Monday, February 23, 2009

Keep doing this work

There was a news report that the Latvian Security Police were going after some people who were forging and selling Latvian passports. This, plus watching out for real terrorist threats to Latvia, is a legitimate function of this agency. It's not like I think the Security Police are totally useless and repressive. When they attack free speech and try to chill debate in Latvian society, they are in their neo-KGB mode, but that is not to say that there aren't some legitimate functions. So, have a nice day, guys and gals.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Penguins signal that civil disobedience may be next

The informal, non-violent protest and resistance movement in Latvia known as The Penguins* is contemplating civil disobedience and the arrest of movement volunteers. This was discussed at a recent meeting of Penguin supporters in a Riga bar and restaurant. The discussion was led by journalist and commentator Māris Zanders, a "non-leader" of the Penguins, who asked "who is willing to do five days?" (a hypothetical jail sentence for possible misdemeanors related to obstructing buildings or disobeying and "resisting" police) with several of those present indicating they would do so.
The Penguins also discussed, in broad terms, the necessity for organizing a legal aid team to defend those eventually arrested as well as to gain maximum international publicity for those who may become Latvia's first political prisoners since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Penguins want to resist, by all non-violent means, the present government, which they see as corrupt, incompetent and deaf to its electorate. Their immediate goal is to have the government resign and to dissolve the Latvian parliament or Saeima and hold new elections. Many, however, are skeptical of whether new elections will improve the quality of governance in Latvia. In the long term, the Penguins want to see clean, efficient government, although the discussion on February 18 revealed considerable differences in long-term goals and visions.
A few representatives of the youth nationalist "All For Latvia" (Visu Latvija) party came to the Penguins' discussion. Their goal is to try to get elected in the next Saeima elections (whether snap elections in the next few months or at the end of the present term in 2010). One speaker said he wanted constitutional reform that would exclude "party politics" -- harking back to the authoritarian regime of President Kārlis Ulmanis after 1934.
Another speaker said the most pressing goal was to stop the plundering of the nation and to avoid the great debt burden that would be imposed by the ongoing 7.5 billion EUR package (from various international sources) to bolster Latvia's government finances and the banking system.
Zanders warned that regardless of what the Penguins do, he foresaw likely civil unrest in coming months as the weather gets warmer and the first of a wave of unemployed exhaust their unemployment benefits.
My take on this: The Penguins urgently need international legal, human rights and media contacts to prepare for any eventuality. Several lawyers and a man claiming to be a veteran police officer said that the treatment of persons engaged in civil disobedience, even if this was clearly stated, could be much harsher than in western democracies. One lawyer said Latvian courts and law enforcement structures still bore a heavy Soviet/totalitarian legacy and would not know how to handle "political"cases.
One solution is to have both international human rights lawyers and media ready to intervene and cover the detention and trial of persons engaged in civil disobedience. This would make Latvia less likely to violate human rights and diverge from European best practices in dealing with such forms of (technically illegal) protest.
* the term comes from Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis' New Year's Eve speech, where he said that in hard times, the penguins huddle together.

Press restrictions put off

A parliamentary (Saeima) committee has rejected proposals by Latvia's Minister of Justice Gaidis Berzins that would have severely restricted reporting on criminal cases (based on leaked documents and materials made public by the accused). Latvian media had expressed concern that this legislation would have prevented disclosures of such scandals as Jurmalagate, where transcripts of politicians' conversations in an attempt to corrupt the election of the mayor of Jurmala were leaked to the press and television.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Latvian Security Police Question Radio Journalist

The Latvian Security Police summoned Didzis Melbiksis,  a journalist from Latvian Radio, for questioning in connection with a post on what was apparently his private blog. Melbiksis told me this at an informal meeting of supporters of the Penguin Movement and I did not get all the details. What he posted, for informational purposes, was an anonymous document circulated on the internet ahead of the January 13 riots calling for a violent revolt against the Latvian government. While some of the suggestions in the document (such as preparing Molotov cocktails, which would have started fires and caused burns to anyone hit) were not carried out, the appeal was, in fact,  followed (perhaps through inspiration, not direct cause) by the riot.
I believe that even pamphlets calling for revolution are covered by the freedom of speech. One such example -- The American Declaration of Independence. The ideas of the Declaration could, by analogy, in some people's opinion,  be applied to the current situation in Latvia:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Drastic restrictions on criminal case coverage proposed

The Latvian Ministry of Justice (Minister Gaidis Berzins, Fatherland& Freedom Party) has proposed drafting a law that would drastically restrict media coverage of criminal cases by forbidding the publication and/or quoting  of case evidence and other materials. This is an apparent attempt to prevent, in the future, the publication of material embarassing to Latvian politicians, such as the transcripts of phone conversations in the so-called "Jurmalagate" scandal.
There such political figures as the current Minister of Transport Ainars Slesers and former Prime Minister Andris Skele were wiretapped (or unwiretapped, as some calls were on mobile phones) discussing the failure of an attempt to bribe a city councilman in Jurmala, a posh suburb of Riga, with Skele asking, when told of two possible candidates for mayor -- "who is the bigger cretin?" 
The newspaper Diena, quick to respond to the proposal to modify Latvia's press law and restrict criminal case coverage, quotes a Ministry of Justice official as saying that even coverage of open trials could be restricted, allowing "retelling" of testimony and evidence, but not "brutal quotation", whatever that means. Presumably Skele's memorable quote could be excluded from publication.
This is, yet again, to me, evidence that the so-called Latvian political elite is a bunch of scared cryptofascists who have no idea of how to run a democracy or manage a national economy. 

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Criminal investigation against musican ended

The Latvian Security Police have ended a criminal investigation against the musician Valters Frīdenbergs for allegedly destabilizing the Latvian financial system by comments joking made at a concert in November 2008. No formal charges have been filed.
According to the LETA news agency, the criminal investigation against Ventspils University College lecturer Dmitrijs Smirnovs continues, and he is still banned from leaving the country. Smirnovs was arrested in Ventspils, brought to Riga and detained for questioning for two days in November following publication of a report in a newspaper of a public discussion where he said that people should not keep their money in Latvian banks and in the Latvian currency, the lat.
The farcical investigation against Frīdenbergs has ended, but the case of Dmitrijs Smirnovs, a blatant violation of free speech, must not be forgotten. The chilling effect of what was done to him by Latvia's Neo-KGB still affects him and others intimidated by the actions of the Security Police.
People should keep up the pressure and express their continued outrage that the criminal investigation continues against the Ventspils academic. E-mail your protests to

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Penguins come bearing gifts

The Penguin Movement staged a peaceful and successful stroll-in by the Latvian parliament, the Saeima. leaving a small pile of gifts for the esteemed parliamentarians. Some, including an MP with whom I am friendly (his wife was a professionally important PR person a few years back and was/still is a nice lady), were not too happy with this, sensing the undertone of mockery. This gentlement, Mr.L (my Latvian readers know who) is said to have told a man offering his gift that " I don't take beggar's alms" and then whispered Fuck Off!
Maybe he should listen to his wife about good PR :)
Here is the video:

Penguins to gather at Latvian Parliament

The informal, non-violent extra-parliamentary opposition movement known as "The Penguins" will stage a "spontaneous" strolling action near the Latvian parliament or Saeima on Wednesday, February 4 at 3 PM local time. The action will coincide with an emergency meeting of the Saeima to take up a vote of non-confidence in the coalition government of Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis. The vote is not expected to succeed.
Internet sites have been urging penguin sympathizers to bring gifts (used clothing, soap, curios, and the like)for parliamentarians or to decorate nearby tree branches with patriotic ribbons.
It remains to be seen whether the police, who have been on high alert in the wake of farmer protests on February 3, will attempt to seal off the area around the Saeima building. On January 17, a few days after rioters stoned the Saeima and broke a number of windows, police sealed off the area with steel barriers ahead of an unsanctioned demonstration by the tiny "Action Party" (Rīcības Partija). Journalists and TV crews outnumbered a few party activists at that gathering.
During the farmers' protest, in which columns of tractors drove into Riga and onto bypass highways near the capital, a large number of police vans, equipped for possible riot duty (windows were covered with screens) and elements of the elite Alpha riot control and special operations unit were seen near one street crossing where highway police stopped a convoy of around 25 tractors.
The Penguin movement takes its name from a remark by the Prime Minister in a New Year's eve address to the nation that in cold times, penguins huddle close together.