Politically induced slowdown

27. March, 2007


Dita Araja

Foto: rcrowley

Politicians responsible for promoting tolerance are a part of a team. However, a wise politician should be able to find a balance between party pressure and his direct responsibilities.

The rhetoric and positions of Latvia’s political parties on issues of tolerance are frequently very intolerant, and so the question arises — is it possible to promote tolerance in Latvia at all if the representatives of the people either do not understand the value of tolerance or are consciously intolerant? What about political responsibility in this area? A round-table discussion hosted by includes Liga Biksiniece, director of the Anti-Discrimination Division of the Latvian Ombudsman’s Office, Arturs Kucs, chairman of the Department of International and European Law at the University of Latvia, Nils Muiznieks, a political scientist and a former Latvian integration minister, Oskars Kastens (First Party of Latvia), the current minister for social integration, Linda Freimane, a board member of the Mozaika association of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, and Kaspars Antess, consulting editor for the Internet portal

Let us begin with recent events. The Integration Secretariat once planned to include sexual minorities as a minority group in the National Tolerance Program. Is the Secretariat still planning to do so in spite of objections on the part of clergymen and the First Party of Latvia (LPP)?

Kastens: After the dramatic events related to the gay pride event last, the government ordered amendments to the National Tolerance Program. When the program was presented to the Cabinet of Ministers, we received many letters of support and also negative responses. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis has instructed me to organize a meeting with all interested institutions to discuss the draft legal act and then to make proposals to the National Chancery on what should be done next. We are collecting views at this time, and we will decide on the proposals that we will submit as to the further development of the National Tolerance Program.

What is your personal view, should sexual minorities be included?

Kastens: I cannot say until I have considered all the opinions.

But do you have an opinion as a person, as Oskars Kastens?

Kastens: I have a view about everything as Oskars Kastens. I think that there should be a big conference at which we would find out how serious this issue is and how necessary it is right now. I tend to support statistical data. If we look at statistics from the Ombudsman’s Office, we see that you can count up the incidents of sexual discrimination in Latvia on the fingers of one hand. At the same time, there are unimaginably many complaints about discrimination on the basis of age, disability and ethnicity. I tend to think that this is not much of a problem at this time.

Does the representative of the Ombudsman’s Office agree?

Biksiniece: Not all minority groups will receive unambiguous support from the general public in Latvia. These are areas in which the government must be a groundbreaker; society must understand that these groups are protected. There have not been scores of complaints about this minority group in particular, that much is true, but, for two years in a row [2005 and 2006], the events of the summer have shown that this group is under threat. If we protect all minority groups, then this group must be included in the tolerance program.

To be sure, the views of a majority of people vis-à-vis minorities will often be negative, and it is the duty of the Integration Secretariat to think about how to protect these groups. If we protect other groups, which are listed in the Tolerance Program, then what is the excuse for excluding people with other sexual orientations? [Janis] Smits (LPP) holds the view that homosexuality is a lack of discipline. There are views that this is not a choice for people. If someone is born gay, then what is the excuse for discriminating against him, for not including him in this program? I believe that most people perceive the inclusion of sexual minorities in the program as a special privilege, but instead that represents the right of these people to enjoy the same basic rights as everyone else.

Kastens: I do not have the education to discuss whether homosexuality is inborn, inherited or learned, but I think that there are plenty of legal acts already which ban all kinds of discrimination.

Does the representative of the specific minority group agree?

Freimane: Of course not! There is obvious intolerance in Latvia against sexual minorities. I cannot understand how anyone can say that there is no such prejudice. In April we will publish a study, which was conducted last year to analyse things that members of Parliament have said about sexual minorities. You will see that intolerance has exploded. Mr. Kastens should take a look at why there have been no complaints. People in Latvia are afraid to submit a complaint, because then they will admit that they are homosexual. We receive threatening letters and phone calls, but there is this enormous structural problem — people are unable to file complaints.

Kastens: What, then, should politicians do? I have been told through the press that I should go and shoot myself. In that case we can talk of discrimination against politicians. There is intolerance in all areas, and emphasizing one particular group in society means saying that once group faces greater discrimination than others do.

Freimane: Mr. Kastens, that was your decision to become a politician and a public person. I did not choose to be homosexual. This intolerance is something completely different. I have never said that one group must be positioned against another.

Linda, what do you think would be the benefit of inclusion in the Tolerance Program?

Freimane: It would send a signal to the people that government policy is that intolerance is unacceptable, that the government is taking the leading educational role in this area and saying that, no, this is not the kind of society we want, we must change our attitudes.

Roma are included in the Tolerance Program, and they have their own state program, which the Integration Secretariat set up. Has this helped you?

Antess: Absolutely. It is very important that these issues are discussed. It used to be that the issue of Roma was never discussed at the government level, and so the discussion in society was reduced to whether people like Roma people or not. Now we can talk about what the national program can contribute. Many Roma have become far more proactive, and this has been a signal for them to take part and take advantage of the situation that the government has extended a hand toward them.

Nils Muiznieks was integration minister when the Tolerance Program was being written up. How did you decide at that time to include some groups and exclude others?

Muiznieks: There is both conceptual and political logic here. Conceptually the Tolerance Program was homework for Latvia after a global conference on racism. One recommendation at that conference was that each country should approve an action plan against racism in the sense of the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination. Its definition includes bias against people on the basis of nationality, skin color, language and religion, but not sexual orientation. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned view, perhaps other groups should be included, but there is a certain contractual and political basis for why this is so.

Should sexual minorities be included? When the Program was being prepared, experts felt, yes, it should. At the end of the day, they were not included, because as the minister who was politically responsible for the program, I understood that this would not be possible. It was unacceptable to representatives of the political elite, and as we can see, my suspicions were confirmed. The price for passing the program at all was to exclude this group.

Are you suggesting that intolerance towards sexual minorities should not be combated at all?

Muiznieks: No. Surveys about people’s attitudes vis-à-vis sexual minorities show that this is the group against which people feel the greatest biases. We saw aggression during the [Gay] Pride events, and it is clear that this is a group which faces specific intolerance in Latvia. Someone needs to promote tolerance, but is it specifically the Integration Secretariat, which should do so? Responsibility for eliminating discrimination is divided up in this country. The Integration Secretariat has a narrow responsibility for dealing with racial and ethnic discrimination. The Welfare Ministry is responsible for other kinds of discrimination. It is clear, however, that this is an issue that cannot be ignored by the political elite, by human rights experts, the ombudsman and also the integration minister.

Biksiniece: Well, maybe in that case you should have stated in the Tolerance Program that it only has to deal with ethnic minorities. I suspect that it is a political issue whether the Program addresses all minority groups or focuses just on one. I believe that people perceive the Integration Secretariat to be an institution, which is supposed to integrate the people.

Freimane: What is more, the secretariat has clearly signalled that it is interested in supporting us, we have received funding from it, we have had discussions with ministers. I am amazed that there is even a discussion about whether or not this issue is on the secretariat’s agenda.

Kastens: No, no. No one will ever be kicked out of the Secretariat, no matter what the person’s skin color, orientation or whatever. I, however, have received a letter from ILGA Latvija in which it claims that the Friendship Days event which Mozaika is organizing this year is not an event which will educate the people of Latvia or promote tolerance. ILGA also wrote that, according to their data, 82% of homosexuals in Latvia do not support the event. The things one organization says about the activities of others indicate that these activities are largely the cause of intolerance among many people in Latvia.

Freimane: This is a good example of how sexual minorities do not differ from the rest of Latvians. As is always the case, Latvians do not get along very well with Latvians. That letter from ILGA Latvija — have you asked to see that survey? We were not asked to take part. Friendship Days are focused very much on what the minister here is telling us to to, namely, we need to inform people, we need to educate society. That is exactly we are doing. We dare to organize a march for equality, which is our right, but then all of a sudden on this one issue the entire state feels that it has the right to declare who has the right of free assembly and who does not. These double standards against sexual minorities against everyone else who can go and do what he or she wants — that just seems astonishing to me.

What to do the experts say? Is there a political understanding of what this minority group needs?

Kucs: First of all, there needs to be a declaration that this is a problem in Latvia, that they have the same rights as any other minority group. At the political level, if would be good if the Integration Secretariat were to conduct a study of what politicians have said not just about sexual minorities, but about intolerance in a broader sense. We are no longer talking just about discussion; we are observing incidents of violence. People are attacked because they represent a certain view or belong to a minority group. This is dangerous, and the Integration Secretariat needs to work on this.

Muiznieks: We do need to keep two things separate — promoting tolerance on the one hand and Pride events on the other. I have no information to say that Pride events do or do not promote tolerance. I do not think that anyone has information that would allow us to decide what provokes opposition. It is absolutely clear to me that there is freedom of assembly in Latvia, and it is the duty of the state to ensure order and the safety of people.

Looking at the work of the Integration Secretariat, one gets the impression that it focuses more on advantageous minority groups and not the painful ones.

Kastens: I could not really agree. I had to react harshly when Somalis were beaten up. A very fresh example is when a construction company released a racist ad.

Muiznieks: There is no real political currency in defending the Roma or black people. I would like to defend my former institution and say fine, this is an issue in which there is a great deal of bias, this is an issue in which it is not quite clear who has the responsibility, and it is a very difficult question because we see the positions of the political elite, we see the views of society. It is hard to move forward.

Freimane: When the tolerance program was reviewed by the government the first time, was it sent to the Council of Spiritual Affairs?

Muiznieks: No, but there were discussions in which clergymen and representatives of ethnic minorities objected to the inclusion of sexual minorities in the program.

Freimane: It is very hard for me to understand why, in a secular country in which the church is separate from the state, clergymen have anything to say about government policy. I do not understand why clergymen and activists from NoPride are even at the table. To me that is the same as the US government inviting the Ku Klux Klan to talk about a race directive. It is absurd.

Kastens: The Council of Spiritual Affairs is just one of the interested institutions with which this process has to be discussed.

What are the criteria for selecting the interested institutions?

Kastens: They are the ones, which expressed their views when this matter was discussed.

You are a member of the LPP, and your party’s board has decided that all decisions by the Secretariat are to be agreed with the Council of Spiritual Affairs from now on. Apparently you have to obey.

Kastens: Yes, as a party member I must observe party discipline and do the things that I have been ordered to do by the board.

Biksiniece: If we are a democratic country and observe international rights and international law, then we must of course listen to different views, but the approval of the Council of Spiritual Affairs surely must not be mandatory. In that case it would be very difficult to make progress on minority issues, because religious ideas are one thing, but the church is far too involved in this process.

Kucs: Here we see the political reality. LPP members have made homophobic comments.

Muiznieks: I am no longer in the party, but I do want to say that no party in Latvia holds a monopoly on homophobia. If the minister represented the ZZS [Latvian Alliance of the Green Party and Farmers Union] or the TP [People’s Party], the situation would not be much different, because the position of other parties is quite similar. Yes, the influence of the church is clearly a bit stronger at the LPP, but if we look at comments made by the prime minister and other MPs, then I feel that it is a broader problem.

Kucs: But we are talking about the Integration Secretariat and what the minister does as a member of this party.

Do the Roma feel that there is political interest in promoting tolerance toward them?

Antess: I could feel nothing else, because the secretariat has reached out toward us. But I do not agree that politicians have to send the first signal for any project. The good thing is that they are listening to statements about the possible solutions, they trust the Roma who have the vision of what to do.

But what has really changed in the life of an average Rome person? Is it easier to find work?

Muiznieks: You are looking for the quick fix. The results will really be seen only after a while, not now, when the [Roma integration] Program has been in place for less than a year. The Program and its funding are important. It is important to have as many Roma as possible participating in the design, implementation and assessment of the program.

Antess: That is the thing — are the Roma making good use of this process? The most important thing is for Roma to shape their own thinking, and that depends on us. I do not see intolerance toward Roma to be all that much of a problem. If you are prepared to be attacked, you probably will be attacked. We have to begin with educating the Roma as such.

I would still want to understand whether promoting tolerance is or is not linked to political desires and interests. Can we talk about this in Latvia if the LPP continues to govern the most important institutions, which promote integration — the Integration Secretariat and the Human Rights Commission of the Saeima?

Kastens: To me the most important document is the government’s operating plan. There are other factors, including decisions by the party board, but nothing has been carved into stone as if it were the Ten Commandments.

Muiznieks: Politicians can influence the overall atmosphere in attitudes toward ethnic and racial minorities, but I would say that this could be generalized toward other minorities, too. I would be very happy if no one objected to the idea that we must observe the constitution and ensure the freedom of assembly and also that we must fully implement directives on racial discrimination. If that were done, that would be a good beginning.

Does the fact that parties are more intolerant or less intolerant promote the development of tolerance in Latvia?

Biksiniece: If it was such a terrible problem to approve the EU Employment Directive just because of the two little words sexual minorities in that Directive, then that shows what really influences politicians.

Kucs: Politicians do have an influence. They take decisions, the things that they say have an effect on public opinion.

If one party’s board has taken a decision biring the hands of a minister, can we hope for any progress at all?

Muiznieks: Politics is a team game, and the minister is part of the team. Party decisions are binding to him, but it is also his responsibility to pursue his ministry’s functions. These things have to be balanced.

Did you manage to do so?

Muiznieks: Not always. Definitely, I made mistakes, I was too weak and so on, but the minister is an unenviable situation, because he cannot win politically. No matter what decision is taken, one segment of society will harshly criticize him, because this is a question, which conjures up harsh debates. No one can complain if the minister insists that EU directives must be implemented and the Constitution must be observed. That should be the beginning, and then we can talk about what to do to promote tolerance and protect a certain group.

How strong can the foundations be if parties and politicians are intolerant?

Kucs: To be sure, we must remember political reality as to what ministers are obliged to do. That largely depends on the minister. I think that even within the positions that are taken by his party, he has a chance to take steps toward promoting tolerance and eliminating stereotypes. Each party represents its voters to some degree, but it would be ideal if politicians were to move forward and take decisions, which are not universally popular. Sadly, Latvia’s history shows that such decisions are more often taken on the basis of external pressure.

Biksiniece: As a lawyer, I want to look at the law. We have the Constitution, we have laws, we have mandatory directives — where is the problem? We have to deal with reality, with political positions, which make everything more complicated. I am sorry that sometimes the tendency is that attitudes vis-à-vis minority groups become poses that are struck, they are positions with which parties win votes. Politicians could take a more pragmatic view at this.

In other words, a minister must be smart enough to strike a balance between the law and the desires of his party. Can we expect this wisdom from you?

Kastens: Modus vivendi, as they said in Latin; the happy medium. I will try to do my very best. raksts

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