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.

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