Latvia hinders civil partnership, seeks to ban “bad” ribbons and throttle media investigations

Lawmakers in the Baltic country of Latvia are moving to solidify or extend limits on human rights on three fronts — blocking a proposed partnership law that would give rights and security to both opposite and same sex couples, preparing to ban an orange and red ribbon seen as symbolizing contemporary Russian imperialism and throttling the ability of journalists to investigate using the national Register of Companies.

On October 8, the Latvian parliament or Saeima will yet again be presented with at least 10 000 signatures on a citizens’ initiative to permit the registration of “life partnership” (Latvian dzīves biedri) between any two persons living together in an affectionate relationship. After Latvian media reported on September 30 the rejection of the proposal — an issue that has been repeated brought before the Saeima over the past 20 years — there was outrage on social media and a new round signatures of secure and verifiable on the citizen initiative website ManaBalss.lv (My Voice) reached 4000 in 24 hours, reached 7000 over the following weekend and passed 8500 by the start of the week. A demonstration by supporters of the initiative has been called for October 8 in front of the legislature in the Latvian capital.

Seventh try, a lucky try?

The proposal, rejected in committee on opposition by a majority of nationalist and conservative members, would legally recognize non-married couples regardless of gender and amend the laws and regulations that provide family protection and support. It would provide certain benefits to all families, appropriate tax incentives, reduced and non-discriminatory state fees, the right to the transfer of housing rental rights, legal inheritance rights and custody rights over children, as well as granting the right to information and decision-making in matters of health care. Social guarantees and family social benefits in the broadest sense would be provided- not only for married spouses, but also for life partners and their children. If the current signature initiative succeeds and is presented to the Saeima, it will be the seventh attempt to legalize some form of civil partnership in Latvia since the late 1990s.

Kooseluleping for Latvians?

If the proposed legislation is moved through the legislative process and adopted, Latvia would follow in the footstep of neighboring Estonia, which allowed same and opposite sex civil partnerships or kooseluleping in 2016. The Latvian law would also be similar to Sweden’s Sambolagen (Cohabitation Law) passed in 2003, which has a focus on property rights. Same sex marriage was “legalized” in Sweden in 2009, when the law defining marriage was made gender neutral. It is this aspect — that a gender-neutral law recognizing “all families” is seen as a back door to full same-sex marriage — that has aroused opposition from conservative and nationalist politicians as well as heated debate on social media. Some opponents argue that the law would “break with tradition” and violate a 2005 amendment to Latvia’s constitution, the Satversme that explicitly defined marriage as “between a man and a woman.”

The amendment of Article 110 came into force in 2006 and was adapted at the initiative of conservative and religious politicians in the wake of the first Riga Pride march for LGBT rights in 2005, an event marred by fights and counterdemonstrators tossing bags of feces at a church opened for worship to some of the pride marchers. In the current ongoing debates on social media, opponents still appeal to “morals” and what they say is the supremacy of the Latvian constitution over any legal changes in the European Union (EU) and Europe as a whole. Same sex marriage or civil unions are legal in some 30 countries. Some say that legalizing same sex unions will destroy Latvia’ s already low birth rate (as if banning such relationships will somehow encourage homosexual persons to reproduce). Studies in the US and Sweden indicate that legalizing same-sex civil partnership or marriage has no impact on “conventional” marriage rates, which vary because of factors other than what LGBT persons do.

An evil Halloween colored ribbon

In another action that could be seen as limiting free, but “offensive” expression, the Saeima passed in its first reading a law that would forbid the public display of the orange-black striped ribbon of St. George, ranking it the same as a Nazi swastika or Soviet Communist hammer and sickle, both currently banned from display at public events. St. George ribbons, as were also attached to Czarist medals for military heroism, have been handed out by pro-Russian organizations in Latvia every year on May 9, a controversial Victory Day celebration that is a legacy from Soviet times. Western Europe marks the end of World War II in Europe on May 8, the slippage by one day is due to confusion as to when the German surrender was acknowledged in Moscow, two time zones ahead of Berlin. However, celebrating May 9 has become a kind of assertive holiday for many Latvia’s Russians, whose ancestors (along with ethnic Latvians drafted into the Red Army) drove the Nazis out of Latvia. The Halloween colored ribbon has become a signal of ethnic Russian solidarity for some, and a symbol of aggressive Russian imperialism for the legislators calling for its ban, and for many Latvians as well. The ribbon has been used by Russian-backed separatists fighting against the government of the Ukraine in the Donbass region and occupying Crimea.

Smaller and harder to define than a Soviet flag or Nazi armband, the controversial ribbon has been attached to car antennas, lapels and tied to random objects. Enforcing a ban will present practical problems for police and will not solve what is seen as the underlying problem — the perceived hostility toward the independent Latvian state of those displaying it. Taking away their mode of expression will not change their attitude and may even harden it. Instead, more efforts should be made to educate children in the remaining separate Russian school system in Latvia about Soviet totalitarianism and the dangerous behavior — toward Russians — of the current Russian government.

Limiting database access by media

Oddly, the ribbon of St. George has a “benign” past and was worn by Latvian soldiers who got medals serving in the Czarist army and later fought in Latvia’s war for independence after 1918. A version of the swastika, the “fire cross” adorned Latvian and Finnish military aircraft in the 1920s and 1930s (with no influence from Nazi Germany) and a newsreel of a late 1930s Latvian Air Force Day circulating on YouTube would shock modern-day viewers unaware of the context. Symbols are not the problem, critical thinking and understanding is.

Finally, Jānis Bordāns, the Minister of Justice from the New Conservative Party (one of five forming the current government) has amended changes in the law governing the Register of Companies (not where you would look first for threats to press freedom) to impose restrictions on which journalists may access semi-confidential (?) information in this data base. It will only be permitted to “investigative journalists” whose activities as such are certified by the director of a journalism program at an accredited Latvian institution of higher education. In addition, the journalist must not have violated personal data security rules and is not doing anything that is a threat to “national security”. In other words, the use of leaked information that speaks truth to power. Never mind that foreign journalists looking into things like money laundering never went to a Latvian college or university and don’t know anyone to “certify” them. Just more ways to create levers against reporters.

As if that wasn’t enough on the current Saeima agenda, a new law on public service broadcasting is being discussed — with a clause that Latvian Radio and TV must provide free airtime for broadcasts explaining the core values of the Constitution, statements of significance for the public, public service advertisements and “calls to charity”. All of which are so-called “rubber clauses” that can be stretched according to political needs of the moment. Maybe it would be better to appropriate funds for an editorially independent program on the law and human rights. Making announcements vital to public safety goes without saying on any broadcast service. But there is always reason for journalists to be wary of power.

A freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia who has covered the country and region for 20 years. Speak native Latvian and English, fluent Swedish and German.

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