Friday, September 17, 2010

Latvian police see no violation in campaigning by two political candidates

The Latvian National Police see no violations of any laws in campaigning activities by two candidates of the  Vienotība (Unity) alliance who had confrontations with security guards by the Riga Central Station and the Central Market, according to press reports.
Rasma Kārkliņa, a German born Latvian political scientist who worked extensively in the US, was told by security guards hired by the Norwegian-owned Linstow property management company to stop. Police were summoned after Kārkliņa objected and she went to a police station to make a statement.
Lolita Čigāne, another Vienotība candidate, was campaigning in the largely open-air Central Market where she got into a confrontation with security guards and firmly stood on her constitutional right to free speech,
A spokesperson for Linstow, which has stewardship over the public areas by the Central Station, where it manages the Origo shopping center, which is integrated with the train station, said that Kārkliņa should have obtained approval to campaign by signing an agreement with the company. However, such contracts apparently apply to semipermanent campaigning facilities, such as tents, sheds, or stand-alone signs (such as a large one erected to promote the candidacy of Ainars Šlesers, once associated with Linstow and Norwegian retailing interests). As Kārklinā said in an updated statement, she is "neither a tent nor a large banner".  The law cited by the Linstow spokesperson also speaks of "public institutions", which means there should be no political campaigning in closed spaces, such as municipal offices, police stations, City Hall and the like.
A reasonable approach would be to treat peaceful, free speech and assembly as a nearly inviolable right in all areas that are functionally public spaces (that is, open to all and generally allowing both transit by the public and the peaceful presence of members of the public). This means that the stewardship the Linstow can exercise over this area by contract or other legal right should be limited to strictly technical matters (cleaning and safety issues) and, to some extent, the placement of semi-permanent structures in the area, as well as some scheduling issues (hard to have two public gatherings in the same place at once).
What Linstow has chosen to do, instead, is to aggressively assert what amount to maximum property rights(like those of a private home, office and, to some extent, the enclosed areas of the Origo shopping facility) and the ability to dictate limits on the speech and behavior of persons in an area that is for all intents and purposes.
It may be a bit far-fetched to say that Linstow is acting on behalf of Šlesers, who helped set them up in Riga when he was a private businessman in the 1990s, it can be claimed on indisputable fact that the company has acted as a defacto private political police. Personally, I don't blame this so much on the Norwegians, who have always been Scandinavian-style democrats, but on the local Latvian mentality, to forbid and intimidate first, then ask questions about free speech and political rights later, when forced by a public scandal to do so. Unfortunately, the authoritarian reflex and the authoritarian personality are very much alive in Latvian political and corporate culture. In Norway, the spirit of the authoritarian Vidkun Quisling is dead, but in Latvia, the mentality of the distant authoritarian past, and of the not-so-distant totalitarian times, is still with us.

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