Positive CSO funding developments, protests against COVID-19 vaccinations, debate on LGBTI rights

Positive CSO funding developments, protests against COVID-19 vaccinations, debate  on LGBTI rights
People protest against COVID-19 vaccinations (REUTERS/Ints Kalnins via Gallo Images).

Association

National NGO fund open for applications for 2022

The NGOs fund, managed by the Social Integration Fund (SIF) since 2016, which aims to strengthen the sustainable development of civil society and democracy in Latvia, is open for project applications for 2022 until 30 September 2021. This is the very first time that the tender has opened so far in advance - it was usually published at the beginning of each new year - which should provide a better time frame for NGOs to organise their annual budgets.

The creation and implementation of the NGO fund was strongly advocated for by Latvian NGOs and its budget has grown over the years: from 400,000 EUR in 2016 to 1,8 million EUR in 2022.

New specific funding programme for NGOs to support vaccination against COVID-19

A new funding program for NGOs has been launched by the Social Integration Fund (SIF). The aim is to provide support to activities implemented by NGOs, in addition to the activities performed by the state and local government institutions, which promote information and access to the COVID-19 vaccination process in all regions of Latvia.

The deadline for submission of project applications was 9th September 2021. The project applicants were able to submit only one project application with the aim to target at least 1,100 people. The total funding available is 396,000 EUR, with a maximum of 33,000 EUR available per project applicant. The funding makes up 100% of the total eligible costs of the projects, from the start of the project implementation until 31st December 2021, when all project activities must be completed.

Civic Alliance – Latvia (CAL) and Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation (LAPAS) praised the programme, stating that it was “very good” for the COVID-19 vaccination rate which is still very low in Latvia (less than half of the 1.92 million population have been vaccinated). According to LAPAS Director Inese Vaivare, who is involved in the Prime Minister’s strategy group dealing with the COVID-19 situation in Latvia, it’s a sign that the government is strongly supporting NGOs to play an important role in the fight against disinformation.

On people protesting against Covid-19 vaccination, we can’t say ‘it’s only misinformed people who don’t understand’. It’s our duty to understand what the real problem is and how we can deal with it,” Ms Vaivare said.

Tax reform raises concerns in Latvian NGO sector

As of 1st July 2021, new amendments to the Law on State Social Insurance entered into force, implementing minimum mandatory State social insurance contributions (minimum contributions). The minimum mandatory contributions per quarter are three minimum monthly salaries, as stipulated by the Cabinet of Ministers (the minimum monthly salary in 2021 is 500 EUR, so 1,500 EUR per quarter). If the salary is less than the minimum salary of 500 EUR per month or 1,500 EUR per quarter, the employer must pay the minimum contributions for their employees. These amendments will affect many workers, especially those who have a primary job in one of the tax regimes affected by the changes (e.g., employees with a basic income, or self-employed workers for whom it is the only source of income), which is around 10% of all Latvian employees, according to the Central Statistics Bureau.

These changes will also have a significant impact on the work of Latvian NGOs, given that the total number of employees in associations and foundations in 2021 is more than 19,000 and data show that 91% of the organisations employing people do not reach the minimum monthly wage. Work in an NGO is the only source of income for almost 8,000 employees, and nearly half of these employees' earnings per month are below the minimum wage level.

NGOs in Latvia are concerned about how these changes will affect them, since they will only receive tax notices for July, August and September in October 2021. Regarding projects which have to be completed by the end of 2021, organisations will find out the final costs of employees working in these projects only in the Spring of next year. And if the social contribution allowance is calculated, the organisations will have no resources to cover it because the projects will have already been completed.

Civic Alliance - Latvia, together with other NGOs, has launched discussions with the Ministry of Finance regarding these concerns. The first meeting of the working group was expected at the end of September 2021.   

Peaceful Assembly

Baltic Way 2021 organised by anti- COVID-19 vaccination groups

The Baltic Way, a historic moment in the Baltic countries to advocate for freedom since 1989, was used this year by opponents of 'mandatory' COVID-19 vaccination to spread their messages. The event was held on 23rd August 2021, and was previously advertised extensively through several media – the organisers even created a five-language website.

The organisers stated that more than 900,000 participants had signed up, but Latvian Television's footage from the centre of Riga showed that there were significantly fewer visitors and as a result a chain couldn’t be fully formed. According to police estimates, there were around 7,000 people. The motives behind people’s participation differed: from open denial of the COVID-19 virus to those who wanted to immerse themselves in memories of old times.

The first chair of the Popular Front of Latvia and a prominent figure in the fight for independence, Dainis Īvāns, told Latvian Television that he was quite outraged. 

It's stealing an idea. Quite a disgusting thing. (…) And stealing such very big and sacred ideas. After all, the Baltic Way itself is on UNESCO's list of heritage as the perfect model of people's solidarity. And it must not be used for any vile purpose.

Baltic Pride 2021 in Riga

The Baltic Pride 2021 took place in Riga from 2nd to 7th August 2021, and ended without any significant incident. Throughout the week, 40 events were organised to raise the profile of the LGBTQI+ community and its supporters at national and European level, in society, politics and business. While the usual march didn’t take place, a ‘Pride bus’ drove through the Latvian capital.

Pride co-leader Kaspars Zālītis reported to the media that “the week was uplifting”, since many politicians and representatives of institutions participated in the conferences.

However, on 7th August, on the streets of Riga several peaceful protesters held posters and signs expressing their support for the conservative family model. On the same day, a musical festival was organised by some religious activists on the island of Lucavsala to honour ‘traditional families’; among others, a number of protesters against COVID-19 restrictions and ‘forced vaccination’ also visited this counter-event.

During the Summer, public debate on LGBT+ rights in Latvia was sparked after Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš condemned an anti-LGBT+ law adopted in Hungary in mid-June 2021 and signed a document at the meeting of Ministers for European Affairs which affirms support for the rights of LGBT+ persons. Several Latvian NGOs working in the field of ‘natural’ family rights (and represented in the Council for Demographic Affairs chaired by the PM) have called for his resignation from office. The NGOs stated that the PM “has not expressed the opinion of the majority of Latvian society” and has “embarrassed” Latvia internationally because “he has openly interfered in the internal affairs of a sovereign state – Hungary”. 

Expression

New online portal for e-governance sparked controversy

On 9th September 2021, the new Unified Legislative Drafting and Coordination Portal (TAP portal) started to operate, as part of one of the tasks of the State Chancellery in the action plan of the government led by Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš to modernise public administration processes. The portal is an electronic National Information System for the circulation of government documents and data, which aims to give citizens more opportunities to follow up on the drafting of legislation at all stages. It will no longer be necessary to maintain separate internal document circulation systems in ministries and institutions: once draft legislation has been approved by the responsible ministry, it will be available on the TAP portal for comments, which can be submitted by any institution or public representative. This would simplify the old procedure where legislation was promulgated at a meeting of State Secretaries and opinions had to be requested.

Though these are all clear improvements from a transparency perspective, the Cabinet of Ministers' Rules of Procedure linked to the implementation of the TAP portal raised some strong criticism from Latvian NGOs.

While Civic Alliance – Latvia (CAL) is supportive of the new system, it is concerned about the digital gap among the population, which could lead to a decrease in civic participation; the NGO asked the government for some time to adapt to this new situation and to monitor how civil society will use the portal. Following this, it was agreed with the State Chancellery that there will be a transitional period of one month and civil society will be able to submit their opinion not only through TAP, but also by sending letters and e-mails. Ministries have been invited to be aware of any technical difficulty in using the system.

The most important thing is to include as many citizens as we can, not to have a new modern portal”, said Kristīne Zonberga, Director of CAL.

In addition, other potential changes in public participation in the legislative process are on the table. At the end of August 2021, some amendments to the State Chancellery’s draft regulations, ‘Rules of Procedure of the Cabinet of Ministers’, stated the renouncing of the Advisory Institute at meetings of State Secretaries, meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Cabinet Committee, i.e. the right of social partners and NGOs to attend these meetings.

After CAL and the Memorandum of Understanding between NGOs and the Cabinet of Ministers (known as Memorandum Council) sent an open letter publicly expressing their concern on this narrowing of civil and social dialogue, the government decided to leave the current practice of civil society involvement in the draft approved on 7th September 2021.

In addition, new wording in the Rules of Procedure, at the initiative of CAL, clarifies that projects related to the development of civil society and the activities of associations and foundations (including tax and financial issues) must be submitted to the State Chancellery for consideration by the Memorandum Council - respectively reflecting the decision of the Memorandum Council in the accompanying annotation of the regulatory enactment. Additionally, not only representatives of the government's social partners, but also NGOs who have provided opinions will have the right to participate in the closed part of the Cabinet meeting where the draft national positions on EU policies are considered.

However, in the Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation’s view, the TAP portal could be a good participatory instrument for “those small NGOs that don’t have the capacity to sit in the room” of the legislative process.

State of emergency declared at the border between Latvia and Belarus

On 10th August 2021, the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia issued an order declaring a state of emergency in certain administrative areas, in the light of the rapid increase in the number of illegal crossings on the border between Latvia and Belarus. This emergency situation will be effective from 11th August 2021 to 10th November 2021 in the municipalities of Ludza, Krāslava, Augšdaugava and Daugavpils.

In cases where the State Border Guard finds that a person has illegally crossed the border between Latvia and Belarus, they have the right to use physical force and special means to return the person immediately to the state from which he or she illegally crossed the State border. In the past few months, concerns have been raised about the treatment of undocumented migrants that have been stuck at the border, with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) intervening in one case, requesting Latvian (and Polish) authorities to provide all the applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter.

LAPAS Director Inese Vaivare reported that, after a difficult start, the Border Guard began to cooperate with the NGOs willing to provide basic goods and shelter to the migrants at the border. The Minister of Interior established a specific working group that involved different NGOs – a positive sign of openness from the government. However, Vaivare noted that the situation is still very complicated, highlighting a few problematic points.

Firstly, it’s difficult for NGOs to find any direct source of information about what’s happening at the border. At the end of August 2021, when the UN Refugee Committee visited Latvia to take stock of the situation, a group of migrants was allegedly taken away from the Latvian-Belarusian border by Latvian authorities and later dropped off in the territory of Belarus, according to Latvian television's investigative broadcast De Facto. As a result, UN representatives could not meet migrants at the border.

Secondly, nationalist groups started to shame and blame NGOs for the help they have provided to migrants. For example, Vaivare received some hateful comments on social media, which stated she was an ‘enemy of her country’ and that NGOs shouldn’t receive funds from the government, after she expressed her view in a podcast debate.