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Europe must discuss homophobia and nationalism in Latvia

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Recently, my native country Latvia, a small nation in Eastern Europe, was struck by an unprecedented homophobic attack. In one of Latvia’s smaller cities, Tukums, some homophobes set two homosexual men who lived in the same apartment on fire.1 The men had already filed several complaints about regular homophobic threats and demands to “leave the city”, but the police had been ignoring them for several months. The authorities’ failure to act resulted in burns on almost 90% of the body for one of the victims, writes Councilor of the Riga City Council and Chair of the Latvian Human Rights Committee Aleksandrs Kuzmins.

I will remind you that his took place not in some Muslim sharia country or the authoritarian Russia, but instead in the very heart of Europe – in a member state of the EU, NATO and OECD!

Being an anti-fascist and protector of LGBT rights, I was utterly shocked by this incident. I have personally studied the issues of intolerance and discrimination in Latvia. In one of my latest reports, State of Hate 2, I pointed out that one of the main issues in Latvia is homophobia. What is more, hate for homosexuals exists alongside the omnipresent hate for other nations, particularly Russian speakers who make up 30% of the total population of Latvia. The incident in Tukums once again proves that it is dangerous to be gay or lesbian in Latvia. It is even more dangerous if one is a gay Russian. I happen to be just that – a Russian with a non-traditional sexual orientation.

Considering that I am currently the only openly homosexual councilor in the Riga City Council, I cannot stand aside idly and simply watch what is unfolding in Latvia. I would like to direct the attention of the international community to the fact that the incident in Tukums is a disgrace not only to my native country, but the EU as a whole.

Information in my possession leads me to think that the ultra-radical nationalist organization Tēvijas Sargi (Guardians of Fatherland) is behind the attack in Tukums. This organization’s activists have previously publicly slandered the LGBT community, organized protests during the Baltic and Riga prides and threatened gay and lesbian activists. I have also faced threats from radicals, as have my colleagues from the party Latvian Russian Union.

The most concerning aspect of this is that the radical organization Tēvijas Sargi has connections in the Tukums police department, which is blatantly obstructing the investigation of this case and has even stated that the incident was not a homophobic attack, but instead a “suicide attempt of a mentally unstable homosexual”! Even more, Tēvījas Sargi operate under the auspices of the coalition party National Alliance. As a result, Latvian government officials and members of the parliament are deliberately inciting hatred towards LGBT persons and are preventing the investigation of the Tukums incident.3

I want to remind you that this is not the first homophobic incident in Latvia. Ethnic and sexual discrimination is commonplace in our country. Just a year ago, one of Latvia’s most known professors Deniss Hanovs became the target of hate speech and physical assault.4 There were two simple reasons for this ­– he was a Russian gay.

Therefore, I plead with the European international community to voice support for the boys who suffered in the attack in Tukums and to pressure Latvian authorities and politicians who are deliberately obstructing the investigation of this case. It is absolutely unclear to me why the only Latvian protector of LGBT rights in the European Parliament Nils Ušakovs has not yet commented on this incident. He is also the only Latvian who is a member of an LGBT rights group in the EP. Ušakovs’ party Concord has been a member of the LGBT organization Rainbow Rose for many years now, but both Ušakovs and Concord have so far ignored the tragedy in Tukums. Unfortunately, it seems that they do not care for the fates of Russian speakers in Latvia.

Europe should once and for all cease dividing its citizens in the right ones and wrong ones, regardless of whether they are LGBT persons or people from other nationalities – we are all equal Europeans. The fact that I am a gay Russian speaker does not make me a worse person than a heterosexual French or Danish person! 

In expectation of the 2021 Baltic Pride in Riga, I urge the Latvian public to be tolerant and every member of the LGBT community to not be afraid to “come out of the closet”. We are united in our differences and together we are a true force!

[1] https://eng.lsm.lv/article/society/crime/man-allegedly-set-on-fire-in-suspected-homophobic-hate-crime.a401895/

[2] https://www.belltower.news/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2021/02/ESOH-LOCKED-FINAL.pdf

[3] https://eng.lsm.lv/article/society/society/latvian-politicians-criticized-for-facilitating-homophobic-speech.a402078/

[4] https://eng.lsm.lv/article/society/crime/homophobia-still-a-major-issue-in-latvia-university-professor-attacked.a381039/

China

It’s about time we started discussing China’s influence in Latvia

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Last week, noted Estonian marine scientist and researcher at the Tallin Technical University Tarmo Kõuts was sentenced to prison for spying for a Chinese intelligence service. He had access to Estonian and NATO classified information for quite some time, and during the last three years he received €17,000 for handing this information over to China, writes NRA journalist Juris Paiders.

If you ask me, it’s a laughable amount of money to betray your motherland and end up behind bars. At the same time, I’m quite certain that our own compatriots would be willing to double-cross our country for an even lower price.

Kõuts was also assisted by a woman – a formerly well-known golf player and owner of a consulting firm. She had been travelling quite a lot in recent years, including to China. It is possible that it was during one of her trips to Hong Kong that she was recruited by Chinese intelligence officers.

It should be noted that trips to China is the most common way Latvians get recruited to work for Chinese intelligence services. This is usually done according to the same pattern Soviet chekists used to recruit naïve Western travelers – the local Beijing embassy carefully selects the potential “tourists” and offers them to go on a trip to the “misunderstood” and exotic Celestial Empire. These “tourists” are most often asked to participate in an international event, a forum or conference, where Chinese intelligence services then select the most suitable agents of influence from around the world.

These “tourists” are most likely to be members of a specific profession – journalists, politicians and scientists. In order to maintain secrecy, Beijing may offer the trip to China not to the person it is interested in, but instead to one of their relatives, be it their spouse, children or parents.

Upon returning to their home country, the Chinese embassy asks the “tourists” to repay the generous trip with loyalty. Initially, it may be a simple social media entry that portrays China in a positive light. Then, perhaps an interview with a local media outlet to talk about the prosperity witnessed in China. In special cases, you may have to repay the favor by betraying your country. The latter fate was experienced by the naïve Estonian scientist Kõuts.

This is how China is able to recruit loyal agents of influence that can later be used to carry out influence operations.

Local journalists are asked to publish articles that favor China or maintain blogs and social media pages that propagate cooperation with Beijing. In some cases, the propaganda articles are prepared with the help of the embassy or the news agency Xinhua, and all the recruited journalist is required to do is to “lend” the Chinese his name and status. The keenest of readers will have already noticed that pro-China articles have appeared in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze and Diena, and occasionally in some pro-Kremlin media outlets as well.

Recruited politicians are also required to prove their loyalty. This is usually done by voting on issues that benefit Beijing, or sometimes by reporting on domestic processes and intrigues taking place in the government halls. Those of you who follow politics know that in recent years several Latvian politicians from different parties have visited China, only to then propagate co-operation with China by praising the progress and the remarkable order they witnessed there.

I won’t name any names, but the parties they represent include the usual suspects, i.e. Concord, Union of Greens and Farmers and Latvian Russian Union, as well as the pseudo-patriotic National Alliance. I’ve also personally witnessed that among these preachers of national values there are also people who after their “trip” to the magnificent China are willing to praise Communism’s superiority over the “liberal” values of Europe.

And lastly, long-term co-operation with Chinese intelligence services is also offered to scientists, and this usually entails sharing sensitive information. This is called “scientific espionage”.

Kõuts case is the first of its kinds in Estonia, and maybe even all the Baltic states, when a person has been caught spying not for Moscow, but Beijing. Perhaps this is the first high-profile case in the Baltics involving China’s influence out of the many that are inevitably to come.

I already have a candidate for facing a similar fate to Kõuts – instead of revealing the person’s name, I will just say that excellent knowledge of geography doesn’t guarantee that a person has a good moral compass.

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coronavirus

Commission approves €3 million Latvian scheme to support cultural institutions affected by coronavirus outbreak

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Commission has approved a €3 million Latvian scheme to support companies active in the country's cultural sector that have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The measure was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. The aim of the scheme is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing due to the restrictive measures implemented by the Latvian government to limit the spread of the virus. The support will take the form of direct grants. The measure is open to companies active in the country's cultural sector. Beneficiaries include businesses active in arts and entertainment, libraries and museums.

The support will serve to cover paid expenses for the period from 1 January 2021 till 30 June 2021. It will cover monthly payments, inter alia for the lease of premises, public utilities, and communication and IT services. It may also serve to cover salaries and related taxes for the employees. The Commission found that the Latvian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, (i) the overall aid cap of €1.8 million per company will be respected; and (ii) the aid will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.61769 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Aviation/airlines

Commission approves €39.7 million Latvian measures to recapitalize Riga International Airport

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Commission has approved Latvian plans to grant up to €39.7 million for the recapitalisation of the State Joint Stock Company Riga International Airport (Riga International Airport). The measures, comprising a €35.2 million capital injection and €4.5m of waived dividend payment for the 2019 financial year, were approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. Riga International Airport suffered substantial losses due to the coronavirus outbreak and the travel restrictions that Latvia and other countries had to impose to limit the spread of the virus. These measures, together with the significant drop in travel demand, continue to deteriorate the financial situation of the company.

As a result, Riga International Airport currently risks not being able to maintain its viability, with severe consequences for the connectivity of Latvia with the rest of Europe and third countries. The Commission found that the recapitalisation measure notified by Latvia is in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. The Commission concluded that the recapitalisation measures are necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of the member states: the measure aims at restoring the financial position and liquidity of Riga International Airport in the exceptional situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, while maintaining the necessary safeguards to limit competition distortions. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Airports are among the companies that have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus outbreak. With this measure, Latvia will contribute up to €39.7m to reinforce Riga International Airport's equity and support the company face the economic effects of the outbreak. At the same time, the state aid will come with strings attached to limit undue distortions of competition. We continue working closely with member states to ensure that national support measures can be put in place in a coordinated and effective way, in line with EU rules.”

The full press release is available online.

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