RIGA - As the highly divisive gay pride parade, the culmination of the Friendship Days events, drew near, participants and non-participants alike were at odds to predict whether there would be a repeat of last year's violence. A bad omen resonated from Moscow, however, as a small international group of gays and lesbians were brutally beaten over the weekend while they tried to file a letter of complaint with Moscow city authorities. The images of an angry mob kicking and punching gay activists could have a negative effect on events in Riga.
Police have promised to provide a strong security presence to deal with any trouble, and anticipate that everything this year will go smoothly.
Likewise, Linda Freimane, director of Mozaika, a sexual minorities rights group in Latvia that is organizing the friendship days and parade, has expressed hope that this year the police will be able to keep everything under control.
It will be the first registered pride parade in Riga in two years. Last year's gay and lesbian event was canceled 's a decision later ruled to be unconstitutional 's though a group of sexual rights activists decided to meet informally. For their efforts, protesters pelted them with eggs and excrement, sparking a wave of indignation among equal rights activists and gays and lesbians throughout Europe.
The international backlash to last year's events have the police and politicians at attention, and working overtime to ensure law and order this year. What's more, international gay rights activists and European politicians have promised to attend the parade.
Still, sentiment among Latvian residents hasn't changed much 's if at all. A recent study even showed that attitudes toward the gay and lesbian community have actually worsened.
The study, "Attitude to Sexual Minorities in Latvia: Trends of the Year," conducted by the Dialogi.lv Internet portal and the SKDS pollster, found that the number of respondents expressing a tolerant attitude toward homosexuals has declined over the year.
Only half of respondents connected with the study 's 11 percent less than a year ago 's voiced fully or partly tolerant attitudes to gays and lesbians. Most people were still found to have negative views toward homosexuals, and numbers were similar to last year's with 61 percent of correspondents expressing generally negative views and 21 percent voicing extremely negative views.
"A decision in favor of intolerance tells a lot about ourselves. It is a survey about us," explained Liesma Ose, director of the human resources and social integration program of the Soros Foundation Latvia. She also pointed out that the survey showed that it is necessary to continue working on educating people and persuading them that "we are, and will be, diverse."
This year the Riga Friendship Days and Pride 2007 will be a four-day affair, beginning May 31. It will include concerts, movies, presentations and exhibits. Human rights defenders and European lawmakers will be in attendance.
Special Task Minister for Society Integration Oskars Kastens criticized the events on May 25, calling on organizers to find other ways of voicing their opinions.
"I would like to say once more to the sexual minorities organization Mozaika that they should choose such forms for promoting tolerance and dialogue that unite society instead of splitting it up," Kastens told the television network LNT.
Kastens, however, also expressed confidence that public order will be ensured during the parade.
Recent events have thrown tolerance issues into the spotlight both for Latvia and its neighbors. The Vilnius city government in Lithuania recently made a highly controversial and hotly debated decision to ban gay rights groups from flying their flag during the European-wide anti-discrimination day on May 25. That decision closely followed a group of bus drivers having refused to drive buses with pro-tolerance advertisements.
In Moscow, gay rights activists, including three European lawmakers, gathered to deliver a petition to the mayor's office signed by 40 European lawmakers asking rights activists to be allowed to march.
When protesters attacked the activists, police intervened with what western observers labelled a heavy-handed response. German lawmaker Volker Beck and Marco Cappato, a European Parliament lawmaker from Italy, were among those detained.