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Latvia: Rights Groups Says Level Of Intolerance May Be Rising

By Ieva Raubisko

A Latvian human rights group says disturbing signs of xenophobia and racism are emerging ahead of that country's planned entry into the European Union next year. The group, in its annual report, cites examples of what could be a rising trend of intolerance.

Riga, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies says signs of xenophobia and racism have appeared in Latvia in the past year.

The center, in its annual report on human rights in Latvia, cites examples of what may be a growing trend toward intolerance.

The center points to a televised campaign advertisement by a new political group, the Freedom Party. The ad featured two black men in Latvian army uniforms, standing as honor guards and later hugging a woman in a Latvian national costume. The picture was accompanied by the question: "Today a guardian of Latvia - tomorrow your son-in-law?" The ad aimed to warn about the possible increase of immigrants after Latvia's accession to the European Union.

The clip spurred outrage in the media and led to a decision by Latvian Public Television to take the ad out of its programs. Authorities cited the "Law on Radio and Television," which prohibits incitement of racial hatred.

Two black musicians used as actors in the clip claimed they weren't aware of the ad's contents and filed a case against the Freedom Party. In December, a Riga court ruled the ad was defamatory. It ordered the Freedom Party to publicly apologize and pay the musicians compensation of around $5,000 each.

The court, however, did not view the ad as inciting racial hatred. The Freedom Party, which didn't make it to the Latvian parliament, earning less than 1 percent of votes, has filed an appeal still pending at the Higher Court.

The Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies also mentioned in its report an incident in Riga last November involving a black disk jockey (DJ) from Great Britain. The DJ was attacked and beaten because of his skin color.

While public debate on racism is still taking shape, human rights experts say Latvia -- like any other country -- is not entirely free of racial or cultural hatreds. Ilze Brands-Kehre, the director of the center, says incidents of open racism in Latvia are not frequent, but there is widespread prejudice in everyday life.

"The incidents are not widespread as such if we take incidents to mean an open display of racism. Here we really talk about prejudice and xenophobia in society where some opinion polls show that these are very widespread. And we also know that prejudice on the everyday level -- the comments you hear people making about people of different ethnic groups or different races -- [is] very widespread."

Brands-Kehre says reasons for racist attitudes are similar all over the world, but the situation may be more complicated in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. She says the main causes of racism in Latvia are the Soviet legacy of intolerance in society, a lack of exposure to people of different origins, and a defensive attitude related to fear of national survival.

Ruta Marjasa, a former Latvian parliamentarian and current member of European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, attributes the causes of racism to human nature. Marjasa thinks racism is not very strong in Latvia.

"Every human being is psychologically a combination of good and bad. The proportion depends on the culture, experience, and spiritual health of society. Compared to other countries, the situation here is not that bad. It has been purposefully exaggerated. Political forces wanting to gain more power, more voters and portraying themselves as defenders of particular groups of people exaggerate the motivation."

Foreigners in Latvia say they have experienced first-hand or at least heard of racist or xenophobic attitudes.

Kawshantha Malinka Rambadagalla, a Sri Lankan, has lived in Latvia for three years and is a member of the Latvian Student Association. He says there are mixed attitudes toward people of different race and culture in Latvia: "It's a mixture. You can't say a clear-cut thing: 'No racism' or 'yes, there is racism.' It's a mix. In my opinion, racism is mainly toward the Russian community, and that also has a good and very solid reason to it because before [the Latvians] have been oppressed. I don't think there is a necessity to hop on something like racism. It's a political game for a few people. If the constitution says that all people are fair; if the constitution says that you can't do this. You can't stop certain people from being racists."

Haisam Abu Abda, a Palestinian who was born in Egypt, arrived in Latvia 11 years ago. An expert on refugee rights, he heads the Latvian Association of Foreigners and will soon become a Latvian citizen. He says he has encountered discriminating treatment at public agencies.

"One can notice at public agencies that the way public-sector employees treat foreigners -- who speak Latvian -- and local people is totally different. I don't understand why. I've gained education, had my career, and become an expert in a certain field, and still there are people, who ask: 'how could this black man get so far?'" Latvian authorities say they are aware of the necessity to deal with the problem. The government is now working on a national action plan to prevent racism and intolerance due out at the end of the year.