Friday, July 21, 2006

Latvia: Will Riga Allow 2006 Pride Parade?

The 2006 Riga Pride Parade, planned for tomorrow, seems to become a repetition of last year's chaos and homophobic protests in the Latvian capital. On Tuesday, the Riga City Council decided to ban the parade referring to threats of violence, the Baltic Times reports.

The organisers - Latvia’s Mozaika gay rights group - yesterday appealed the decision in court, but will not go through with the parade if authorities decline to grant permission.

The Pride Parade is very controversial in Latvia. The country's LGBT-movement right to public assembly is backed by the Latvian President, but Christian leaders, conservative politicians, and a large part of the public opposes the the Pride Parade on moral and religious grounds.

Last September, the Latvian parliament - the Saeima - initiated a process towards a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. However, in contrast to Latvian populist politicians, Latvian president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is adamant in her support to civil rights also including gay people:

The refusal to authorize this parade is unacceptable in a democratic country because Latvia's priorities are those articles of the Constitution, which enable people to express their opinion and the state should make it possible for them.

Last summer, Latvia's first gay pride parade was arranged, provoking violent protests from rightist groups throwing eggs and tomatoes at gay demonstrators. Then, some 30 people participated in the march, whereas several thousands had gathered to protest against it or to watch it as a freak event. In contrast to last year's low turnout, some 500 people are now expected to participate in Saturday's march.

It is with reference to the 2005 events, that the Riga City Council this year argued that the city cannot safeguard the security of gay demonstrators. A similar decision to ban the 2005 pride parade was overturned by court, why organisers are confident that they will be able to carry through also with this year's event.

If organisers will not be able to go through with the 2006 Riga Pride parade, Latvia's international reputation seems destined to be tarnished. Riga has been chosen as the venue for the NATO-Summit in November, but if Latvian authorities fail to safeguard civil rights in the country - regardless of sexual preference - voices will inevitably be raised to move the Summit.

President Vike-Freiberga, along with several leading politicians, clearly realises that Latvia must shoulder its responsibility in becoming a concomitant part of European democratic culture also on this point, and will therefore most likely support the struggle for gay rights despite widespread popular resistance. Thus, the prospects for gay people in Latvia seem destined to improve gradually over coming years, even if the country will have a very long way to go before acceptance and tolerance of gay people will prevail.

On Friday, the Riga court of appeals ruled against allowing the 2006 Pride Parade, thus infringing civil rights for public order reasons. The ban on the Pride Parade effectively prevents the 2006 parade and leaves future events much in peril.

On Saturday, participants of the Riga Pride festival had to take refuge in buildings were remaining events of the festival took place. Thousands of homophobic demonstrators had turned out into the streets, throwing eggs and human excrements at the about 100 Pride participants.


Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Excellent post, and it is good to see you cover this with such care. I have but a few quibbles: the organizers of the parade were not at all confident that they would carry the day in administrative court yesterday; quite the opposite -- the laws governing demonstrations were fine-tuned in the year since they won their court victory. At the other end of the spectrum, demonstrations by the far right on 16 March were also suppressed, and a symbolically chilling fence was erected around the Freedom Monument on that day.

The Saeima did not merely initiate "a process towards a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage" -- the Satversme was indeed amended, and Cardinal Pujāts actually referred to the amendment and its supossed guarantees for "the protection of the family" when he called for the ban last week.

Unfortunately, not only do "conservative politicians" oppose the parade on "moral and religious grounds" -- opposition has come from different parts of Latvia's twisted political spectrum, and it seems to be partly rooted in the lowest forms of populist exploitation that politicians can muster in advance of this autumn's parliamentary election (in a country where 90% of those surveyed do not trust the political parties and 70% do not trust the government or parliament).

LETA reported yesterday evening that many prominent intellectuals have signed an open letter to President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. The letter notes that the wave of hatred sweeping Latvia is no longer merely the work of extremists. It is now used by a dangerous "political technology" that appeals to the most primitive emotions, threatening to destabilize our young democracy and eat away at its foundations.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Pēteris,

Thank you very much for your comments! They have really added to my knowledge. One tends to lose the wider perspective when writing about "evénements particulières" why an extended perspective is always welcome.



Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Dear Vilhelm,

There is now a call for the resignation of the Minister of the Interior, because of his comments and because the police mostly stood aside during yesterday's, er, non-event (determined not to break the law, the gay activists held a church service and a conference at the largest hotel in Riga). At the church, activists were trapped by a small crowd hurling tomatoes and feces, and a taxi bearing some of the participants was almost forced off the road. Fourteen persons were arrested.

Foreign Minister Pabriks has expressed his shame and alarm with regard to what is happening, and as you pointed out the President has offered a clear voice (as she usually does). It is interesting to compare the reactions in the Latvian media (much of which is in one pocket or another). Whilst the most serious newspaper, Diena, has highlighted the grave threat to democracy, Neatkarīgā (known to "belong" to the foremost Latvian oligarch, Lembergs ["transparency is not a striptease"] who became an official candidate for PM from the Greens and Farmers the other morning... and in the afternoon was finally charged with various serious offenses, including money laundering) ran an editorial "explaining" that gay pride is the work of George Soros, who is trying to take over the country...

I completely agree with your assessment that "the country will have a long way to go" -- I would go yet further to suggest that this does not apply only to the recent homophobia. Racism is also on the increase (see, for instance, the Afro-Latvian Association's appeals, or the lawsuit with regard to Roma children being denied bread by a distributor of free food to the indigent in Jēkabpils).

Most disturbingly, what we have here is the residue of an authoritarian mentality (or -- authoritarian mentalities, really; the Soviet occupation was preceded by Ulmanis' régime...) that was (were) supposed to be diluted as we "rejoined Europe." As it is, this is still the poorest country in the EU (according to most measures), and one of the most conflicted in terms of identity. Politics seem to consist primarily of the expolitation of phobias. The specifics of this type of intolerance are unfortunately only symptoms of a shifting political dysfunction, and it seems to be getting worse, not better -- this is not what I had hoped to see.