Category Archives: News

“My voice” is also important

Mana Balss

Can you imagine being able to launch a public initiative through an online network and that the parliament of your country comes even to hear the proposal? Can you imagine that it can even become a new national law?

This imaginary scenario is actually something for real in Latvia, where a group of youths launched the portal “Manabalss.lv” -“My voice” – earlier this summer. We are talking about an online tool that allows citizens of this small Baltic country to be part of the policy making process.

Members of this virtual community have in this tool the possibility of launching their social and political proposals that can later be heard in parliament, as it has happened twice since early summer. 

In just three months, Mana Balss has gained a lot of popularity among Latvians.

“The truth is that we are a little overwhelmed by how quickly it has all gone. We did not expect to have such hectic first months, but it reinforces our idea and its utility. In Latvia there was a lack of citizen involvement in politics, especially because of the lack of results and the absence of a bridge to connect them to the political elite,”said Kristofs Blaus, one of the founders of this project.

IMPACT 

The first steps of Mana Balss were taken in summer of 2010, but it took almost a year for it to see the light.

At this time, this online tool has had a great media coverage in the country thanks in part to the former president, Valdis Zatlers, who used his influence to bring up one of the initiatives launched at Mana Balss. The result, a new law that requires the information about the owners of foreign companies to be disclosed. And it only took the proposal three weeks to become a law.

Now, the founders of this project are waiting to see if the government approves another initiative launched in the website, an initiative which in fact would legitimize the work of Mana Balss.

Latvians who want to make their proposals to change the laws of the country have to collect at least 90,000 signatures in order to be heard by the Parliament. At the moment, authorities are considering reducing this figure to 10,000. “We do not know whether it will arrive on time, since the country is holding parliamentary elections in mid September,” says Janis Erts, one of the founders of Mana Balss.

THE PROCESS 

Anyone can sign up and give their support to the proposals that are being discussed in it. However, there is a difference in relation to other socio-political tools like this; all users are tied to their real identity, since to register you have to provide your bank details.

Kristofs says: “It is just a way to ensure that no one has multiple identities, is trying to disrupt the process and fill Mana Balss with scam. We ensure that the identity of the user is real.”

Most of the banks that operate in Latvia are now supporting the project, but “at first it was hard to convince them of the potential future the project hides.”

Once registered, anyone can launch their proposals – no matter what type of initiatives they are – or campaign to improve something in the country. The process then gets started.

It takes about a month to see these proposals available online, for  a group of up to 15 experts in different fields (all volunteers) get in touch with the authors and offer their knowledge for the cause.

Then, the proponent must collect 100 signatures by themselves, showing that there are people supporting it. If they make the cut,  different lawyers give a legal shape to the initiative. It is only then that the proposal makes it to the website. And from there, anyone can support it just by giving their electronic signature.

This whole process does not ensure that the initiative would be heard by Parliament, but according to some political experts this online tool helps to reduce the distance between the public and politicians. In addition, you can track the evolution of the proposals at all times.

Mana Balss had over 100,000 visitors in two months and just over ten initiatives are currently available online. Altogether, it proves the success of the idea in Latvia. And now its founders want to export the idea to other countries. Lithuania will join them soon, Estonia may also, but the icing in the cake could be the UK.

Blaus Kristofs said: “We hope to see Mana Balss in Lithuania by the end of the year. And we are also in talks with people in the UK to launch this tool there. Although it will take time, given the country’s legislative complexity, we are optimistic for the future. “

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Latvia fires its Parliament

Latvians have voted massively to dissolve their parliament after a historical referendum. Almost 95 percent of voters want new general elections and the dismissal of the current Saeima.

Counting began shortly after ballots were closed – 23 hours local time – and according to the Central Election Commission participants have expressed their wish to dissolve the the Latvian Parliament.

More than 682,000 citizens voted in the referendum that saw an important turnout along the Gulf of Rīga. Saulkrasti County, on the gulf’s eastern side, registered a turnout of nearly 143 percent thanks, partly, to voters from outside the district who casted ballots there.

Vidzeme province had the highest participation – 54.16 percent – followed by Kurzeme at 53.04 and Zemgale at 47.61 percent. On the other hand, Latgale had the lowest, 34.60 percent. The capital of Rīga also had a low turnout: 36.46 percent.

Latvians living abroad had also the opportunity to take part in the historical referendum, the first of such kind in the Baltic country’s history.

“I voted for the dissolution of the Saeima. I want to bring to an end the influence of oligarchs in Latvia,” said student Ilze Zake.

“Hopefully, today’s result will help to draw a different political map in Latvia. However, we have to vote smartly, making sure that a new political elite takes over.”

CORRUPTION

Former president Valdis Zatlers called for the vote in late May. The Parliament had refused to lift the immunity of MPs after the anti-corruption office, KNAB, requested to search the house of parliament deputy and businessman Ainars Slesers, suspected of being involved in corruption deals.

He also denounced the influence of “business oligarchs” in Latvian politics. Mr Zatlers was ousted just one week later by the parliament, but has since founded a new political party.

“I had enough of living in a Latvia based on lies, cynicism and greed,” said the former president.

“We need to be honest before ourselves; Latvia is considered a small mafia state, and this is not the best reputation for a country,” Mr Zatlers told the LNT.

Latvia, who joined the EU in 2004, has long been dogged by corruption. The country is still emerging from the economic crunch – its economy fell 18 percent in 2009 due to strict budget cuts.

Elections are now expected to be held in September.

The last election in Latvia was only last October. It is expected that Mr Zatlers and allies – including PM Valdis Dombrovskis – will do well.

Mr Dombrovskis said this week; “A main goal of the elections will be to ensure that oligarchs, and the parties supporting oligarchs, do not control a majority in the next parliament. If this happens, then I would say the former president’s initiative of dissolving the parliament will pay off.”

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The Latvian diaspora; a tough challenge for the future

Riga, Latvia

A total of 6,563 people emigrated from Latvia during the first five months of the year. In other words, 43 persons left the country every day in Jan-May.

The data, which is available in the Central Statistic Bureau’s website, is likely to increase, for the number of emigrants during the month of June is yet to be published.

The figures may help to explain the ‘unexpected’ shrinkage of population in the small Baltic country, which will be confirmed as soon as the Government releases the results of the population census carried out from March to May. Continue reading

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Filed under Citizenship, History, News, Social Integration

The importance of impartiality and accuracy

The Internet offers a vast number of resources available to help you to know more about the situation of non-citizens in Latvia (and also the Baltic countries). For instance, the below video is a good example.

Russia Today , an English TV network operating from Russia, reported on the situation of non-citizens back in 2008.

It is a good piece with plenty of interviewees and a lot of colour, but lacks of impartiality and accuracy. We are only seeing one side of the debate / controversy, for all the interviews are people involved in promoting their rights.

Plus the piece gives limited background to understand the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not taking sides, as you could have seen if you have been following this blog. I am trying to analyse and understand the problem deeply, so I can offer a the best output possible with my final piece.

We have to bear in mind important issues that the reporter in the above video, I assume, forgot to tell her audience… History, politics, language and economics play important roles and should help us to understand the problem a lot better.

Impartiality and/or accuracy are vital for journalists, especially when we deal with topics like this, which affect many citizens in Latvia. Hence my aim is to tell you all about non-citizens’ life, people who have naturalised over the last years and of course try to understand why after 20 years since Latvia regained its independence there are more than 326,000 people holding an alien passport in the Baltic country.

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March 16, Latvian Legion Day

Latvia pays tribute every March 16 to its soldiers who back in World War II fought on the side of Nazi Germany in Waffen SS detachments. Every year hundreds of people sing patriotic songs and lay flowers at the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga. It’s the way Latvians honor their late Legionaires.

 

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Filed under Ethnicity, History, News, Social Integration

5 articles on Social Integration in Latvia

 

1.- Saeima member Ainar Slesers proposes granting Latvian citizenship to foreigners who donate EUR 1 million. Slesers (For A Good Latvia) considers this a measure that will increase the country’s income and allow wealthy foreigners apply for Latvian citizenship. According to the MP there could be “up to 10,000 families” who could receive the Latvian passport. (Read more)

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Russia’s interference on non-citizens


A session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva

It has been twenty years since the USSR collapsed and its former citizens in the Baltic countries were given the status of n0n-citizens. To many, they are stateless, but by definition in Latvian law they are not. However, their rights and situation have been subject of controversy between Russia and Latvia, especially since the Baltic country joined the EU in 2004.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who addressed  to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva recently, has claimed that non-citizens’ situation in Latvia and Estonia is “shameful”.

Mr. Lavrov said:

The task of ensuring the human rights of national minorities demands greater attention, especially in the context of such shameful phenomenon as the chronic problem of statelessness in Latvia and Estonia. It is necessary to achieve full implementation of the relevant recommendations of the Council of Europe, OSCE and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

 

In Latvia some 350,000 people (about 15% of its population) are non-citizens and hold an “alien passport”. The vast majority of these are ethnic Russians (therefore Russian speakers). In Estonia the situation is different, for only 100,000 (10%) are non-citizens.

Both Latvian and Estonian Foreign Ministers have responded to Lavrov’s criticism. They stressed the importance of their programs and reminded him of the “domestic” character of the matter.

Latvian Foreign Minister Girts Kristovskis said:

Latvian legislation and the existing regulation on the matters of national minorities fully comply with the standards of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and UN, and is a subject that belongs to Latvia’s domestic affairs. Every non-citizen in Latvia is offered an opportunity to naturalise. However, to do that or not is a choice left up to each individual

Latvia and Estonia used to have close ties with Russia since they broke free in 1991. Ever since, Moscow has spotlighted the minority issue frequently. Both Baltic countries have encouraged their respective non-citizens to naturalise through different tests such as language and history.

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