Latvian CSOs continue to navigate relations with the government as civic space narrows


State foundation accused of competing with civil society for funding

On 19th April, the Society Integration Foundation (SIF), a public foundation that supports civil society working on integration, suspended a programme on refugees and asylum seekers with Refugee Safe House, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The action was taken allegedly due to the “insufficient quality of the service” provided by the latter. Civil society, however, alleges that the action was motivated by SIF's desire to compete with civil society for funding. 

According to the head of Refugee Safe House, Sandra Zalcmane, the NGO has sough to resolve the issue through negotiations and mediation, as is provided for in their agreeement. SIF, however, does not currently seem open to discussion and, according to Zalcmane, SIF has repeatedly turned down requests for meetings.

Minister of Welfare Janis Reirs has tried to mediate the conflict and said that she received no written evidence to substantiate SIF's allegation. On the contrary, Muižniece pointed out that the assessment from both an independent SIF expert and the Central Finance and Contracting Agency (CFCA) found that Refugee Safe House's services were of good quality. Moreover, the Ministry of Welfare was not informed prior to the decision to terminate the contract with Refugee Safe House.

As a result, on 16th May members of the parliamentary Citizenship, Migration and Integration Committee sent a letter to Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis calling for the government's to address the issue, but no action was taken. In the letter, the MPs noted that the two parties had not exhausted all possibilities to resolve the disagreement over the quality of the services through a negotiation process with the Procurement Monitoring Bureau or the Administrative Court before the agreement was terminated. 

The termination of the contract occurred after Refugee Safe House won an open call by the Ministry of Culture, for which SIF had also submitted a project proposal. According to civil society organisations interviewed, this is the latest example of SIF competing with civil society organisations for service provision contracts. For years, CSOs have called for SIF to reform its excessively bureaucratic systems which discourage NGOs from applying for grants. The need for reform was also supported by research financed by the Ministry of Culture in 2016. Currently, SIF is also planning to apply to the open call to manage grants in partnership with the Latvian Red Cross, a position that is supposed to be assumed by a civil society organisation.

Mixed reaction to Latvia rating downgrade

In April, Latvia was downgraded from ‘Open’ to ‘Narrowed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor, a move which generated a variety of reactions from the public. The change in rating was generally welcomed by civil society organisations (CSOs) at all levels. According to CIVICUS Monitor sources, smaller, local organisations became more aware of the issues around civic space and have begun reporting on civic space at the municipal level. As CSOs become more active in discussing civic space issues, coordination and strategy ahead of the elections will be crucial to push for needed changes.

At the political level, the reaction was quite “disappointing”, a source reported. According to Iveta Kazoka, director of Providus, “the reaction of the government was quite elusive”. The vague response highlighted a lack of understanding among public officials of what civil society is and the role it plays in monitoring, advocacy and policy making. 

The only party which openly criticised the rating was the radical-right National Alliance Party (NAP), which said that CIVICUS Monitor rankings are "the revenge of migrant-lovers". The statement referred to a CIVICUS Monitor update on an incident wherein the NAP had written a letter calling on the Ministry of Education to cease any cooperation with the NGO Providus regarding a new education curriculum because of the organisation’s stance on migration. The NAP published a press release, stating that the Ministry of Education, in turn, had claimed it did not cooperate with Providus, which highlights the chilling effect the NAP's letter had on the Ministry from working with civil society.

In separate developments, civil society believes that the government has prioritised the private sector over civil society. For example, Transparency International reported that they were only included in government meetings with stakeholders on policy issues related to corruption and taxation only after pressure on the government from third parties.

In a separate development at the end of March, following the money laundering scandal in February 2018 and pressure from the international community, the government adopted six recommendations from civil society to tackle the issues of low level of compliance within the financial sector to prevent money laundering and terrorism financing.