LATVIA: Draft amendments to public benefit law under discussion

(European Civic Forum on CIVICUS Monitor) A draft bill proposing amendments to the law on public benefit organisations is being discussed by the government. According to Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), the goal of the amendments is to improve processes related to gaining public benefit status and the cooperation between public benefit organisations and the Latvian tax administration. However, the drafting process and the text of the proposed amdments present some challenges.

Despite CSOs having asked to be involved before draft amendments were put forward, a first draft was already brought forward by the government for consideration by the joint government-civil society body. There are also problems with the content. The draft legislation grants increased power to the tax service to request additional information from public benefit organisations, thus increasing the bureaucratic burden on them. Further, according to an explanation from a government minister during a meeting with civil society, public benefit status would only be granted to “non-professional organisations”, in other words organisations who do not have employees receiving remuneration for their work. While the Ministry of Finance withdrew this proposal after harsh criticism from civil society, according to CAL the amendments did not address fundamental issues for civil society and the issue of civic dialogue was missing.

Government-civil society relations improve ahead of elections

In other developments during the months of June and July, civil society witnessed a slight improvement in its relations with the government and leading political parties. Iveta Kazoka, director of the Centre for Public Policy Providus told the European Civic Forum that

“the threatening statements on civil society and democracy have stopped amidst the electoral campaign”.

Parliamentary elections are due to be held in Latvia in early October 2018. Organisations interviewed for this update reported that political parties have been very careful ahead of the elections. For example, Inese Vaivare, director of the NGO for development Lapas said that, at the moment, most parties show openness to meeting civil society and debating pressing issues.

The Prime Minister also opened up to dialogue with civil society and recently met with Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), the national platform of NGOs, after months of requests to do so. Moreover, a working group with policy-makers and civil society representatives was formed to reform the Memorandum Council. The Memorandum Council is the “main co-operation platform between government and NGOs in Latvia”. It is meant to meet once a month to assess stakeholder engagement with line ministries, review NGO participation in the drafting of laws and address issues raised by NGOs on problems in certain sectors. While a commitment to reform the Memorandum Council is a positive step forward, criticism persists as the working group is mostly focusing on very technical aspects while, according to civil society involved in the process, there are deeper cultural issues linked to the lack of civic education and engagement.