CIVICUS

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Latvia

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Last updated on 15.01.2019 at 11:24

Latvia - Overview

Latvia maintains a mostly enabling space in which civic freedoms can be exercised. Civil society is however small in size due to limited financing and limited popular support.

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As negotiations continue, Latvian CSOs look forward to good relations with new government

As negotiations continue, Latvian CSOs look forward to good relations with new government

Elections on 6th October 2018 have still not produced a government.

Following a heated political campaign during the October 2018 election, political debate calmed in Latvia as parties began the process of negotiating the formation of a new government. In the election, the social democratic party won 24% of votes, followed by KPV with 15%. The two main conservative parties, JKP and PAR, gained 14% and 11% respectively. The right-wing populist and national-conservative party National Alliance remained at around 9%.

With these results, civil society leaders do not expect a deterioration in their relationship with government institutions. According to Iveta Kazoka from the CSO Providus, “while the formation of the government is difficult, we are optimistic as we expect a government friendly towards the media and civil society”. She also reported that the leading political party apologised for the verbal attacks against civil society during the election period.

Association

Society integration fund

The newly elected Parliament is currently debating amendments to the Society Integration Law. The law establishes a fund, the Society Integration Foundation, to provide financial support to the non-governmental sector and promote the integration of society.

Deputies in the relevant parliamentary commission are also now hearing from institutional representatives and CSOs on a number of problems identified with funding of civil society in the past. Bureaucratic obstacles and problems in the management and structure of funding mechanisms are the two main issues highlighted. The current review of the draft incorporates several changes in the administrative procedures designed to help non-governmental organisations make full use of the programme.

On 4th December 2018, Arturas Kaimiņš, chairman of the commission, noted after a meeting with civil society that:

“The Society's Integration Fund's budget amounts to 11 million euros a year, but after the commission's discussion it clearly shows that there is no communication between the major non-governmental organisations that are actively interested in improving the functioning of the fund and the director of the fund that has been in it for years. The commission is prepared to fulfill the round table function in this situation in order to solve the problems." (Translated from Latvian)

Civil society is now advocating for further funds to be made available. As noted by the national platform for civil society organisations Civil Alliance Latvia (NVO): 

“The purpose of the call is to find the possibility of providing the NGO Fund with additional resources of at least 5 million euros in the state basic budget in order to promote citizens' participation and cooperation in social processes, improve the quality of life of the population and strengthen democracy in Latvia”. 

The draft law has passed its first Parliamentary reading and needs to go through two more readings before it can be enacted.

2018 civil society sustainability index

The 2018 Civil Society Sustainability Index concluded that the situation for Latvian civil society has worsened due to the reform of the tax policy which reduced the amount of donations and significantly complicated bookkeeping. Nevertheless, the report also highlighted a number of positive developments which defended the interests of civil society. These include the amendments to the Animal Protection Act that prohibited the use of wildlife in circus performances, as well as the amendments to the Sexual and Reproductive Health Act.

Further developments

In 2014, The ManaBalss.lv platform launched a petition to curb discrimination in the job markets for youth who do not have Russian language proficiency. According to the new bill, employers will be prohibited from imposing disproportionate demands on a specific foreign language.

Despite the fact that the number of signatories was lower than the threshold of ten thousand supporters, above which the Saeima (parliament) is obliged to consider the initiative, the Parliamentary Committee on Social and Economic Affairs decided to examine it in September. The platform stated

“it must be appreciated that this legislature has shown the political will to take over the initiative.”

This is one of three initiatives presented by the platform and voted for by citizens that the new Seima has already approved.

The Manabalss platform also launched a successful initiative calling for "an open vote in the presidential elections”, which collected over 11,500 signatories. The initiative called for an open and transparent procedure for the election of the President in Latvia. Previously, the President was the only official elected by secret ballot. The Saeima’s deputies have now approved the amendments to the electoral law which stipulates that the President shall be elected by the Saeima by open vote.

Association

The freedom to form associations is respected in law and in practice without restriction.

The freedom to form associations is respected in law and in practice, although amendments in 2017 to the Law on Associations and Foundations have tightened the rules applicable to the operation and financing of civil society organisations. In addition, and due to the problematic legacy of forced voluntarism, there is a reluctance within Latvian society to form and join civil society groups. While people are free to pursue almost all causes through CSOs, LGBTI persons and human rights groups face discrimination and public vilifcation, including on social media. Recent amendments to the Education Law do not recognise LGBTI marriages and a 2005 amendment to the constitution banned same-sex marriages. Minority groups have also reported problems with discrimination in the past. Workers are allowed to form trade unions and to use collective bargaining. In recent years, civil society groups have become concerned about perceived attempts by the government to weaken the sector, including by reducing funding streams to civil society and excluding CSOs from policy discussions.

Peaceful Assembly

Article 103 of Latvia’s constitution protects the right of people to take part in ‘previously announced peaceful meetings, street processions, and pickets’, wording which would appear to preclude the possibility of lawful spontaneous assemblies.

Article 103 of Latvia’s constitution protects the right of people to take part in "previously announced peaceful meetings, street processions, and pickets", wording which would appear to preclude the possibility of lawful spontaneous assemblies. Although groups including CSOs and political parties can assemble freely, public demonstrations are rare in Latvia. Anti-austerity campaigns failed to gain ground in 2008-2010 due to limited public support. In a positive development, the EuroPride march was held successfully in 2015 and received adequate police protection, with no disturbances reported. Organisers of the Baltic Pride parade in 2018 also report positive relations with local authorities, however public opposition to the LGBTI event has been on the rise in recent months, particularly on social media. This stands in contrast to past events, when the Riga local authority tried to ban some assemblies including the LGBTI pride march, which could only proceed after it was granted permission to proceed by the courts.

Expression

Freedom of expression and a free press are constitutionally protected in Latvia.

Freedom of expression and a free press are constitutionally protected in Latvia. Nevertheless, a lack of transparency on media ownership causes suspicion and is linked to allegations of biased reporting. Russia’s private and public media has strong influence in Latvia, and in 2014, Russian station Rossiya RTR was temporarily suspended for justifying Crimea’s annexation. The Internet is largely free to access, with no hindrances imposed by the state, and is characterised by lively debates on news websites. The media council that supervises electronic media is sometimes seen as not entirely free from political influence because it is elected by parliament. The brutal attack on a journalist in 2012 also raised press freedoms concerns, as did the 2010 case of journalist Aleksandrs Gilmans. Gilmans was arraigned before the court because of a book in which he made comparisons between Latvia and the Nazi regime. Journalists accused the government of using the legal system to discourage him from continuing his reporting work.