Latvia

By Anna Sweeney

 

2000px-Flag_of_Latvia

Official Flag of Latvia

Introduction

Latvia is a Baltic country in Eastern Europe, ranked 28th in the World Press Freedom Index as of 2017, which is a slight decrease from 2016 when Latvia was ranked 24th.1 According to Freedom House, there are approximately two   million people currently residing in Latvia, with a high concentration in Riga, the capital city.2  Reporters Without Borders labeled Latvia as having “two-speed freedom,” due to the two major populations in Latvia: the Latvians and the Russians. The official language is Latvian, yet 33.8 percent of the population speak Russian.3 Those who speak Latvian are able to use the Latvian media as a resource for news and current events. On the other hand, the Russian speakers media is “riddled with propaganda and fake news.”4 Therefore, the two populations tend to have different degrees of freedom. In accordance with this, defamation is still considered a crime in Latvia. These facts lead to a kind of dichotomy regarding the freedom status in Latvia.

Historical Background 

Latvia has a unitary parliamentary republic; the executive branch is led by the chief of state President Raimonds Vejonis and the head of government Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis.5 These two individuals have the highest authority in Latvia. The president acts as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, can declare war with approval from the Saeima (Parliment), and appoints the supreme commander in wartime. The Saeima can authorize war and they are the ones who elect the president.6 The Saeima moral duties are described in the Constitution of Latvia, “I, upon assuming the duties of a Member of the Saeima, before the people of Latvia, do swear (solemnly promise) to be loyal to Latvia, to strengthen its sovereignty and the Latvian language as the only official language, to defend Latvia as an independent and democratic State, and to fulfil my duties honestly and conscientiously. I undertake to observe the Constitution and laws of Latvia7.”

Latvia was not declared an independent state until 1918, and established a democratic parliamentary republic, and joined the League of Nations in 1921. However, the title of independence did not last long as Latvia was under Soviet control in the late 1930’s, and then occupied by Nazi Germany for the majority of World War II, against the wishes of the Latvians. Because of this, Latvian has a long history with Nazis, communists, war crimes, and anti-Semitism. During this time, thousands of Latvians were killed, deported, recruited into the German military or placed in concentration camps.8 During the Nazi occupation, approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews were killed.9 Even the Latvian President was deported.10 Latvians call this the “year of terror.11” After the war, the country was again being controlled by the USSR. Stalin, in an attempt to “more fully integrate Latvia into the Soviet Union…deported 42,000 Latvians12.” This led to the country adopting more Russian ideals, until the Latvians began to protest Soviet rule and Communist Russia in the late 1980’s.13 Finally, in 1991, Latvia again declared its independence and joined the United Nations. Today, Latvia is a member of  several international organizations including the National Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, the European Union, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Monetary Fund, Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe,  and the World Bank.14

Free Speech

The Latvian Constitution states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The church shall be separate from the State.”15

Flag desecration is one of many controversial issues relating to the freedom of expression. In July 2013, when Latvia was changing its currency to the euro, a group of protesters publicly burned the European Union flag as a symbolic way of expressing their disapproval of the new currency. Although burning or destroying the Latvian flag is illegal, there is no specific law that prohibits Latvians from burning the flag of the European Union. That being said, the interior minister of Latvia expresses his objection: “Latvian residents should also respect the flag of the European Union, which shows our affiliation with the European family.16” It has been suggested that the burning of the European Union flag and other such acts of defiance could potentially bring about a radicalism movement in Latvia. 

In 2008, a law was made called “The European Union’s Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia,” which declares that manifestations and offenses of xenophobia and racism, like hate speech or hate crimes, are punishable by penalties and/or imprisonment. Examples of these hate speech crimes would be denying the holocaust happened, advocating for the Nazi regime, etc. Hate crimes would be things like vandalism, arson, assault, and tormenting individuals for being gay. The first draft of the bill only applied these racist and xenophobic crimes to the Nazi regime, but was then changed so that it would also apply to anyone who commits hate crimes and speech. This law was necessary for the European Union considering that the Soviet rule and Nazi occupation in several parts of Europe left a dark historical shadow that certain groups dwelled in, which left a catastrophic concern about xenophobia. The “Landmanis case” is an example of this law being implemented. Landmanis is the publisher of the Patriots magazine, and was responsible for the circulation of an article named “Jokes About the Holocaust.” His argument was that he did not say anything anti-semitic, and then he referenced Article 100 of the Constitution, which protects free speech. The court, however, ruled that he had intentionally published the articles, knowing that they were offensive and hurtful towards several groups of people.17 A supplementary incident occurred when an individual known simply as “A.J.,” a self-declared neo-Nazi, stated at an anti-Fascist conference  that “Jews and Gypsies are not human beings, and that is why they are not members of our organization,” and continued to promote the destruction of the Jewish people, all while knowing that several Jews were in the audience. The Department of Criminal Cases of the Latvian Supreme Court ruled that A.J. was guilty of expressing ideas of national hatred.18 Although these two cases ruled in favor of anti-racism and anti-xenophobia ideals, there are numerous cases regarding hate crimes that go unpunished because of a lack of evidence to try in court.

Another major issue is the absence of LGBTQ rights in Baltic countires. In 2006, the European Commission rated Latvia as having the lowest acceptance of same sex marriages in the European Union (12 percent), and only an 8 percent acceptance of homosexual couples adopting children. Although sexual activity between same-sex couples is legal, Latvia has yet to legalize same-sex marriages, which means that LGBTQ couples do not have the same rights as heterosexual couples. The Latvian Constitution defines marriage as “a union between a man and a woman19 20 The government even banned a pride festival in Riga in 2005, and again in 2006. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis stated “This is not acceptable. Latvia is a state based on Christian values. We cannot advertise things which are not acceptable to the majority of our society.21  In 2013, the issue escalated further when the Russian president Vladimir Putin passed a law that prohibited “propaganda” of the nontraditional sexual nature.22 Since Latvia has such a high Russian population, the aftermath of this law affected Latvia as well. This led to a number of Latvians in anti-LGBTQ organizations to advocate for enacting a similar law in Latvia, but failed.23 In an article written by Chojnicka, homophobia is described as “serious social problem” and a source of political gain in Latvia.24 A lot of political figures are praised for their stance against LGBTQ rights, and authority figures seem to tend to ignore these issues. In the capitol city of Riga, the LGBTQ community held a pride parade to advocate for equality and gay rights. This parade was attacked by nationalist groups, churches, and right-wing mobs using both verbal and non-verbal abuse. The attackers threw human feces at the parade goers, and shouted things like “Homosexuals are dirty sinners…they are immoral people and they don’t have a place in normal society. We have to stop them now. We can’t wait until they start demanding the right to get married and adopt children,” (direct quote from ANSS leader Viktors Biese). All the while, the police and other church members simply watched and did nothing to stop them.25 Equality is a huge factor relating to freedom. The fact that same-sex couples cannot be married is a step backwards from the state of civil liberties in Latvia.

An additional matter of contention is that of the national language and identity in Latvia. Because of the intricate history between the Soviet Union and Latvia, one out of four individuals in Latvia is a Latvian-Russian, making Russians the largest minority group in the country.26 Therefore, the Russian culture has become integrated within the Latvian culture. Since there is such a high population of both Russians and Latvians, some people living in Latvia speak both languages. However, those who aren’t bilingual can suffer certain biases and even be exposed to censorship. These tensions between Russians and Latvians continue to cause discrimination between the two ethnic groups. In accordance to this, there has been debate over the controversial celebration of Soviet Victory Day (May 9th). This holiday celebrates the Soviet Union’s army winning in a war against Nazi Germany. The Russian population in Latvia has strong rooted beliefs in the former Soviet Union, whereas the Latvians do not.27 The Russians want to recognize this day as a holiday, but the Latvians believe it further strengthens the power the Soviet Union has on Latvia.

Several of the people living in Latvia want Latvian to be made the official language of Latvia. However, the Russian-Latvians strongly oppose this. In fact, the Russian-Latvians organized a protest specifically against Latvian being the sole language used in high schools and middle schools, called “A Ray of Light against Darkness.” In this protest, which was held in November of 2017, the organizers asked the Riga City Council for permission to hold the event. The Education and Science Minister Karlis Sadurskis held that all subjects in Latvia will be taught exclusively in the Latvian language.28 Multiple people were upset about this, and the language dispute continues to prove to be a controversial problem between the Russians and Latvians. 

Free Press

As stated in the Constitution of Latvia, Article VIII number 100: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to freely receive, keep, and distribute information to express his or her views. Censorship is prohibited.”29 

Nevertheless, Latvia has had several encounters with the issue of censorship in the past. In the 1940s, Latvian was under Soviet rule, which included an abundance of censorship and banned literature. During this time, the only media and books that were available were those which shared the ideology of the Soviets. Any media or publications that had different political views or ideas were banned, hidden, and unheard of. Religious literature was prohibited as well. Books written by political leaders like Stalin and Lenin were overprinted and distributed in order to shape the minds of society into thinking like these Communist dictators.  Librarians played a huge part in the circulation of these rules: “The Soviet Power considered librarians as ‘ideological frontline representatives’ who were entrusted to build, organize, and propagate the collections of Soviet literature in libraries. They also carried out discreet tasks, namely selected literature ‘harmful’ to the regime from the open collections, and those books were transferred to waste paper, furnaces,  or to the restricted collections.”30 Naturally, there were some librarians who attempted to preserve history, and ran “black book markets,” in which they regulated and assisted the illegal selling and purchasing of banned books. These exchanges were very discreet in order to avoid drawing attention from the KGB. Several librarians were persecuted for storing literature that was described as “anti-Soviet.”31 

History repeated itself, in a sense, during the Nazi-Germany occupation of Latvia. Words like “Latvia, national, and Latvian” were not used, so as to attempt to erase the national identity of Latvia. Then, just like the Soviets, they banned books. Jewish authors, communist literature, Latvian authors, and left-wing manifesto were all prohibited. The Soviet era textbooks were rewritten to match the ideals of Nazi Germany. Even the grammar was altered; names were written in the typical German standards, and Latvian names and grammar could only be added afterwards with a hyphen or apostrophe. 

Libel remains a criminal offense. An openly gay Latvian poet by the name of Rihards Bargais published a series of comical stories titled Gossip.32 These fictional stories were usually of a sexual nature, and one specific story was brought to trial. In the story “Karogs,” he writes: “the poets agita draguna and ronalds briedis were sleeping together for a while and were so restless in their sleep that they regularly woke up in the morning lying across each other, forming a perfect Nazi swastika33.” The two characters in this excerpt are the names of two famous Latvian poets. The poets were upset and demanded a settlement, and that the publication be withdrawn. They submitted a claim for “withdrawal of news containing infringement of reputation as well as to exact the financial compensation for violating privacy and infringement of reputation.34” According to Latvian law, it is illegal for the press to violate a person’s private life. The case was brought to court where Bargais had to pay Draguna LVL 2,000.35 Then the defendants decided to appeal this judgment in the Latvian Supreme Court, where the Senate held  that the law protecting a person’s private life and reputation applies first and foremost to the news; not a piece of literature that is known for its comical falsities. They explained their decision, writing, “These who create, perform, distribute or exhibit their creative work enable the circulation of ideas and options in society; this process has an important role in the creation of a democratic society… the right to express opinions is also guaranteed for ideas and information that can offend, shock, or irritate.36

Another case of defamation occurred in 2006. Elliot Welles was the head of B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League’s Nazi-hunting operations.37 During the holocaust, Welles was deported to Latvia with his mother, who was executed soon after. After his time in Riga he was sent to a different concentration camp in Poland, and eventually was able to escape, where he fled to Vienna. He then dedicated his life to capturing Nazis, focusing on finding the SS officer who ordered his mother to be killed. He succeeded in this quest and had the officer tried and convicted. Because of Welles status as an Anti-Defamation League official, he was able to pursue a search for Boleslavs Maikovskis: a person responsible for the mass-killing of 200 Latvians during World War II. He confessed to having burnt down every house in a village called Audrini, but his trial fell to pieces when he became sick and died in 1994.38

The Anti-Defamation League was known for its mission to fight hate crimes, fight anti-Semitism, prosecute extremists, and produce Holocaust education curriculums for schools.39

That being said, reporters and journalists in Latvia appear to have dangerous jobs. In several instances, reporters who have published “sensitive material” or controversial material, have been threatened, assaulted, and even murdered. For example, Leonids Jakobsons, publisher of Kompromat, was assaulted in his apartment building in Riga with a knife after publishing material regarding the “attempted murder of a former customs official.40  Hence, although Latvia laws protect freedom of the press, for the most part, the citizens often do not abide by these laws and seem to act on a social contract instead.

Critical Comparison

There are significant differences between Latvia and the United States regarding freedom. Flag desecration is illegal in Latvia and is punishable by law. In the U.S., flag desecration is protected under the First Amendment, as established in Texas v. Johnson41 and confirmed in U.S. v. Eichman.42 One of the most important things to remember about American law is that “the government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.43

Xenophobia is a crucial issue in both Latvia and the United States. Although Latvia passed “The European Union’s Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia,” the country is still riddled with Nazis, extremists, anti-semites, and communist mobs. In America, xenophobia is mainly directed at Muslims, Hispanics, and African-Americans. The national tragedy known as “9/11” sparked a distrust and hatred of Muslim people. President Donald Trump recently used his executive power to enforce a “travel ban,” also known as executive order 13769, officially named “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” and nicknamed “Muslim ban” by many. This order dramatically reduced the number of refugees allowed entry into the United States, revoked visas, detained travelers, prohibited Syrian refugees, and specifically banned individuals trying to enter the U.S. from any of the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.44 The State of Washington argued that Trump’s executive order was unconstitutional, claiming that it violated the Fifth Amendment and the Establishment Clause. After Washington v. Trump45, another executive order, 13780, was established, which was essentially an edited version of 13769. 

Another of Trump’s executive orders has also been suggested as xenophobia. Executive order 13767 “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” demands a wall to be built around the border of Mexico to prevent immigrants from entering America illegally.46 This order has been suggested to have caused several groups and individuals to commit acts of racism against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

African-Americans have been the target of racism and xenophobia as well. A movement called “Black Lives Matter” combats the violence against black people, particularly focusing on the criminal justice system’s relations with black individuals. The movement began in 2013, after Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Since then, several protests have occurred, all focused on the unlawful killings or racism-based treatment. Although some of the criminal justice system officers have been prosecuted for unlawful shootings, the issue continues to grow as more and more people join the movement. 

LGBTQ rights are one of the most distinguishing differences between the United States and Latvia. In Latvia, same-sex marriage is illegal, and the constitution defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.” In contrast, America legalized same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015, with a Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. The Supreme Court held that “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty,” and that “States must recognize lawful same-sex marriages performed in other States.”47 Denying a couple the right to get married is unconstitutional and contradicts the Equal Protection Clause.

Because of these points, America seems to be “more free” than Latvia.

Conclusion

In conclusion, although Latvia legally exercises the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the country as a whole still has a long way to go. Latvia has freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but social constructs overrule these laws. The LGBTQ community is still being targeted, Nazi propaganda, communist philosophies, racism, xenophobia, and Russian influence are just a few of the problems in the way of true freedom in Latvia. Slowly, they are breaking free from the red stain left by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Works Cited

  1. “The World Factbook: LATVIA.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency 16 Mar. 2018
  2. http://at.gov.lv/en/resursi/likumi

3.  Kučs, Artūrs1, arturs.kucs@lu.lv. “The European Union’s Framework Decision on the Use of Criminal Law to Combat Specific Types and Manifestations of Racism and Xenophobia and the Implementation of the Decision in the Latvian Law.” Journal of the University of Latvia. Law / Latvijas Universitates Zurnals. Juridiska Zinatne, no. 5, Sept. 2013, pp. 173-189

4. Chojnicka, Joanna. “Homophobic Speech in Post-Socialist Media.” Journal of Language & Sexuality, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2015, p. 138. EBSCOhost, 

5. ”HISTORY.” Background Notes on Countries of the World: Republic of Latvia, Feb. 2008, p. 3 EBSCOhost, 

6. Misiunas, Romuald J., et al. “Latvia.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Mar. 2018

7. “The World Factbook: LATVIA.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 16 Mar. 2018

8.  Gruzina, Ieva. “Relationship between History and a Sense of Belonging – Russian Speaking Minority Integration in Latvia.” CEU Political Science Journal, vol. 6, no. 3, Sept. 2011, p. 397.

9. ”Latvia Police Watch as Mob Attacks Gays.” Echo Magazine, vol. 17, no. 24, 10 Aug. 2006, p. 23.

10. Chojnicka, Joanna. “Homophobic Speech in Post-Socialist Media.” Journal of Language & Sexuality, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2015, p. 138.

11. VEISBERGS, ANDREJS1, anveis@lanet.lv. “The Translation Scene in Latvia during the German Occupation.” Baltic Journal of English Language, Literature & Culture, vol. 5, Jan. 2015, pp. 97-111.

12. Kučs, Artūrs1, arturs.kucs@lu.lv. “The European Union’s Framework Decision on the Use of Criminal Law to Combat Specific Types and Manifestations of Racism and Xenophobia and the Implementation of the Decision in the Latvian Law.” Journal of the University of Latvia. Law / Latvijas Universitates Zurnals. Juridiska Zinatne, no. 5, Sept. 2013, pp. 173-189.

13. VĒRDIŅŠ, KĀRLIS1, karlis.verdins@lulfmi.lv and JĀNIS1, janis.ozolins@lulfmi.lv OZOLIŅŠ. “Latvian Queer Kharms? Sex and Power in Rihards Bargais’ Gossip.” Interlitteraria, vol. 21, no. 2, July 2016, pp. 305-317. EBSCOhost, doi:10.12697/IL.2016.21.2.11.

14. RICHARD, PYLE. “Holocaust Survivor and Well-Known Nazi Hunter Elliot Welles Dead at 79.” Canadian Press, the, n.d.

15. Jr., Robert McG. Thomas. “Boleslavs Maikovskis, 92; Fled War-Crimes Investigation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 May 1996

16. Executive Order 13769 of January 27, 2017: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States. Executive Office of the President. 82 FR 8977–8982. February 1, 2017.

17. Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 192 L. Ed. 2d 609 (2015)

1 “Latvia.” Reporters Without Borders

2 “Latvia,” Freedom House

3 “Latvia,” Central Intelligence Agency

4 “Latvia,” Reporters Without Borders

5 “World Fact Book, Latvia.” Central Intelligence Agency

6 Latvia Constitution Chapter II

7 Latvian Constitution Chapter II Section 18

8 “Latvia History,” Encyclopaedia Britannica 

9  “HISTORY.” Background Notes on Countries of the World: Republic of Latvia, Feb. 2008, p. 3

10 “Latvia History,” Encyclopaedia Britannica

11 “The European Union’s Framework Decision on Use of Criminal Law to Combat Racism and Xenophobia,” Journal of the University of Latvia

12 “HISTORY.” Background Notes on Countries of the World: Republic of Latvia, Feb. 2008, p. 3

13 “History,” The Baltic Sea States

14 “HISTORY.” Background Notes on Countries of the World: Republic of Latvia, Feb. 2008, p. 3

15 Latvian Constitution Article VIII Section 99

16 “Interior Minister: the burning of EU flag could push Latvia down the road of radicalism,” Baltic News Network

17 “The EU’s Framework Decision on the Use of Criminal Law to Combat Racism and Xenophobia,” Journal of the University of Latvia

18 “The EU’s Framework Decision on the Use of Criminal Law to Combat Racism and Xenophobia,” Journal of the University of Latvia

19 Latvian Constitution 110

20 U.S. Embassy in Latvia, Marriage in Latvia

21 http://www.amnesty.eu/static/documents/2006/EUR0101906.pdf

22Plummer, Christopher. “Homophobia in the Baltic States: The Eurobarometer.” Human Rights First,

23 Plummer, Christopher. “Homophobia in the Baltic States: The Eurobarometer.” Human Rights First,

24 Homophobic Speech in Post-Socialist Media.

25 “Latvia Police Watch as Mob Attacks Gays,” Echo Magazine

26 “Latvian Russians,” Latvia.eu

27 “Relationship Between History and a Sense of Belonging,” Gruzina, CEU Political Science Journal 6

28 “Another protest to be held against plan to make Latvian sole language of instruction at schools”, The Baltic Times

29 Latvian Constitution Article VIII Section 100

30 Officially Non-Exsistent: Storage and Use of Banned Literature in Soviet Latvia

31 Officially non existent 

32 “Latvian Queer Kharms? Sex and Power in Rihards Bargais’ Gossip.” Interlitterari

33 Gossip, Bargais 2007: 69

34 “Latvian Queer Kharms? Sex and Power in Rihards Bargais’ Gossip.” Interlitterari

35 “Latvian Queer Kharms? Sex and Power in Rihards Bargais’ Gossip.” Interlitterari

36 Satori 2012

37 “Holocaust Survivor and Well-Known Nazi Hunter Elliot Welles Dead at 79.” Canadian Press

38 Boleslavs Maikovskis, 92; Fled War-Crimes Investigation, The New York Times

39 Anti-Defamation League, Britannica

40 “Latvia.” Freedom House, 11 July 2016

41 Texas v. Johnson 491 U.S. 397

42 U.S. v. Eichman 496 U.S. 310

43 Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 398, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 2536, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1989)

44 Executive Order 13769: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States. Executive Office of the President.

45 Washington v. Trump 847 F.3d 1151

46 “Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements”. White House Office of the Press Secretary.

47 Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 192 L. Ed. 2d 609 (2015)

Official flag of Latvia, pictured above

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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