing protection to them. Indeed, ensuring the safety of demonstrators is crucial, as there are always some counter-protesters and with that number expected to grow this year.

Despite the positive response from local authorities, Pride organisers still face resistance from the media and some political representatives. Some members of the organisation involved in preparing for Pride having become the targets of a hate campaign. For example, in December 2017 Valentīns Jeremejevs, president of the Latvian Science Fund and chairman of the Green Party unit in Riga, said that he planned to collect at least 10,000 signatures asking the Latvian parliament to hold a referendum to stop Pride from taking place. Jeremejevs posted vile messages on social media, such as:

“Why should my children look at and take on the habits of sick people. Why do I think that participants in the Pride are sick? Because a normal person with a non-traditional orientation will not go walking the streets and displaying himself to the entire nation”.

The European Green party later distanced itself from these comments and reaffirmed the Green Party’s support for LGBTIQ+ rights. The incident, however, was followed by further attacks on social media against Pride. According to Pride organisers, secret Facebook groups and Whatsapp chats were created to observe and attack Pride via social networks. Latvian organiation Mozaika, one of the organisers of Baltic Pride, told the CIVICUS Monitor that:

“There is a massive campaign, including hate campaign, targeting the organization and its leaders. There are secret Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats to observe and attack (via social networks) organisers of the Pride. There are always a number of counter protestors, and we expect to be larger numbers this year as it is an election year and [the] campaign has started already. Some media is very bias[ed], one newspaper is calling Pride a “Sex festival”, Russian speaking media is attacking Pride as GayEurope events”.

Featured image: Juris Kaža