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Cablegate: Latvian President Vetos Controversial Labor Law

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1. SUMMARY. Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga
returned to the Saeima (parliament) a bill to amend the
Labor Law, which did not include sexual orientation as one
of the protected categories in employment. The language of
the law appears to violate an EU directive that Latvia must
incorporate into local law or face possible punitive action
from the European Commission. As the October Saeima
elections draw nearer, politicians are increasingly
exploiting socially sensitive issues to draw voters'
attention. It appears that Latvia's First Party (LPP), the
most vociferous in the debate on this bill, has made
opposition to gay rights its main campaign issue. END

2. On June 15, following a heated debate lasting more than
one hour, the Saeima adopted a bill to amend the Labor Law
in accordance with a commission directive on equal
employment opportunity. Parliament's social and labor
affairs committee had prepared the amendments to the Labor
Law in accordance with EU requirements, including the ban on
discrimination against employees on the grounds on sexual
orientation. However, at the insistence of Latvia's First
Party, the specific mention of sexual orientation was
deleted. Lawmaker Janis Smits, LPP parliamentary faction
head and an ordained Baptist minister, declared from the
Saeima rostrum that including the sexual orientation clause
in the law would "open the gate for pedophilia, pederasty,
zoophilia and other forms of perversion."

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3. Several other lawmakers echoed this sentiment, and the
final vote on deleting the specific reference to sexual
orientation was 48 for and 19 against. LPP was joined by
Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, Greens' and Farmers' Union,
Harmony Center and a few independent lawmakers in stripping
the provision. New Era, the People's Party and some Harmony
Center MPs voted against. Under the version of the
legislation passed by parliament, equal treatment in
employment should be provided for all residents banning any
direct or indirect discrimination on the grounds of "race,
sex, age, disability, religious, political or other beliefs,
national or social origin, material or family status or
other circumstances."

4. President Vike-Freiberga exercised her constitutional
authority to return the bill to the Saeima. In a letter to
the Saeima speaker Ingrida Udre, the president explained her
decision by the fact that an individual's right to
employment cannot be tied with his or her private life,
which is protected by the Constitution. Foreign Minister
Artis Pabriks (People's Party) also condemned the amendments
and said that in joining international organizations Latvia
had assumed a number of obligations that it must fulfill.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis (People's Party) criticized
the lawmakers by saying that "civil rights must clearly be
taken into account, and one cannot divide people by certain

5. The Saeima is expected to review the returned bill after
the summer recess in September. Janis Smits, head of the LPP
parliamentary faction, told embrep that his party would
stand firm against including the sexual orientation
provision in the law. He expressed confidence that the
returned bill would not be altered and thus made into law.
"Over 90% of the Latvian population opposes homosexuality,
and we must listen to the people," he opined. Under Latvia's
Constitution, if the lawmakers for a second time endorse the
law in its current form, the president must promulgate it as
a law. We understand that if the final version does not
accord with the commission directive, Latvia could face
infringement procedures within the EU.

6. COMMENT: The amendments to the Labor Law were the third
bill that the president sent back to parliament as the
spring session wound down, saying that all three were
designed to drive Latvian society apart rather than bring it
together. While we expect her to continue to use her moral
authority on this bill, the President is at the limits of
her constitutional powers if the Saeima refuses to make any
changes. Since the Labor Law is expected to be reviewed
shortly before the October 7 elections, it is again likely
to fall prey to pre-election politicking. Moreover, it
appears that LPP and its leaders, including party chair
Ainars Slesers, have made a fight against gay rights a key
element in their election campaign. LPP has also been vocal
in opposing the gay pride parade planned to take place in
Riga on July 22. LPP, which has been struggling in the
opinion polls, may indeed score a few points by exploiting
homophobic sentiments among the general public. Many people
in Latvia are not yet prepared to embrace Western liberal
values fully, and would wish to sweep the issue of
homosexuality under the carpet. Their anti-gay sentiments
may be reinforced by Soviet-era memories when sodomy was a
criminal offense. Moreover, a surprisingly large number of

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people in Latvia equate homosexuality with pedophilia. END


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