Friday, January 30, 2009

Political flash mob in Riga (videoblog)

The first political flash mob action took place in Riga, January 30 in front of the parliament (Saeima). The protestors, mainly employees and listeners of Latvia's public service radio (Latvijas Radio), stood silently with their mouths taped shut, protesting budget cuts and serious financial irregularities that have already "silenced" a significant part of the radio's programming. The radio, despite oversight by its own board of diretors and the National Radio and Television Council managed to run up accounts payable of nearly 800 000 LVL. The disclosure resulted in the sudden resignation of the director of Latvija Radio.
From a free speech viewpoint, the flash mob passed without incident. A few municipal policemen, dressed in ordinary street uniforms (no riot gear) patrolled near the event, which gathered at most some 100 people, including more than a dozen journalists and television crew members.

This is how it looked:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

First "penguin" action coming after February 2


The informal non-parliamentary opposition movement known as "The Penguins" (pingvīni) will hold its first action next week, February 2 at the earliest. When and where is still unknown, making this more of a spontaneous "flash" action than the "flashmob" action planned by the Latvian Parliament on January 30 to support Latvian public radio.
The Penguin action will apparently involve a select group of persons committed to non-violent (but possibly disruptive and disobedient) protest gathering to confront one or more government ministers or politicians. Map coordinates hinting that certain political figures may live along "strolling routes" have already been published on the Penguin's website/blog (in Latvian only). No name have been mentioned, making it difficult for anyone to accuse the informal political movement of incitement to harrass individuals or disrupt government activities.
It has been noted in the Penguin blog that flower-laying ceremonies (a part of foreign official visitor protocol) at the Freedom Monument where government ministers join their foreign guests could be an opportunity to express shame and disgust toward the Latvian ministers (not the foreign visitors, but obviously generating considerable publicity).

Flashmob at parliament to support Latvian Radio

Employees of Latvia's public service radio (Latvijas Radio) have called for a flash-mob to gather near the parliament (Saeima) building for five minutes on Friday, January 30 to stand in complete silence to protest the "silencing" of the national radio service through budget cuts and a large deficit apparently cause by negligence by persons and authorities responsible for the oversight of its operations.
This will be one of the first political flash mobs in Latvia, and it has been announced in advance by "non-flash" (on the internet, in social networks) means ("classic" flash mobs are often gathered by SMS on short notice). Earlier flash mobs (several hundred people stopping all movement near Riga's Central Station) have been artistic "happenings".
Because of the publicity and advance warning, as well as the nervousness of the authorities following the rioting on January and stoning of the Saiema building, there is some danger that police could try to prevent or disperse the flash mob. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Latvia moves from speech to non-violent resistance

After the January 13 street riots in Riga, subsequent threats of government repression and what is widely seen as continued government indifference to public opinion, an informal movement of non-violent resistance, called The Penguins (Pingvini). The term emerged from a remark by Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis, apparently in his New Year's Eve address to the nation (I was in the US at the time and missed it). Godmanis said that in hard (or cold) times, penguins squeeze together.
The penguin movement apparent started before January 13, since a contingent of mainly young people with placards bearing ironic "penguin slogans" was seen at the peaceful opposition rally at Riga's Dom Square that preceded the disorders.
Following statements that were seen as threats to freedom of assembly and speech by the Prime Minister immediately after the riots, journalist, blogger and radio personality (and my editor and colleague at LETA) Māris Zanders said that the government had "declared war" on the public and the only reasonable response was to prepare for non-violent resistance. Transcripts of Zanders' radio commentaries have appeared on the home page of the Penguins, putting him in the unwanted position of being an informal leadership figure for what is emerging as a non-violent, almost anarchist resistance movement.
Zanders has published a number of addresses and mobile phone numbers that he hints might be those of government ministers and has urged the public to call or send SMS to these numbers to express dissatisfaction. He has also listed some addresses and locations in Riga that can be understood to be the residences of the same ministers.  The journalist's commentaries have been formulated in sufficiently vague terms so that no one can call them incitements to harass public figures. Press reports say that several ministers have been turning off their mobile phones after work or failing to answer calls from numbers they do not recognize.
Zanders has also suggested the people go on " peaceful strolls" in areas where the politicians live or where important meetings of the government and parliamentarians are taking place. One could even have a friendly "snowball fight", he said.
The penguin website is developing discussions of other non-violent and civil disobedience actions (silent vigils, refusals to disperse).  There is, too, an undertone of concern that the authorities might use force against such protests and what, then, would be the reaction of the penguins and their supporters.
Aside from the penguins, Latvian farmers, especially dairy farmers, are threatening to obstruct roads with farm machinery and perhaps organize similar militant actions in Riga. The farmers are asking for government support to avoid bankruptcy during the economic crisis.
I think we are seeing the seeds of an extraparliamentary opposition in Latvia, ranging from non-violent demonstrators to civil disobedience, to possibly other forms of resistance if the state is the first to use force.  I will try to keep readers informed. 

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Look "provocative", go to jail

The news agency LETA reports that police in Riga detained several youths who "looked provocative" were loud and behaved "defiantly". So now this is a reason for police action? The chilling effect of the authoritarian Godmanis regime's "another Latvia" has now started.  The arrests took place in the Riga Old Town (Vecrīga), the site of riots on January 13, and the site of loud, provocatively dressed, sometimes "defiant" youths on almost all other dates in the calendar.
I don't know what these people were up to when they were arrested for being young, strangely dressed and "defiant" by the judgement of some police officer, but I would think their respect for the police has dropped and their readiness to maybe throw a paving stone back at those who detained them has increased. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

"Another Latvia" bans picketing in Riga's Old Town

The Riga City Council has denied permits for two politically-oriented gatherings in Riga's Old Town, the site of recent street riots against the government and parliament (Saeima) that saw windows smashed, police vehicles overturned and stones thrown at the police.
A group calling itself the "Action Party"(Rīcības Partija) and headed by formed Euroskeptic Normunds Grostiņš, called for a gathering on Saturday, January 17 at the Riga Castle (the "official"but ramshackle residence of the Latvian president) followed by a march to the Saeima. The Action Party wants the present government replaced by a cabinet of non-political professionals. Their permit was denied but the group has appealed to the courts.
Another rally was planned by a student group, also near the Riga Castle, on Sunday, January 18. It has apparently cancelled its plans.
There are comments and appeals circulating on the internet asking people to defy the ban on gatherings in the Old Town and hinting at a repeat of the January 13 disorders if the police attempt to disperse or interfere with any unsanctioned public meetings.
These bans on free expression (even as precautions against more violence) are in the spirit of the repressive (and scared, from the government's viewpoint) "another Latvia" to which Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis said the country had awakened following a night of rioting.
Unfortunately, it appears that more confrontations are inevitable -- certain parts of society have had a taste of actively fighing authority and there is some justification for at least civil disobedience and resistance to bans on free expression. It is not a good path of development, but unavoidable and largely to be blamed on the pig-headed, deaf and corrupt political elite of this country.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Crackdown on expression could follow Riga riots

Latvian prime minister Ivars Godmanis said that it "is another Latvia" after the January 13 riots in Riga and that "other methods" would be used to quell violent protests. Speaking on a morning news show January 14, Godmanis hinted that further mass rallies in Riga's Old Town could be restricted or forbidden. The peaceful rally ahead of the unrest was organized by a new opposition party and supported by various non-governmental organizations. It was called to demand that President Valdis Zatlers dissolve the Latvian Parliament, the Saiema.
Following the rally in Riga's Dom Square a large crowd moved on to the nearby Saeima building where confrontations erupted between a small police contingent guarding the entrance to the building and the demonstrators. Snow, ice and eggs were thrown, followed by paving stones, smashing several windows. There were a number of injuries on both sides.
The rioting spilled over into other parts of the historic downtown, with youths overturning several police vehicles, smashing windows at the Finance Ministry and several shops and offices. A liquour store was looted. Charges by riot police were met with showers of stones and other objects, including uprooted street signs tossed as spears at both the police and store windows.
My assessment:
On one level, the ruling coalition in Latvia had this coming to it. Regardless of what the law and the book of etiquette says, a riot is a form of political struggle, though less focussed and clear than a well-defined non-violent protest. Seeing eggs and rocks fly at the Saeima building as a symbol of the ruling elite and Latvian politicians  made not only me but many others feel that they had this coming. 
If there is more severe repression against future protests, it will most likely escalate to the West European model of periodic clashes between the police and young streetfighters.
While this is unfortunate, especially for those suffering collateral damage -- looted stores, injured police and bystanders -- it now seems inevitable that street violence will become part of the political scene here and the threat of such violence -- a likely excuse for curbing non-violent expression. Post-Soviet authoritarian thinking in Latvia is strong, and it will not diminish but find some self-justification after the Riga riots. 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Latvian Security police praise "chilling effect" of their actions

The Latvian Security Police have praised the "chilling effect" of their own actions in detaining an economics lecturer, questioning a musician and starting criminal proceedings against both late last year.
Juris Leitietis, the head of the counter-terrorism unit of the Security Police said (according to press reports):

"Maybe some say that these two criminal proceedings are senseless, but already now one can say, that they have, to a certain degree, given results, because people think whether they are acting correctly when not thinking about their statements in the public space. Everyone--starting from journalists, show hosts and ending with individual (internet) chatters- after these criminal proceedings started to think somewhat how to express their thoughts," Leitietis said, adding that it was one of the goals, to ensure that people do not harm others, even unintentionally."

I am a journalist. I tend to write based on facts and different sources. I try to avoid imprudent assertions (though I will quote imprudent people as part of a good story)I am not intimidated by the authoritarian pig Juris Leitietis and his Neo-KGB. But I will make one statement of opinion about this kind of thinking: FUCK THE SECURITY POLICE! Clear and simple.