Concern over criminalisation of solidarity case
As Russia’s war on Ukraine marked its one-year anniversary on 24th February 2023, Latvia has continued to demonstrate strong civic and financial support for Ukraine. As Latvian civil society organisations continue to organise public events to demonstrate their support for Ukraine, tensions between Latvia and Russia have increased.
Latvia’s diplomatic downgrading and removal of Russian ambassadors in Riga, in addition to its struggle against the spread of Russian influences and misinformation in its news sources, show the decline in Latvian-Russian relations. Latvia also continues to battle against Russian propaganda to ensure the protection of its freedom of expression and the media.
Civil society in Latvia continues to work on public participation and to strengthening its role in Latvian affairs. On 10th February 2023, the EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders visited Latvia to discuss support for Ukraine, sanctions against Russia, challenges to strengthening democracy, and the findings of the 2022 Rule of Law Report on Latvia.
According to the Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), Commissioner Reynders met with civil society representatives to highlight the need for strengthening the resilience of civic society and community in the Baltic region, “taking into consideration the present geopolitical situations, and for making the voice of civic society heard in decision-making processes”.
In #Riga for a two-days country visit. Today meetings with ⤵️— Didier Reynders (@dreynders) February 10, 2023
🔹Egils LEVITS, President of #Latvia
🔹Chair Andris SPRÜDS and members of the Saeima European Affairs Committee
🔹Inese LIBINA-EGNERE, Minister of Justice
🔹Civil Society Representatives
🔹Constitutional Court of 🇱🇻 pic.twitter.com/zgFXp8aa67
Russian minority rights in schools
In February 2023, the Latvian government adopted a law which aims to make Latvian the only language to be used in schools by 2025.
UN experts say that Latvian authorities must “clarify the harsh restrictions on minority language education” as this law is discriminatory towards minorities, particularly referring to the ethnic Russian population living in Latvia, which makes up a quarter of its population. The UN claims that this law breaks “international law and regional instruments to protect and uphold the language rights of the country’s minority communities”.
In response to the UN, Latvian authorities argued that this bill does not infringe international law as countries have a right to adopt “the most appropriate measures to ensure appropriate and effective protection” of minorities’ rights.
Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs has added that “Latvia has acted in good faith by increasing the proportion of the Latvian language as the language of instruction in education gradually”, starting with schools and preschools, “and in setting a sufficient transitional period for the amendments to take effect”. Moreover, “children and pupils will have the right to study the minority language and its cultural history”.
After Latvia underwent “Russification” policies during Soviet rule, Russian was established as the main institutional language. With this new language law, Latvia hopes to continue its ‘de-Russification’ efforts to maintain a strong Latvian language and culture.
Civil society plans and budget
On 9th February 2023, the Latvian Minister of Finance, Arvils Ašeradens, presented a draft of the Latvian State Budget for 2023. However, members from CAL are concerned as this plan does not ensure the “provision of sustainable funding for the activities and development of civic society with the view to ensure that the civic society of Latvia is stable, based on democratic values and capable of organising itself.”
Representatives from CAL also confirmed that there had been no session for consultation with civil society or public participation in the process of planning the 2023 state budget. Since then, CAL, alongside other organisations, has developed a cross-sectoral proposal for the State Budget 2023 which has been presented to the Saeima (Latvian Parliament), the cabinet, and Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, to call for the supply of sustainable funding for the activities and development of civil society.
Despite this financial burden, CAL has continued with projects, including the opening of The Democracy Academy to study “democracy and civic society in Latvia and Europe” with the aim to “strengthen civic competence among society”. The launch has reached hundreds of representatives from public institutions, non-governmental authorities, local leaders and the active population who were introduced to “the current situation in the formation and development of civic society in Latvia with particular focus on legislative aspects.”
Latvia-Belarusian Border: Human rights defenders, CSOs at risk
In November 2022, the state of emergency on the Latvia-Belarus border was extended for three months, and in February 2023 it was extended for another three months due to risks of illegal migration. Plans have now been announced by the Latvian government to construct a fence along Latvia’s Eastern border to improve its defence system.
A report by ECRE(European Council on Refugees and Exiles) claims that there have been continual reports of pushbacks, criminalisation of solidarity and repression against human rights defenders by Latvian authorities at the border. According to this report, the head of the Latvian State Border Guard, Guntis Pujāts, accused two members of the organisation Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem (“I want to help refugees”) of breaking the law by providing aid to seven Syrian refugees in between the Latvian-Belarusian border in January 2023, and thus committing an alleged criminal offence by moving people across the border without a special permit.
The European Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has sent a letter addressed to the Latvian Minister of the Interior, Māris Kučinskis, raising concerns over the human rights violations following the extension of the state of emergency at the Latvian-Belarusian border and for the criminalisation of human rights defenders and CSOs. Moreover, the ECHR imposed interim measures on the Latvian-Belarusian border which stated that the Latvian government should provide humanitarian aid, and not deport Syrian refugees until 8th February 2023.
In response to the alleged offences, members of “I want to help refugees” declared in a letter to the Latvian Ombudsman, Human Rights Committee of the Saeima, and other institutions:
“Considering that these Syrian citizens had previously approached “I Want to Help Refugees” because their lives and health were in danger, representatives of the organisation went to the border of Latvia and Belarus to make sure that the decision of the European Court of Human Rights will be implemented and that Syrian citizens will receive the humanitarian aid they need…The publicly released information that the representatives of “I want to help refugees” were in the territory of Belarus is not true”.
Earlier in December 2022,Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that they would be shutting down their operations in Latvia and Lithuania.
“We closed our operations in Lithuania and Latvia on 31 December 2022. Violent pushbacks and restricted access to those most in need of assistance prevented our teams from providing care to migrants/asylum seekers with full confidentiality and in accordance with our principles”.
There is an increasingly worrying trend against HRDs and civil rights associations, who are being targeted and criminalised for working on refugee and asylum seeker issues. Similar concerning cases have been documented in Poland and Lithuania.
We closed our operations in Lithuania and Latvia on 31 December 2022.— MSF UK Press Office (@MSF_Press) January 17, 2023
Violent pushbacks and restricted access to those most in need of assistance prevented our teams from providing care to migrants/asylum seekers with full confidentiality and in accordance with our principles. pic.twitter.com/i4CkKnZsmI
Although the Latvian administrative district court has recognised the “existence of public legal relationships” of same-sex couples, Equaldex, an online platform that monitors global LGBT movements, has shown that LGBTQI+ people have important legal rights in Latvia, although same-sex marriage and civil union are not supported legally after the Latvian government rejected the Civil Union Law in December 2022.
Nevertheless, civil society groups and activists are taking positive steps to make Latvia a safer place for LGBTQI+ people. The Association of LGBT and MOZAĪKA, states that their “Facing Change 2022” (Projekta "Pārmaiņu priekšā 2022”) project plans to continue monitoring hate speech on social media in 2023 to prevent the spread of hate speech against the LGBTQI+ community in Latvia and to improve the human and civil rights of vulnerable groups.
They also plan to advocate for the creation of a special campaign to “educate young people and public opinion leaders through involvement in civil society activities, including decision-making, and elections, especially addressing young people, including LGBT youth”.
In January 2022, the Ombudsman of Latvia sent a letter to the Saeima to bring awareness “to the lack of the previous Parliament’s progress in the field of human rights and good governance”. In this text, the Ombudsman urged MPs to “implement a policy that protects families of same-sex partners'' and for MPs to avoid spreading statements that could stigmatise certain representatives of the LGBTQI+ community.
Protests in solidarity with Ukraine
To mark one year of Russia’s war against Ukraine, civil society in Latvia organised multiple events and workshops to increase public engagement and show support for Ukraine.
The Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), along with other important CSOs, including the Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation (LAPAS), organised a poster workshop for their “Without you, there’s no victory!” campaign to demonstrate their common cause with the people of Ukraine. CAL jointly organised a meeting and rally with “I want to help refugees” (“Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem”) to condemn Russia’s aggressive war on Ukraine on 24thFebruary. It was reported that several thousand people gathered for this demonstration.
The Latvian government has also shown their support for Ukraine by being one of the most generous aid donors, but also through education by offering Ukrainian refugees the opportunity to study Latvian or Russian and Ukrainian at the Riga Ukrainian school.
The UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) has recognised that the “government, civil society and the people of Latvia have responded with steadfast solidarity towards the Ukrainian refugees”. On 17th February 2023, the UNHCR appealed for increased financial assistance to support Latvia and other European countries hosting refugees in the aim to provide and expand financial assistance, economic opportunities and social inclusion.
Nation-wide teacher strikes
The Latvian Association of Education and Science Workers (LIZDA) has sent a letter to the Saeima accusing state officials of non-compliance with regulations.
LIZDA reported having “noticed non-compliance with multiple existing legislative acts from the side of state officials” which has had an impact on workers in the education and science sector, but also decreased society’s trust in the government.
The Minister for Education and Science, Anda Čakša, has commented that there is no justification for organising a strike as he has declared that there is enough money for a salary increase depending on the “optimisation of the school network”.
Additionally, Inga Vanaga, the LIZDA President, has said:
“The union will also not agree with this counter-determination that wage increases can only be achieved by optimising the network of schools, because this is very unpredictable and cannot be influenced by the teacher.”
The trade union argues that the government has not fulfilled its promises of diverting state budget funding towards increasing the salaries of teachers. As a result, teachers will be expressing their rights to protest and will be organising a nation-wide strike on 24th April 2023.
Positive media environment
Data from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that Latvia respects freedom of the media and that journalists work in a fairly positive and free environment despite dealing with the spread of misinformation from certain Russian sources:
The legal framework in Latvia ensures freedom of the press, freedom from censorship, confidentiality of journalistic sources and access to public information.
Although access to public information is wide, transparency has been limited due to Russia’s warfare, but Latvia has been working on this with their “Law on Transparency of Representation of Interests”, (see previous update) which is a “new law that is expected to “promote transparency in the decision-making processes and also help the public better understand the decisions taken by the various authorities”.
Multiple media outlets from Russia have moved to Latvia for press freedom.
Journalists work in a fairly safe environment. Even though journalists face harassment, the police have signed a memorandum on the protection of journalists.
There are strong independent, private and local media in Latvia. Although there are several channels still broadcasting from Russia, these channels are highly regulated by the Latvian media to restrict any disinformation or propaganda, some of which have been forbidden due to claims that they have violated Latvian and EU legislation.
Whilst Latvia enjoys media freedom and regulates Russian sources to prevent misinformation and propaganda, its relations with Russia represent the growing tensions between Latvian and Russian news sources and restrictions on media freedoms.