What to do with Aivars Garda?

  • 2002-03-21
  • J. Michael Lyons
Four people were mentioned by name in the recently released U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights in Latvia: President Vaira-Vike Freiberga, Russian-speakers' rights activist Tatyana Zhdanok, convicted bank swindler Alexander Lavents and nationalist publisher Aivars Garda.

Garda's string of right-wing antics have entertained many, angered more than a few, but, most importantly, struck a chord of agreement with a frightening number of people.

Garda is the head of the publishing house Vieda, which has produced acidic books such as "We Won't Give Latvia To Anyone." Garda presented that book, a collection of essays where he calls "for the struggle against internal and external enemies," arm-in-arm with three members of the For Fatherland and Freedom Party, a member of the governing coalition.

He proudly hates Russians, gays, the European Union and just about everything else not Latvian.

He is also the leader of the Latvian National Front, the self-proclaimed successor of the 1930s paramilitary group Aizsargi (Defenders).

Latvia's top government officials have condemned him and his remarks.

The country's Constitution Protection Office ruled that he was getting close to stirring ethnic hatred but hadn't yet broken any laws.

Most international observers, including the OSCE, were alarmed by the tone of Garda's rhetoric. But the OSCE stopped short of rendering too harsh a judgment, saying the essays were certainly in "poor taste" but not representative of most Latvians.

Most thought he would go away, be ignored as a crackpot and fade back into the fringes of a country well on its way to NATO and EU membership.

A crackpot he may be, but ignored he is not.

Garda is turning out to be better at public relations than most originally thought. He has been in the papers consistently over the last six months and the archbishops of Riga's Catholic and Lutheran churches have endorsed his claims that homosexuality is akin to Satanism and that it will inevitably lead "to the ruination of civilization."

Mainstream Latvian society is not ignoring him either.

Fueled by election-year populism, Garda seemingly has a bigger stage than ever.

Support for EU membership hit a four-year low in Latvia this week, according to polls. That probably has more to do with the EU's proposed cuts in agricultural subsidies than Garda. But it's fodder for his argument.

As for his thoughts on Russians and even homosexuals, one prominent human rights official in Latvia said he was probably not far off the mark for many.

"There's a significant number of people that haven't reconciled themselves with the idea that the Russians (in Latvia) aren't going away," the official said. "Or who think, 'Yeah, maybe it would be better if there were no gays around.'"

But there are signs that some people have had enough.

The Constitution Protection Office detained Garda on March 16, hours before the controversial annual ceremonies of the Latvian Legionaries, who were conscripted into Nazi units during World War II.

Garda had promised to march in support of the Legionaries, even if they themselves had decided not to, following requests from government officials worried about how old men in German World War II uniforms would look to NATO.

The pressure will begin to be turned up on Garda, some high-ranking government sources said, as the country gets closer to its ultimate foreign policy goals.

But it's a good bet that if the U.S. State Department already knows about him, NATO probably does too.