Friday, July 2, 2010

Latvia: Moving toward a "police state lite?"

I'm putting some pieces together, maybe too few, maybe not enough, but it is looking more and more like Latvia is drifting toward becoming a “police state lite”. Let's look at what has happened in recent weeks.
A court lifted a ban by the Riga city authorities on holding a march and flower-laying event on July 1 to commemorate the “liberation” of Riga from Soviet occupation in 1941 when Germany invaded the USSR. When one of the official organizers of the march, Uldis Freimanis, an activist for fringe causes, failed to show up for the event because he was summoned for questioning by the Security Police, the “regular” municipal and national police had a technicality on which to stop the march by some few tens of individuals. The main organizer was not present! One police force “helped” the other police to ban free expression that had been correctly sanctioned by a Latvian court.
Just to set the record straight as to where I stand.This march was a dubious undertaking, to say the least, since the Nazis were hardly interested in restoring an independent, democratic Latvia, but simply making the nation part of Ostland, a province of Hitler's empire. The Latvians were considered racially a few levels below the Aryan Germans, while Jewish Latvian citizens and any European (often Austrian) Jews, to whom Latvia had given refuge in the late 1930s were rounded up for extermination.
When Hitler started running short of cannon fodder, the German occupation regime in Latvia started drafting or otherwise strongly urging young Latvians to “volunteer” for two Waffen SS divisions formed to fight on the Eastern Front. The so-called Latvian Legion suffered enormous casualties. The formation of the Legion was, in effect, its own punishment for those who want to look at things in these terms.
However misguided, ignorant or simply pro-Nazi the organizers of the planned July 1 march were, they were correctly granted the right to express their views (and freedom of speech is tested by the expression of offensive views, not by public rallies to praise how blue the sky is or how fine it is that summer is warm). The police, it almost seems, conspired to prevent that free expression and even made a few arrests on July 1. Free expression, backed by a court, lost out to the police.
At almost the same time, the Security Police brought criminal charges against the author of an article in the Russian language portal, which is based in Daugavpils, for suggesting that the deportations and repression by the Soviet occupation authorities on June 13-14, 1941 was not harsh enough. For me, this is personal, since my grandfather, Andrejs Zeidaks and his family, were on the list of those to be deported in a later action (precluded by the arrival of the German army). However, this is not sufficient reason for me to celebrate anything other than my grandfather being saved by historical chance, nor to ask that freedom of expression be limited in Latvia. The crackpot author of the offensive article should be protected by the right to free speech, period!
Finally, there is the case, documented by the police's own video, of the Latvian theater and film director Viesturs Kairišs going home with his wife and a family friend/professional colleague after a night in the bars of the Old Town. Suffice it to say that Kairišs was not stone cold sober and was calmly walking with both ladies on his arms (this can be seen on the video). He apparently joked with a police patrol about getting a ride home, and this led to both him and a foreign opera singer getting arrested (the latter scuffling with police).
Even the police video shows that they were not dealing with aggressive, bellowing, stumbling, disoriented drunks (of which there sometimes is no lack in Old Riga as the night turns to early morning). The arrest of Kairišs and his companion (his wife was left alone) was a case of poor, perhaps malicious use of police discretion (if the police acted on every technical violation of the law, there would be hundreds of thousands of people in Latvia's jails). The cops simply didn't appreciate the man's sense of humor and punished him for it.
These incidents suggest to me that Latvia is continuing to move toward (or already is, with many unreported and unpublicized incidents) a “police state lite”. The most disturbing trend is in the repression of free speech that started with summoning a old lady who wrote an angry letter to then prime minister Aigars Kalvitis to the Security Police, followed by the detention of an economics lecturer from Ventspils, Dmitrijs Smirnovs, for published remarks about the stability of the national currency and the banking system (aren't those part of the economy and economists are, like, trained to comment and analyze the economy?).
I'm writing this post while in the US for a few days more (the land of the First Amendment, but not without problems of its own), so I may not be up on all of the details of what has been happening in Latvia since June 20, when I flew over here. But I think you don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi i am a malaysian indian wireless engineer ..i will be leaving to latvia for a telecoms project..sorry to say ive heard some bad reviews about latvians not liking this true..i am worried..thanks