RIGA - Experts and politicians took a step back this week to look at the country's increasingly acute problem of prejudice against minority groups, with Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks going so far as to say that Latvians needed to get "vaccinated" against racism and intolerance.
Discussion on the issue took place at a roundtable organized by the U.S. Embassy in connection with American Black History Month. Politicians, NGO representatives and minority group leaders took part in the forum.
"The problems of intolerance should be solved before they are here," Pabriks said at the roundtable. "We are not without our dark spots. Most of Latvia's minorities have been indistinguishable in appearance until now. This is a strong reason for the existence of racist views and intolerant attitudes."
One feeling at the table was unanimous: intolerance and racist attitudes do exist in Latvia, and are growing. To the surprise of many, EU accession has only increased the level of intolerance in all three Baltic states, according to civil society polls.
Recent acts of violence in Latvia, including the assault of a black tourist, a rabbi, and an Indian chef, have brought the touchy issue into the limelight, and caused experts to question how the government is handling the problem. Although many say these were "isolated incidents," Pabriks emphasized that this was no excuse.
"Police must realize that [these incidents] are not just criminal offenses," he said. "These are racist offenses."
The main thrust of the roundtable, however, was to focus on possible ways to fight intolerance in the country.
"What we do this year, this month, this day, this moment will affect the course of racial relationships and the course of violence in this country forever," said George Steel, a representative of Afrolat, the organization uniting Latvia's residents of African descent.
Steel, who has lived in Riga for 11 years and speaks the language fluently, added that, in order to change, Latvians must first understand the manifestations of racism.
Steel voiced regret over Latvian society's unwillingness to admit that it had problems with racism, and that the attacks on foreigners were not acts of "hooliganism," as the court ruled, but racially motivated.
"Latvia's demographics are changing," said Dr. Michael Frazier, an associate professor from Howard University, a predominantly black university in the U.S. capital. Frazier shared his experience and insight on racial tolerance.
"Even the few attacks represent the beginning of something detrimental to society. Unless you act now, you won't prevent an explosion, and people will get killed," he said.
Former Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks emphasized that the most dangerous period for hate crimes was when a homogenous society becomes more diverse. For Latvia, that moment has arrived, he said.
In an effort to seek solutions before the problem becomes pressing, the roundtable concentrated on the role of NGOs, the media and politicians.
The government must make concerted efforts to work with NGOs and the media, Pabriks said. he mentioned cooperation between the secretariat of the special tasks minister for social integration and the Education and Science Ministry in educating children, their parents and teachers.
"The government doesn't offer solutions that are needed but solutions that are accepted by a large majority," the foreign minister said, adding that this was especially true during the electoral run-up. "The media must take a clear position on these issues, and then it will be difficult for politicians to take another view."
Frazier echoed this point, emphasizing that people must act in order to be heard. "Politicians understand numbers 's they can count," he said. "So get 20,000 people out there fighting for this cause, and let them see the numbers. Then they will respond."
Globalization was a key theme at the round table, along with EU accession. Frazier emphasized that Latvia must learn to accept and work with new faces in order to develop as a capitalistic democracy.
"In today's world of globalization, you have no choice," he said. "You must expand your horizon. Jobs are being exported from one country to another. In order to succeed in this environment, you must have tolerance."
Pabriks warned that this would be no easy task. "It is simple to change the laws, but this is no guarantee that people, even educated families, will understand this. It will take a much longer time," he said.
Police officers should be educated that violence against people from foreign countries is not just "hooliganism," but also racism and intolerance, Pabriks emphasized. Following the roundtable, Frazier spoke with Latvian police on dealing with intolerance, drawing comparisons to American officers.
In the concluding minutes, Frazier pointed out that "in this room we are only preaching to the choir."
Change, he said, is dependent on what people do outside, and whether Latvians make the personal decision to act. This is where the challenge comes.
"When we finish this discussion, what do you do?" he asked rhetorically. "You must [act], even if the probability of change is small. To not [act] is to give up and surrender, and then there's no chance at all."
The discussion was just one event held in commemoration of Black History Month. The schedule also included lectures on the discrimination of African-Americans in the United States, delivered by guest lecturers from the United States, as well as a discussion with American civil rights activist Odetta Holmes.