On the Threshold of New Police States: The Implications for Latvia / Dr. Andrey Berdnikov
Evidence is abundant that, at the personal level, freedom of individual choice is continuing and will continue to grow. This trend is easily observable in the increasing legal recognition of same-sex marriages and the inexorable march of the pro-euthanasia movement throughout the globe. The world today is often conceived as a global network of consumers and users who are free to choose everything they want at will, including their sex – not just for themselves, but for their unborn children as well. No restrictions are placed on the choice of identities to adopt, lifestyles to practice, subcultures and countercultures to belong to, places to go (even space travel is available at a price!), clothes to wear, TV channels to watch, and the like.
So, at a personal level, we are free as probably never before. However, at the systemic level people’s ability to have a say in defining general rules and influencing the overall political framework is steadily decreasing. Just to give one example: life today is often more affected by the decisions of transnational corporations and international financial institutions than by the domestic policies of national governments and parliaments. The problem is that all these corporations and financial institutions are unelected bodies; they do not represent the will of the people, nor do they even pretend to do so.
For years, the widespread belief has been that capitalism and civil liberties operate hand in glove. Now it is increasingly clear that, to uphold and reproduce itself, capitalism needs neither freedom nor democracy. Quite the contrary: contemporary capitalism seems to feel more at home in a tightly regulated world. Actually, despite the growing freedom of individual choice within the boundaries of permitted pleasure and consumerist culture, our life nowadays is supervised and controlled from above as never before.
Current developments in the United Kingdom are a matter of grave concern. Just a few months after Western political leaders marched in Paris in supposed solidarity with murdered French cartoonists and in defence of free speech and free expression, the newly elected Cameron team is launching real attacks on civil liberties in its own country.
At the National Security Council, David Cameron said something that, I believe, goes against today’s core European values: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone”. So, according to Cameron, obeying the law is now not enough. This statement is contrary to the ethos of the modern pluralist West, which is grounded in secular reason, rational discourse and a deep belief that issues that are not strictly regulated by law should as far as possible be resolved by means of discussion, persuasion, argument and counterargument.
Unfortunately, attempts to curb freedoms come not only from the UK. Actually, Cameron is treading in the steps of other Western powers in perpetrating assaults on core civil liberties, including the freedoms of speech and assembly. All sorts of severe suppressive efforts are under way in many parts of the West: the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, and elsewhere. Routine and increasingly normalized repressive practices today include, for example, prosecuting citizens for Facebook postings, imprisoning people for contradictory tweets, banning “radical” websites, expanding powers of surveillance and detention, collecting bulk private data without permission, and so on.
All this means that, in the very near future, the simplistic picture portraying the “free West” and the “enslaved East” will no longer work. Slightly changing a quote of George Orwell, it is possible to predict that the real division will not be between countries or geopolitical regions but between authoritarians and libertarians, regardless of the part of the world where the bearers of these worldviews live and operate. Sadly, it is also possible that those who truly believe in the principles of free speech and free assembly will soon be minorities in most countries across the globe.
What about Latvia? Latvia belongs to a disoriented post-Soviet region, stuck between past and present. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region has always been in disarray. Indeed, no country in post-Soviet space has accomplished full-fledged transition to a free Western-style society. For this reason, in contrast to the West, it is easy enough to root out the sprouts of democracy and clean out “softie” libertarian dissenters there. Recent developments in Ukraine provide a stunning example of how quickly and easily media freedom and freedom of expression can be restricted in various ways, despite seemingly authoritative calls to safeguard these basic rights.
The police state measures in the UK and other Western powers are certainly encouraging for Latvia’s politicians and national security agencies. It would even be strange if they did not use these measures as an excuse for destroying the few remaining liberties and infringing upon privacy rights in their own country.
Actually, the Latvian authorities seem to be grasping the trend: indeed, recent events give evidence of it. Just a short while ago, Latvia’s record of prosecutions against dissenters was supplemented with the first case of real punishment for a Facebook posting. A Latvian court sentenced anti-systemic activist Eugene Osipov and one of the leaders of political party «For the Native language!» (Russian: «За родной язык!», Latvian: «Par Dzimto Valodu!») and Association «Russkaya Zarya» to 100 hours of forced labour after finding him guilty of abusing the national flag of Latvia.
The case against Osipov was launched in November 2013 because of a statement he made on Facebook. On Latvian Freedom Fighters’ Remembrance Day (in Latvian: L??pl?ša Diena), Osipov’s daughter brought home a red-white-red ribbon, which had been handed out at her school. On this occasion, Osipov wrote on Facebook that his daughter had brought home from school a “red-white-red thingymajig” and that he forbade her to wear a ribbon having a “colour of rotten blood”.
Although the ribbon has the same colour combination as the national flag of the country, it is not and has never been an official national symbol of the Republic of Latvia. Moreover, Osipov himself argued that he did not consider the ribbon, which had been brought into vogue by Latvian nationalists from the Russophobic political party “All for Latvia!”, to be the flag of the country. Despite this argument, a Latvian court decided to punish him for abusing the national flag, absolutely ignoring all defence references to legal guarantees of freedoms of speech and conscience as if these did not exist at all.
The case of Osipov raises concerns that nothing can stop the Latvian authorities from doing their best to introduce even more repressive practices than those mapped out in the UK. In a recent interview, the Latvian Minister for the Interior admitted that the Security Police had actively kept track of leaders of “disloyal” people and even did not hesitate to mention these leaders’ names. All this had been done without evidence of crimes committed and ignoring the absence of any loyalty concept in the Latvian regulatory-legal framework.
Unlike in the West, civil liberties groups and activists in post-Soviet space are too weak and underdeveloped to take a stand against all these attacks. Latvian-style McCarthyism is unfolding and, if things continue to develop in this way, we may soon begin to see a real systematic crackdown.