Parade sours Latvia's image

  • 2005-08-03
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The message was made loud and clear. "We have decided to avoid your country until there is a better policy for minorities like gays," the German tour operator wrote in an e-mail last week to his Riga-based partner. The group of 30, he said, would find another place 's i.e., one more tolerant 's to spend their holiday.

A week after a massive counter-demonstration against Latvia's first gay parade, one that ended in several arrests, and the damage to the state's image abroad is still being assessed. However, it is quite clear that, according to preliminary estimates, the outlook is gloomy.

After thousands of people took to the streets to pester the march's gay participants on July 23, images of protestors attempting to physically block the procession, and later throwing eggs and tomatoes, circulated among European media. The BBC, for instance, carried a story on the parade and the violent counter-protests.

Yet for many international organizations it was the statements and commentary coming from politicians that deserved condemnation.

Amnesty International, one of the leading human rights organizations in the world, issued a press release criticizing Latvia's political leadership for statements promoting a climate of hysteria.

Human Rights Watch, another well-known human rights body is also expected to issue a statement on the incident in Latvia.

Meanwhile, in North America an e-mail from Juris Lavrikovs, information and communications officer for Ilga, a lesbian and gay NGO in Brussels, has been circulating among civil rights and LGBT groups there, and few doubt a negative response will be forthcoming.

But most of the reaction has come from Europe. QX, Scandinavia's largest gay magazine, published an open letter to Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis saying that the latter's statements to the effect that the march was "unacceptable" and that the state was built on Christian principles.

"Your statement came after two weeks of hateful campaigning by the big churches and nationalist organizations and rightist parliamentarians. The aggression that met the brave little group that finally participated in Latvia's first Gay pride Parade was frightening," Oscar Swartz, author of the open letter, wrote.

"Participants were shocked by the bottomless hatred they were facing. The damage has had other consequences 's tourism entrepreneurs have reported cancellations due to the outburst of intolerance," he continued.

Fallout from the parade almost toppled two governments in Latvia 's the one in the capital and the other on the national level. Ainars Slesers, leader of Latvia's First Party, which proclaims Christian values, called for the resignation of Eriks Skapars, the executive director of the city of Riga, and Aivars Aksenoks, city mayor, since the parade was given a permit to take place.

However, once the opposition parties said they would support the vote, Slesers' enthusiasm waned, since removal of Riga city chiefs would have ultimately had an impact on the coalition government.

Deputy Riga Mayor Juris Lujans, also a member of Latvia's First Party, resigned shortly afterwards citing the immoral parade as a reason for leaving.