This article will be published in “European Atlas of Democratic Deficit” in November 2017.
Since regaining its independence, the Republic of Latvia (further on: Latvia) has been systematically developing and improving its judiciary, political system, and public administration to further integrate itself into the Western world and improve the well-being of its citizens. Nonetheless, numerous needed reforms and laws guaranteeing and protecting equal rights and freedoms have not been passed due to lack of political will or poor public administration (or perhaps both). And in the era of the rise of populism, these advances seem more and more distant and unrealistic if nothing changes in the political scene of the country.
Latvia proved to itself and to the rest of the world that it is capable of high level leadership and performance during its Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2015, focusing on, among other things, stronger economy, more digitalized society, and the EU’s relations with its neighbours within the Eastern Partnership framework1.
A dedicated member of the EU and NATO, Latvia has marked yet another milestone by joining the OECD in 2016. Here the visual success story can be paused. A year after joining the OECD, Latvia still has not implemented many crucial points of the guidelines agreed upon during the accession negotiations. The long promised and talked-about Health System reform still has not been carried out in 2017, with the doctors’ associations and unions on strike for months now, demanding fair working hours and adequate salary. The long promised Law on Whistleblower Protection that has been on the table since 2014 has not been passed yet. At the moment, Latvia remains the last member state of the European Union that has not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, locally known as the Istanbul Convention.
The Ministry of Justice has been led by the representatives of the ultra-right National Alliance for years. This conservative party blocks any attempt to grant equal rights to all citizens of Latvia and to protect them from domestic violence. The current Minister for Justice, Dzintars Rasnačs, uses culture, tradition, and the Constitution as pretext to deny necessary reforms: “The convention obliges countries to renounce discrimination not only on the basis of sex, but also on the basis of ‘gender’. In order to comply with this principle of non-discrimination, sooner or later Latvia will have to start construing Article 110 of the Constitution and the second paragraph of Article CL 35 in light of the sociological theory of ‘gender’. This means authorizing same-sex marriages even without amending the wording of the first sentence of Article 110 of the Constitution,” the minister warned. “2
The same ill logic is ardently supported by the natural counterparts of the National Alliance – a social democratic, pro-Russia party Concord. Despite ideological differences, both parties work closely together to oppose the Istanbul Convention and any attempts to introduce the Cohabitation Law agreement; furthermore these parties pushed through the so-called Virtue Law back in 2015, highly influencing the educational methods of teachers and their adherence to the “traditional moral values”.
With all the above mentioned developments in mind, the country has spent much of 2016 and the first half of 2017 getting ready for the Municipal elections. Normally, not a popular event in the political life in Latvia, this year’s municipal elections, especially in the major cities, were viewed as a chance to change the current political tide of corruption and hypocritical traditions. Though in the majority of municipalities the governing parties prevailed, new political forces entered the political scene for the first time. The joint list of the local liberal party Latvijas Attīstībai and its partners from regional party LRA came second in Riga, ensuring liberal representation in the Riga municipality. Another winner of the elections is the underdog JKP – a conservative party bearing much resemblance with the Polish PiS party. Used-to-be underdogs are leading the opposition’s agenda in the Riga municipality and putting constant pressure on the Concord party, which has won the elections but now has two seats less.
Such results had been forecasted before the elections; therefore, the Concord party came up with a plan to secure the majority for the new mandate. Right before the elections (at the end of the previous mandate), the Concord party pushed through amendments to its internal main provision on composition of committees of the municipality. Originally granting proportional representation for all elected parties, the amended regulations allocate a specific number of seats per party, thus constantly granting at least one vote majority for the Concord party. This dubious move poses a test for relations between the municipal and national-level governments, especially between the Concord-led Riga municipality and the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development (the ministry overseeing work of regional municipalities). At the moment, the ministry has called the municipality’s move illegal and has demanded to cancel the amendment. It is unclear how the issue will be settled, but this is indeed a test for Constitutionalism in Latvia.3
Right after the election results, the outgoing city council with the strong majority of Concord party has amended the main provision and regulations of the municipality administration in order to secure their position in the next term of office. This event is another test for Constitutionalism in Latvia. Admitted as against the law, the move cannot be easily overturned and it is yet unclear how the national government and responsible institutions will react.
While equal rights are being denied to the LGBTIQ community and gender equality and domestic violence are still topical issues, we can observe a positive change in the civil society, which is developing significantly despite the political will and agenda of the governing political forces. There is a rise of active NGOs and citizen initiatives fighting for freedom, equal rights, and against corruption. 2016 and 2017 have seen a rise in public actions starting from Sisters March, conversation festival LAMPA4, protests against the government and the Attorney General (especially after the Oligarch case), to guerrilla city actions when activists painted bicycle path lines onto the main street in Riga, proving that there is space for all sorts of transportations in spite of municipality authorities’ opinion5.
One of the biggest scandals was connected to the so called Cemetery Tram (#kaputramvajs) – Riga municipality’s project to introduce a new tram line using the EU fund for degraded territories. Although the city needs new tram lines in some of its districts, the proposed route did not seem to solve the connectivity problem, while intruding into the cemetery territory and suggesting multiple trees chop off. Activists fiercely fought the plan with public actions and protests. Another unexpected victory is the ban on using wild animals in circuses – a result on an active protests and lobbying of an animal activist NGO. While the development of an active civil society is an obvious advantage of the last two years, this is not a proper checks and balances system.
An ongoing fight for equal rights includes a citizens’ initiative for the introduction of the Cohabitation agreement. The law proposal would thus enable rights for same-sex couples, as well as protect other unregistered families. At the moment, unmarried couples have no legal protection; nonetheless, in 2017 Latvian banks have started to demand that their clients provide information about their “unmarried partners”, too. The same was asked from the state officials when filling their annual declarations. This leaves unmarried couples with no rights but duties. The Cohabitation law would solve this problem. Citizens can sign the petition for the law proposal on the citizens’ initiative platform manabals.lv. After 10,000 signatures are gathered under the initiative, it will be passed to the Parliament, which will have to review it.
At the moment, the initiative has been signed by more than 8,000 people, but with different institutions putting pressure on unmarried couples, it is predicted that the signatures will be collected before the autumn of 2018, namely before the next national elections, so that MPs show their stance on this highly emotionally loaded topic. The current centre-right government has clearly stated that they shall not grant rights to same-sex couples, but this might change if the issue becomes a topic in the electoral campaigns.
The rest of the 2017 will be marked by the government’s inability to carry out Health System and Tax reforms. The country’s Constitutionalism and Political System are put to a major test by the so called Oligarch case: the publication of leaked conversations between politicians and businessmen showing the level of corruption in the political elites. With current ministers and various officials involved, the leaked conversations show the urgent need for implementation of good governance principles, paralleled with increased transparency of the lobby sector, a Judiciary reform, and protection of the freedom of speech and the media. Since the Oligarch case has been developing since July 2017, it will be the subject of a thorough analysis for next year’s review.