RIGA - president Vaira Vike-Freiberga returned a controversial Labor Law amendment to Parliament June 21 that did not include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination provisions 's a blatant violation of European Union directives. If MPs disregard the president's objections and pass the legislation unchanged, the amendment could, at worst, cost the Baltic state hundreds of thousands of euros in damages.
As elections draw nearer, Latvian politicians have been increasingly vociferous on social issues in an effort to grab the attention of voters who are otherwise apathetic toward political processes.
Disregarding European Union anti-discrimination directives 's the part of EU law that each member state must adopt 's Saeima (Latvia's Parliament) removed sexual orientation from the anti-discrimination legislation June 15 by a vote of 48 for and 19 against.
The decision created an outrage among human rights groups and liberal politicians, and even earned Latvia some unflattering international media coverage.
In a letter to Parliament Speaker Ingrida Udre, the president emphasized on June 21 that an individual's right to employment cannot be tied with his or her private life, which is protected by the Constitution.
Officers of the European Parliament's Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights commended Vike-Freiberga for her "courageous decision" to return the amendment to Parliament.
"We are heartened by your action and convinced that through your political commitment to non-discrimination, symbolized by your action, the Latvian gay, bisexual and lesbian community will benefit from greater protection as enshrined in European Law," Michael Cashman, president of the organization, wrote in a letter of support to Vike-Freiberga.
The Latvian National Human Rights Office, along with other human rights experts, said that parliamentarians have not only shown "screaming intolerance against homosexual people," but their decision could also place Latvia under threat of serious European Commission sanctions.
By deleting the ban to discriminate against employees on the grounds of sexual orientation from the Labor Law, Latvia does not meet the EC directive that sets a joint system for equality in employment and profession.
But during Parliament's June 15 vote on the amendment, political parties 's especially the Christian oriented Latvia's First Party - seemed to be in total disregard of these consequences.
Independent lawmaker Aleksandrs Kirsteins said that if sexual orientation was not excluded from the employment law's anti-discrimination provision, then "exhibitionists might as well work as traffic managers or guard the Freedom Monument, and people who practice bestiality may as well be allowed to work in animal shelters."
Latvia's First member Janis Smits echoed this statement, saying the amendment would "open the gate for pedophilia, pederasty, beastiality and other forms of perversion."
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, who, during last year's gay pride parade in Riga, clearly stated his opinion on homosexuality when he told the press that "the parade was a mistake," has seemed to become more sophisticated in his public commentary on the subject.
"For each politician it's clear, that civil rights must be taken into account, and one can't divide [people] up by certain marks," Kalvitis, who just celebrated his 40th birthday, told Latvia's Radio on June 19.
The prime minister even criticized lawmakers for their final decision: "The pre-election period and hot weather has made people's decisions unpredictable," the daily Diena quoted him as saying.
This elicited scorn from Latvia's First leader Ainars Slesers, who was quoted by the newspaper as saying, "The prime minister, especially during the pre-election period, needs to cool down himself 's not just the rest [of Parliament]."
Yet analysts claim Kalvitis' "change of attitude" is only because he knows that EU and human rights experts are watching, having warned Latvia that it could face European Commission sanctions for not complying with the relevant EU directive.
"Kalvitis is trying to have it both ways," Pauls Raudseps, the opinion page editor for Diena, said. "He realizes that the issue [of homophobia] is a growing problem and that it will become an even bigger problem."
"He attracted a lot of negative publicity last year [during the pride parade], so he's trying to tone down his rhetoric, but then he goes back to saying that [gays and lesbians] shouldn't march," Raudseps added.
Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks is also wary of Latvia's international reputation. He earlier announced that he fully expected European criticism over Parliament's decision. Pabriks said that in joining international organizations, Latvia had assumed a number of obligations that it must fulfil.
Therefore, he added, Parliament's refusal to pass the legislative amendments amounts to non-compliance with international law.
"It is a populistic and near-sighted decision that could open Latvia up to arguments from those who wish ill to our country and already criticize Latvia for disregarding the rights of minorities. Moreover, it shows that state institutions do not contribute to the lessening of discrimination," the foreign minister said.
Parliament's social and labor affairs committee had prepared the amendments to the Labor Law in accordance with EU requirements, including the ban on discrimination against employees on the grounds of sexual orientation.
After more than an hour of heated discussion, Parliament approved a proposal by Latvia's First Party lawmaker Janis Smits to formally change the law, thus deleting the abovementioned ban.
MPs decided that rights under the Labor Law should be provided for all other residents, banning any direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age, disability, religious, political or other beliefs, national or social origin, material or family status or other circumstances.
The amendments were supported by Latvia's First Party, Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, Greens and Farmers Union, Harmony Center lawmakers and independent lawmakers Maris Gulbis, Inara Ostrovska, Aleksandrs Kirsteins and New Era lawmaker Inguna Ribena.
People's Party, New Era and some Harmony Center lawmakers were against the decision and some New Era, For Human Rights in United Latvia and People's Party lawmakers abstained.