NGOs ring alarm bell over government attitudes

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A drop in a global democracy ratings for Latvia, as the civil society alliance Civicus annual review has deemed Latvia a 'narrowed' democracy, down from the previous rating of 'open'.

While the Latvian Institute of International Affairs says Latvia's position is shifting in other democracy ratings as well, sometimes because of changes in methodology, it's still a sign to be vigilant and avoid ignoring civil activists, reports LSM's Latvian-language service.

The Civicus report says that "in the last two years civic space in Latvia has been “deliberately” restricted. Civil society and the media are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to policymakers, while there has been a growing number of attacks against organisations working on controversial topics."

It also suggests that NGOs have it increasingly difficult to meet government representatives and receive responses to their questions. 

Kristīne Zonberga, the director of the Civic Alliance - Latvia organization of NGOs, said that Latvia's Prime Minister has not met the alliance for two and a half years, even though a memorandum between NGOs and the cabinet says a meeting should take place once every six months.

The alliance has sent a letter to the PM, saying that government decisions and attitude towards NGOs have become repressive. It calls for a dialogue between the alliance and the PM, arguing that choosing to address only select NGOs would be akin to "talking with just a few businesses instead of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry."

Meanwhile Andrejs Vaivars, the spokesperson for PM Māris Kučinskis, told LSM that the head of the PM's office has met the alliance, discussing pressing questions for the NGO sector. Vaivars said that the PM is to meet the alliance in the foreseeable future. 

Smearing NGOs

The Civicus report also points out several cases in which NGOs tackling controversial questions are denigrated in and outside parliament.

It singles out the National Alliance party for calling the Minister of Education not to cooperate with Latvian think tank Providus in the design of a new educational curriculum due to what the NA refers to as the group's “immigration propaganda”.

While the Latvian Agricultural Organization Cooperation Council, which represents farmers and is financed by the government, is singled out for accusing the Dzīvnieku brīvība (Freedom for Animals) organization for preaching veganism, calling it "blatantly demagogic".

It also mentions an anti-gay pride initiative by Latvian Green Party politician Valentīns Jeremejevs, a high-standing member at the Academy of Sciences, who started collecting signatures against holding the Baltic Pride in Rīga and labelled LGBT people as "sick". 

Ratings can't take full picture into account

Meanwhile Elizabete Vigzunova, a politics expert at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, said that Latvia's democracy ratings tend to fluctuate between international ratings, including ratings by Freedom House and Bertelsmann Stiftung.

"These ratings aren't ideal instruments," she said, referring to methodology changes by Civicus.

"In essence, they reflect a simplified worldview, and their reports cannot include very complex social and historical processes individual to each country," she said. 

She nevertheless says the Civicus report is not to be taken too lightly: NGOs have long criticized the murky criteria for granting funds, and that last year there were warnings about the tax reform squeezing even more money away from the non-government sector. 

The Civicus rating for civil society claims that Latvia's civic space is "narrowed", listing it alongside countries such as Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Greece, France, Spain and the UK. Estonia's civic space is defined as "open". 

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