A fight for “family values” in Latvia unites the Kremlin’s friends and ideological foes.
A renowned Latvian children anesthesiologist, Peteris Klava, would like to see the death penalty introduced for the pedophiles.
Speaking in an interview to “MK-Latvia”, the most popular Latvian newspaper, Klava explained that pedophiles are no longer afraid of the consequences and all that is left is “democracy with a pedophile flavor.”
As an example Klava cited Norway, which, in his words, has supported “the introduction of a special lesson in elementary school, devoted to incest. It is a norm for them. Children must be taught how to recognize when a father would soon become too close,” he said. The journalist who interviews Klava adds that Norway’s minister of children, equality and social inclusion called an incest “a social tradition.
The interview is largely devoted to children’s accidents due to parents lack of care and became a social media hit. Thousands of Facebook users shares and likes it. A Latvian blog, devoted to conspiracy theories, republishes and from there it ends up in a local version of mumsnet.
Statistically, almost every fourth Latvian saw the article, which contained falsehoods that originated in Russia.
A fight for “traditional values” has become another battlefield in the confrontation between Russia and the West. Armed with family values, mixed in with the anti-western propaganda, the Kremlin attracts supporters who are not natural allies. Some are even ideological opponents.
“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” explained the Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech in September 2013. “We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years,” he said several months later.
How myths are born
In Russian public sphere, Norway is a land of pedophiles.
The truth is that the Norwegian minister of children, equality and social inclusion Inga Marte Thorkildsen has never said that the incest in Norway is “a social tradition.” “I am really shocked about your revelation. It would be terrible if I said or thought something like that,” she explained it in an email to Re:Baltica. “What I´ve said is this: There is an urgent need in Norway to inform children of what is normal and what is´t. A lot of those growing up in abusive families report that they spent many years thinking it was normal and something parents or other family members had the right to do to their children,” the Norwegian ex-minister told Re:Baltica. The experience in the Latvian center for abused children Dardedze is similar. Abused children cannot even name their own body parts.
Doctor Peteris Klava never mentioned the minister by name because he did not know names of “all those ladies.” He said he learned about Norway from his colleagues, the Internet and books that he had read that the sexual abuse of children “comes from the viking era.”
The journalist for “MK-Latvia”, who penned the article, remembered that he had read about the Norway’s minister on the Internet, but did not remember where. A search for “Norway” and “incest” returns a slew of articles in Russian, with headlines like “Incest will be Taught in Norwegian Schools.” It turned out that the news came from a press release by Russia-based NGO “Russian Mothers” which describes itself as international movement.
Echoing comments by Latvian doctor Klava, the head of the “Russian Mothers” organization Irina Bergseth knows that the sexual abuse of children in Norway is an ancient tradition.
“There is a Norwegian tradition: to line up to punish a little child. They refer to ancient traditions, viking customs,” she said in an interview to the official Russian government newspaper “Rossiyskaya Gazeta.”
She claims to know about it from her personal experience. In the beginning of 2000, Bergseth met a Norwegian man on the Internet. She moved to Norway, got married, gave birth to a son. Soon, she got divorced. They started a court battle over child custody. She alleged to the court that the father was hitting and sexually abused the child. The court didn’t find any evidence of this and awarded the custody to the father, wrote “the Moscow Times”.
When her “Russian Mother's” organized a 12,000-people rally in Moscow in 2013, the woman told a story with her eyes filled with tears how people not only queued up to rape her four-year-old son, but also “dressed him up in Putin’s costume.” The rally in support of the foreign adoption ban was attended by members of the ruling United Russia party, and various trade unions. It was led by young people from the group close to the ideologue of the Eurasian Union Aleksandr Dugin.
Two months earlier, Russia had banned adoption for the US citizens to protect children from pedophiles and gays, which to the supporters of “traditional values” often mean the same thing.
The foundation created by Bergseth, however, focused on Scandinavia. It asserted that the Finnish government announced bids to re-sell children taken from families. In 2015, it posted to its YouTube channel a documentary “TransNorway,” containing claims such as Sweden would introduce non-gender kindergartens. Or that Norwegian politician-millionaire donated 30 million krones (3.2 million euro) to advertise homosexuality in kindergartens and schools. Or that a German family allowed their child to pick a gender.
In reality, however, in few kindergartens in Sweden, children are addressed with a gender-neutral pronoun. The supporters believes that this will encourage their creativity because it doesn’t impose expectations on what boys are supposed to do and what girls are supposed to do. Critics don’t like the fact that this institution is funded by the taxpayers, but in Sweden, the state finances all kindergartens, including private ones.
The politician-millionaire mentioned in the documentary is Audun Lysbakken. According to his income declaration, he is not a millionaire. His annual income in recent years was around 80,000 euros. Up until 2012, Lysbakken was the minister of children, equality and social inclusion. Defending the rights of sexual minorities was part of his job.
In a struggle for “family values”, organizations like “Russian Mothers” play an important role. In Latvia, they distribute information -- predominantly in Russian -- mobilize part of the society to actions, promote changes in legislation that favors their causes. Since 2013, three such foundations have been registered in the Baltic state, where about 26 percent of the population are ethnic Russians. The defence of the “family values” is a rare exception when two main segments of the society, which are often divided over history and language are able to work together. That includes political forces, which hold opposing views on the important national questions.
It was clear during the early days of the gay pride parades in the Latvian capital, which generally attracted the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. In 2006, armed with icons and crosses, some religious activists – both ethnic Russians and ethnic Latvians – hurled feces and sprinkled the holy water at the participants of the conference devoted to the same-sex issues taking place in a hotel in central Riga. Up until recently, the gay pride parades demanded heavy security from the authorities to provide safety for the participants.
Russia and Latvia
The parent movement “Protect Our Children” first came out with the invitation to forbid “gay propaganda” in schools in 2013. It launched a signature petition drive to hold a national referendum to ban “promotion of sex in schools”.
The initiative coincided with the adoption of the similar law in Russia, which threatened a fine for promotion of homosexuality among minors. A year earlier, in 2012, Russia adopted two laws: One forbids distribution of information that is harmful to kids, including the information that contradicts “family values.” Another law allowed the internet regulator without court sanctions to block web pages that were seen harmful to children.
The plan to hold the referendum in Latvia failed because ethnic Latvian Christians, who at first actively participated in this initiative, couldn’t ignore the fact that the real leader of the organization was the former National Bolshevik, one of the more radical Russian activists, Vladimir Linderman.
Another parent organization “Kin” (Dzimta) picked up the fight for “family values” with lectures and protests. A year later, yet another organization “Our Children” was born. The group sought to protect children taken from ethnic Latvian homes abroad.
With a few nuances, these groups hold similar ideology. In the interviews and lectures, the group members say that dark forces stand behind the fight for gay rights. Their aim is to control the population on planet Earth, which already suffers from overpopulation. To do that, non-gender people are being raised and early sexualization is promoted among children.
No one is able to name those dark forces. Often “traditional value” defenders mention the international organizations, like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the billionaire George Soros and very often simply, “corporations” and “the state.”
Another villain in this theory is social services, who take away children, so that they could be adopted by gays or foster families for whom this is a profitable business. More often, this is happening in Norway and Great Britain, they say. Similar patterns also happen in Latvia and Estonia.
The data, however, does not prove this. The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s committee on social affairs published a report on the practice of social services in its member states. The report group was led by a representative from Russia. The report released this year says that more children are being taken away from parents in Lithuania, Poland and Russia (up to 1.66 percent of all children whose families have come in contact with social services), compared to up to 0.5 percent in Norway and Estonia. Latvia and the United Kingdom are somewhere in the middle with 0.8 percent.
Parliament, lend me your ears
These myths have inspired some members of the Latvian parliament from the left-wing Harmony, the right-wing National Alliance and the political newcomer called the Latvian Regional Alliance.
A protest by the “Kin” outside the parliament in 2014 served as an eye-opener to Irina Cvetkova, the now-former member of parliament from the left-wing Harmony that draws on support from Latvia’s Russian-speakers. After speaking with the group leaders, Cvetkova initiated changes in the law that would ban promotion of sex in school. Her initiative did not gain traction at that time and failed.
As a result Cvetkova and her colleague Igors Melnikovs left the party and introduced a similar legislation with the support of the Zatlers’ Reform Party.
In an interview with Re:Baltica, Cvetkova cites Norway as a country where the threat to “family values” is more evident. “Incest is traditional and is considered normal,” she says. To prove her point, she later sent a link to the documentary “TransNorway.”
Like Cvetkova, the current MP Inga Bite (from the Latvian Regional Alliance) also mentions the endangered society and Christian conviction why she supported changes in the legislation.
The Saeima at first rejected the amendments until six months later, a similar initiative came from another Harmony member, lawyer and the mother of four Julija Stepanenko. She said she was acting on behalf of the parents of school children. She refused to answer to Re:Baltica whether these parents came from the organizations mentioned above.
In May 2015, she took part in a conference organized by the “Kin” group in Rezekne in eastern Latvia, which was co-sponsored by the Rezekne city council, where her party holds the majority. In an interview published in a local newspaper, a city council member and a school principal, repeated the position of the “Kin” group that “in Europe, especially in Norway, children are taken away from parents at every turn.”
Parents turned out to be more talkative. “We found Julija Stepanenko (Yulia Stepanenko), she backed our initiative. We drew it up in a legal form, gave it to a vote and it was adopted by the parliament,” says the spokeswoman for “Our Children” Irina Smorigo. Both groups refused to meet with Re:Baltica, so their representatives were interviewed by a Lithuanian journalist at our request.
Stepanenko's amendments to the education law aim to protect children from studying materials that go against the moral upbringing. The amendments, which to the liberal part of the society in the beginning seemed like a joke, were approved by parliament in the summer 2015. With the beginning of the new school year in the fall surprises started to trickle in. The leadership of a prestigious Riga school reprimanded a literature teacher who had used a poem by a modern Latvian poet, which contained very strong language. Another school's principal forbade showing to a high school senior class film "Total Eclipse" about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was gay. One parent expressed a concern that the school is "promoting pederasty, rape, alcoholism and drug addiction."
One of the leaders of party Harmony, the Riga city mayor, Nils Usakovs (Nil Ushakov), ordered a review of study materials used in the Riga schools, even though schools are largely autonomous in Latvia. At the same time, the city of Riga took down the public service advertisements, which promoted tolerance. Stepanenko didn't like that tolerance against gay people was promoted along with tolerance toward the disabled, HIV patients, and homeless.
"I have confirmed that this monstrosity (ķēzījums) will disappear tomorrow. A thank-you goes out to all hawk-eyed people and to the city for quick action," Stepanenko said on her Facebook page. The city took down the ad “at the request of the residents.” However, no one seem to be really sure how many complaints the city had received.
The amendments received the support of two parties that stand on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. The left-wing Harmony (H), which draws on support mostly from the Russian-speaking population and is often accused of being a Moscow proxy in Latvia, and the right-wing National Alliance (NA). Latvia's foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics (ruling party Unity), who last year came out on the social media as gay, said on Twitter, "I am not surprised about the H and NA cooperation on moral upbringing because their goal is not a free (Latvia), but a totalitarian state, which then can be handed over to the Kremlin."
The National Alliance was appalled. In parliament, the party member Inguna Ribena chided the critics, who "are projecting the Kremlin and Putin onto the proposed changes to the law." She went on with examples why the state should continue strengthen moral upbringing. "In today's Sweden, they plan to ban traditional fairy-tales in an effort to promote gender equality. In their place, they force to tell tales about same-sex parents, single parents, and child adoption as well as replacing the pronouns 'he' and 'she.'"
Her speech, it seems, was taken almost word for word from the homepage of "Our Children organization." Asked where she got her information, Ribena told Re:Baltica, "There's so much information, who can remember from where." The Swedish ambassador challenged Ribena's views in the local press.
In October 2015, the National Alliance pulled its weight behind an amendment proposed by Stepanenko. The parliament decided to draw up a declaration aimed at preventing giving to adoption children who have been taken from Latvian families abroad.
"If we don't insist on an immediate end to the trade of children like puppies, we will not protect our future," Stepanenko said in parliament.
The Baltic groups
Since 2013, there have been three organizations defending “family values” established in Latvia and one in Estonia. They deny any connection to Russia.
"What kind of arm of Moscow if we always tell the public about what is happening over there (in the West). We don't talk about what's happening in Russia. We don't look to Russia because we are politically neutral," said Alla Sprisevska from "Our Children."
Nevertheless, representatives of NGOs funded by the Russian government, are joining the tide. In August 2015, press club "Impressum", described in the annual reports of Baltic security services as a group lobbying for the Kremlin interests, organized a roundtable discussion. The main speaker was Ruby Harrold Cleasson, "a world renowned human rights defender" from Sweden, who actively supports interests of families whose children were taken away by the child services and defends rights of parents to physically punish their offsprings. She is better known outside Sweden than inside the country. Our Norwegian and Swedish colleagues found a small number of archive stories about her. Cleason was mainly featured as a fighter against social services. Last year, she spoke about threats to the parental rights at a conference in Lithuania, organized by a Lithuanian parent forum.
Another group was formed this year in Estonia. Called "Baltic Parental Chain", the group seeks to unite "healthy-minded parents" to give a counterweight to "the juvenile justice machine."
In February 2015, the Russian-bankrolled activist Aleksandr Gaponenko from Latvia was going to take part in a conference in Tallinn organized by the Latvia's group "Kin" and its Estonian counterpart, "Estonian Parents." However, he didn't make it to the conference because he was detained by the Estonian security services at the border and denied entry to the country.
Recently Gaponenko who specialized in discrimination of non-citizens and the supposedly resurgent fascism in Latvia, finished his new documentary. This time, it's about the juvenile system in Latvia. Gaponenko told Re:Baltica he turned to this topic because his friend's child was taken by the social services and she had been unable to get the child back. So he started analyze and understood that the problem has "a European dimension" The deeper reason is "the international power struggle for the reduction of humans on Earth." Gaponenko, however, refused to say who finances him.
Latvia's security police chief Normunds Mezviets in an interview to Re:Baltica said that Russia awarded 13,000 euros to make this film.
Written by Inga Spriņģe, Re:Baltica
Edited by Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Translated into English by Aleks Tapiņš
Researcher Gundega Tupiņa, SSE Riga