Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Latvia - A police state ultra-lite?

Is Latvia turning into a police state lite with a creeping chilling effect on free expression and, perhaps, on free behavior in general?  There are some disturbing signs. On August 20, private security guards detained, according to one version, six persons who tried to collect signatures against the punishment handed down to the Russian performance artists (for lack of a better word) Pussy Riot. Three women dressed similarly to the Pussy Riot members  and three men were detained outside the Skonto Arena, where a concert was taken place. They were then turned over to the “regular” policemen, who, after a while, told all those detained that they had committed no violation and were free to go. Before that, some placards carried by the women were taken away and, it seems, given back only when the detainees left after the concert.
That, it seems, would have been the end of it, but now the young women have been summoned by the police again, to be officially informed that no charges will be brought against them. A strange formality to say the least, and with an undertone of – we are in control here, we tell you what to do.  Nicely, of course, with even the official police spokesperson saying that calling the girls to the police station was a courteous gesture that shouldn’t be misunderstood.
There was more before that. Activist Didzis Melbiksis, who has also been a radio journalist, organized a parody march just ahead of the Riga Pride in June, in which he and several other persons (all of them, by the way, supporters of gay rights) carried a large symbolic phallus from near the Freedom Monument to a nearby club. The march had been announced and permitted by the authorities. Nonetheless, the Riga Municipal Police chose to question Melbiksis and other participants, ask them for identification and the like.
Last fall, just after the extraordinary elections to the parliament or Saeima, Three persons spontaneously protesting against the actions of a political party and three bystanders were detained by Latvian police in the capital Riga on October 5 and taken to a police station for "identification". There they had a sign written on a sheet and a t-shirt with a slogan on it confiscated. According to media reports, the police gave no reason for confiscating the items, one of which was a sheet with a slogan labeling former Latvian president Valdis Zatlers "a traitor" and the t-shirt with a handwritten slogan "Zatlers, have you no shame?" in Latvian.
So-called administrative charges were filed against all six persons detained in connection with the protest and they could have faced jail term of up to 15 days and fines of up to LVL 25. To be honest, I don’t know how this case ended, but it was yet another case of police repression against spontaneous, non-violent political expression. The same as what the private security guards, perhaps with a tad more basis in law (a “private” public space) for restricting the behavior of people near a large event, did to the Pussy Riot petitioners.
What this is beginning to add up to is that Latvia is, and perhaps always has been, a kind of police state lite  or even ultralite , but just heavy enough to have the chilling effect on spontaneous expression protest that, at least back in the day, the US Supreme Court, would use as an argument for knocking down laws, ordinances and police actions that had precisely that kind of chilling effect on free speech that the actions of Latvian police have had.
Given the general undercurrent of indifference toward or even agreement with the way Pussy Riot has been treated in Russia, it is no surprise that certain forms of repression are accepted as normal in Latvia. Indeed, given the widespread mentality of if I don’t like it, I don’t care if it is repressed it is surprising that the police don’t take more advantage of the latitude that society gives them.  Perhaps some of the police – the younger, better educated ones – have acquired the skills of modern, Western-style policing. That would be a good sign. But it would be still better if society actually cared about these issues, or if, at least, there was a militant pro-free expression movement. But both of these developments are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.