Sometimes we can't help wonder how the Baltic states actually made it into the European Union. The ease with which the sinister beast of intolerance appears, strikes and then retreats to its lair is alarming 's particularly given that its successes are often abetted by bureaucrats and ministers. The city of Vilnius recently forbade a Europe-wide campaign promoting tolerance to make a stop in the Lithuanian capital. Municipal politicians claimed that the campaign truck, filled with brochures and other informational trinkets calling on people to oppose discrimination, would have sparked unrest since a sizeable homosexual community was expected to participate.
There were reports of an imminent backlash, so Vilnius officials prohibited the truck from lazily rolling through streets of the capital and, to be sure, doing a good thing.
Vilnius politicians thus used the same tactics as their colleagues in Riga a year ago when the latter barred a mid-summer congress of gays and lesbians. Trouble was brewing, they reasoned, so it would be better to forbid any gathering. There is, of course, a certain logic to the argument (Estonians, for instance, had every right to use it on April 28 after two enormously violent nights in Tallinn), but it can be abused. Instead of providing security to a group practicing its constitutional right of assembly, governments go for the cop-out and simply ban everything.
Lithuania is feeling the indignation from across Europe. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm and day-to-day decision-maker, may even reconsider a decision to create a gender equality institute in Vilnius. And indeed it should. Imagine the ludicrousness of establishing a think-tank devoted to human rights in a place where minority groups cannot freely assemble. Brussels may as well put the institute in Moscow.
Latvia, meanwhile, is gearing up for what promises to be a massive sexual-rights gathering in downtown Riga on June 3. We are expecting the worst. There are far too many forces who still believe they can win political dividends by adhering to homophobic views. The sad thing is that their political instincts are correct. And this shows that the struggle against intolerance will require years, maybe a generation or two.
But for politicians and law enforcement officials to hide behind perceptions of violence instead of fulfilling their obligations enshrined in the constitution and European treaties is cowardice. If tolerance is to succeed and society mature, it must come from above.
Baltic residents like to think they are now part of Europe, but the intolerance toward diverse groups, particularly gays and blacks, shows how far we still have to go toward "ethical convergence." There is nothing in common between the way sexual minorities are treated in Amsterdam and Vilnius, and until the situation changes, Balts have no right to claim themselves full-fledged members of the European family.
In a sense, intolerance is a fine litmus test for how firmly rooted Homo Sovieticus is in the Baltic mentality. We saw how Muscovites treated a small group of gay-rights supporters in Russia, and we may see the same in Riga. If it so happens, then the world will have all the evidence it needs that the Baltics haven't grown up much since gaining independence in 1991.