Racism rears its ugly head

  • 2005-04-13
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - In recent weeks, many a back alley in Riga's Old Town has been vandalized with hate-filled, racist graffiti. Observers call it a recent phenomenon. That may be true, but the increasingly visible presence of skinheads sauntering around the neighborhood's cobbled streets and the recent attack on a Sikh chef have many wondering if the foul graffiti indicate a growing intolerance in Latvian society.

The graffiti 's including swastikas and messages like "white power" 's essentially espouse the ostracism of non-white persons from Latvia.

Far worse, however, is that the hatred has gone beyond words and manifested itself in violent outbursts against dark-skinned foreigners. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of attacks has risen in recent months.

"If you turn your back, you could be attacked from the rear, and no one will help you," says George Steele, an African American who has lived in Latvia for 10 years.

Steele, who is well-known in the local community, was commenting on the recent assault on a Sikh chef, which occured during broad daylight in the Old Town. No one came to the victim's aid, either during the molestation or afterward.

Peter, who is also of African origin, says, "I feel uncomfortable walking around here. I know there are these groups out there." He says he has been verbally harassed on numerous occasions.

"I have heard many negative things, like 'Go back to Africa,' or groups of people pointing and laughing," he says.

Peter, who did not want to give his surname, says he has little faith that police will do anything. "The police just turn a blind eye to what's happening."

Yet, ask a Latvian if racism exists and (if one can avoid the minefield of the state's relations with its Russian minority,) more often than not you will hear denial. While working at the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in 2001, Artis Pabriks, who is now foreign minister, wrote that part of the denial is related to the Soviet period, where racism was never officially accepted. The government insisted that xenophobia was a phenomenon of the decadent West and not of communism, where the doctrine of "friendship of peoples" (druzhba narodov) was preached and used as a propaganda tool. To prove this point, Moscow went out of its way to develop cultural exchanges with African nations.

Pabriks cited statistical data from the Baltic Data House that, even in 1998, there was a strong distrust of homosexuals in Latvian society, and that 10 percent of the population would be willing to block black people from entering the country.

New data shows that racial intolerance is spiraling upward in a society that has had little history of immigration from Africa or Asia.

Ilze Brands Kehris, current director of the human rights center, says that part of the problem is that racism has not been publicly addressed.

"There is an illusion that Latvia is a tolerant society," she says, adding that polls "have shown a tendency toward xenophobia."

There is growing intolerance against Africans, Chinese, Central Asians, and especially Muslims, despite the incredibly small numbers of those groups living in the state, Brands Kehris adds.

Across Europe, xenophobia is on the rise. Societies that have been almost entirely mono-ethnic have become exposed to cultural diversity, either through immigration, guest workers or refugees. Even progressive societies like Scandinavia, in many ways considered a vanguard in the protection of minority rights and female advancement, are not immune to the ravages of racism.

Considering current demographics, issues of race and culture are only bound to intensify in the future. Parts of Europe will soon experience the acute need for working hands 's more taxpayers 's and if necessary, they will have to entice foreign workers. Case in point: Latvia, which was this week given the dubious distinction of having the steepest population decline in the European Union (see story on Page 1).

Recent figures from Eurostat, the European statistics office, predict that Latvia's population will decline by nearly 20 percent by 2050, falling as low as 1.8 million.

"The debate has not begun about the affects of demographics yet," Nils Muiznieks, former integration minister, says.

With such a steep decline, Muiznieks says he has supported convincing people who are here to stay, increasing the birth rate and inviting foreign Latvians. But even these measures could prove insufficient for meeting future labor demands.

"We are going to get more diverse," warns Muiznieks, adding that the Ministry for Integration has already adopted a National Program for the Promotion of Tolerance.

Controversial forums

Racist attitudes in Latvian society appeared to strengthen at the end of the 1990s. George Steele, for one, has been a leader in confronting the issue in Latvia. Famous for his participation in the Latvian Song Festival, as well as his language skills, he has given interviews in the media discussing the verbal abuse directed at him in the past. In one interview published on the portal politika.lv, Steele called Latvia one of the most racist countries he has lived in. The charge catalyzed a forum discussion on the issue of intolerance and prejudice.

Nearly all non-whites here have reported a disturbing trend of verbal harassment, and sometimes even physical intimidation. A black British DJ was attacked in front of the Freedom Monument several years ago. Assailants reportedly chased him from the Old Town all the way to the monument. He did not report the attack.

While the number of reported attacks against people of color are few and far between, this may be due to fact that many victims do not turn to the police for help.

Racist advertisements have also appeared, playing to residents' fear of non-white people. In the run-up to the 2003 elections, the Freedom Party ran a political advertisement depicting an African dressed as a Latvian soldier kissing a local girl. The ad was considered so inflammatory that LTV, a television station, refused to broadcast it. The actors successfully sued the party, stating that the ad's intentions were misleading.

Steele himself sued the Freedom Party for the racist advertisement 's the first of its kind to deal with racial discrimination 's and the court ruled in his favor.

At the time, Mikhail Mamilov, an adviser to the Freedom Party, continued to play on the fear of a mass movement of people of color to Latvia.

"There are 20 million refugees in Africa and Asia on their way to the EU, and Latvia is not an integrated society. We have a lot of internal problems between Russians and Latvians here. We are not ready to take in approximately 100,000 political refugees to our country," Mamilov said.

Despite appealing to a fear of foreigners, the Freedom Party failed to win enough votes and disappeared in ignominy.

Motley and ugly

It is difficult to determine exactly how many are responsible for the racist messages, and many countries across Europe are grappling with the same issues. However, Latvia and Estonia were also recently placed at the bottom of a Europe-wide survey on racist and intolerant attitudes, according to the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. One of the report's findings said there appeared to be a correlation between a country's high GDP and the more open it was to migrants and minorities. Latvia is currently the poorest EU member state in terms of GDP per capita.

To be sure, racist graffiti had been prevalent in other parts of Riga before it made its way into the Old Town, says Kaspars Zalitis, president of the Latvian branch of the European Youth Human Rights Network. Agreeing with the premise that intolerance is on the rise, he says he saw similar things in Riga's Moscow region.

"Racism is getting worse, and no one's talking about it," he says. "If it's not right in front of our nose, then we don't see it."

Zalitis claims that some of the racist comments on Web sites come from state-ministry employees.

Though the scale of this is impossible to confirm, evidence suggests that much of the prejudice-laced commentary on delphi.lv originates in governmental ministries.

Zalitis' organization is one of three that directly deal with racism in Latvia. Others include AfroLat, an NGO, and the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. AfroLat held education seminars in the eastern region of Latvia last year. Zalitis says it was the first time that some people had ever seen someone from the African continent. The public's response was very positive, he adds.

Still, merely being exposed to other cultures is not the only answer, says Branks Kehris. Therefore, state-sponsored campaigns are one way to increase tolerance.

"It's in the state's interest to support this, and they should do everything they can to raise awareness," she adds.

But as Steele says, "I feel like I have been left completely undefended not just by Latvian society, but by friends and acquaintances… I want Latvians to know they are not so wonderful, they are not to be trusted by people of color."

It is reassuring to see that some of the racist graffiti has been co-opted by more tolerant members of society, who, lacking the spray gun to remove the foul epithets, depict a generic person dropping a swastika into a trashcan.