A fight for “family values” in Latvia is uniting the Kremlin’s friends and ideological foes.
Vladimir Putin
© Reuters/Scanpix

A renowned Latvian children anesthesiologist, Peteris Klava, would like to see the death penalty introduced for pedophiles.

Speaking in an interview with MK-Latvia, Latvia's most popular newspaper, Klava explained that pedophiles are no longer afraid of 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 interviewing Klava added that Norway’s minister of children, equality and social inclusion called incest “a social tradition.

The interview, which was a social media hit, was largely devoted to children’s accidents due to parents lack of care. Thousands of Facebook users shared and liked it. A Latvian blog devoted to conspiracy theories republished it, and from there it ended up in a popular Latvian parenting forum.
Statistically, almost every fourth Latvian saw the article, which contained falsehoods that originated in Russia.

The fight for “traditional values” has become another battlefield in the confrontation between Russia and the West. Armed with family values mixed in with anti-western propaganda, the Kremlin attracts supporters who are not natural allies. Some are even ideological opponents.

“We can see how many Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” explained 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 the Russian public sphere, Norway is considered a land of pedophiles.

The truth is that the Norwegian minister of children, equality and social inclusion, Inga Marte Thorkildsen, has never said that 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 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 isn'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 claiming 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 a Russia-based NGO named Russian Mothers, which describes itself as an international movement.

Echoing comments by Latvian doctor Klava, the head of the Russian Mothers organisation, 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 Mothers organized a 12,000-people rally in Moscow in 2013, the woman told a story with tear-filled eyes about 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 a group close to Aleksandr Dugin, the ideologue of the Eurasian Union.

Two months earlier, Russia had banned adoption by US citizens to protect children from pedophiles and gays, which, to supporters of “traditional values”, are often one and the same.

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 a documentary called TransNorway to its YouTube channel containing claims that Sweden would introduce non-gender kindergartens, that a Norwegian politician-millionaire donated 30 million krones (3.2 million euro) to advertise homosexuality in kindergartens and schools, and that a German family allowed their child to pick a gender.

In reality, however, children are addressed with gender-neutral pronouns in only a few kindergartens in Sweden. Supporters believe that this will encourage their creativity because it doesn’t impose expectations on what boys or 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 parts of society to action, and promote changes in legislation that favors their causes. Since 2013, three such foundations have been registered in this Baltic state, where about 26 percent of the population are ethnic Russians. The defence of “family values” is a rare exception when two main segments of society, which are often divided by their history and language, are able to work together. That includes political forces, which hold opposing views on important national questions.

This became 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 holy water at the participants of a conference devoted to same-sex issues being held in a hotel in central Riga. Up until recently, gay pride parades have demanded heavy security from the authorities to provide safety for the participants.

Russia and Latvia

The parental Protect Our Children movement 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 children, including the information that contradicts “family values”, and another allows the internet regulator to block web pages that were seen as harmful to children - without court sanctions.

The plan to hold the referendum in Latvia failed because ethnic Latvian Christians, who at first actively participated in the initiative, couldn’t ignore the fact that the real leader of the organization was Vladimir Linderman, a former National Bolshevik and a radical Russian activists.

Another parental 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 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 and for whom this is a profitable business. This happens more often in Norway and Great Britain, they said. 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 Kin outside of parliament in 2014 served as an eye-opener to Irina Cvetkova, the now-former member of parliament from the left-wing Harmony, which draws on support from Latvia’s Russian-speakers. After speaking with the group's 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 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, current MP Inga Bite (from the Latvian Regional Alliance) also mentions an endangered society and Christian convictions as reasons 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 - Julija Stepanenko, a lawyer and mother of four. She said she was acting on behalf of the parents of school children. She refused to tell 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 Our Children spokeswoman 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 a moral upbringing. The amendments, which at first seemed like a joke to liberal members of society, were approved by parliament in the summer of 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 that contained very strong language. Another school's principal forbade showing a film called Total Eclipse about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was gay, to a high school senior class. One parent expressed concern that the school was "promoting pederasty, rape, alcoholism and drug addiction."

One of the leaders of the Harmony party, Riga mayor Nils Usakovs (Nil Ushakov), ordered a review of study materials used in Riga schools, even though schools are largely autonomous in Latvia. At the same time, the city of Riga took down public service advertisements that 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 (from the ruling Unity party), who last year came out as gay on social media, 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, party member Inguna Ribena chided 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 to 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. 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 children who have been taken from Latvian families abroad from being given up for adoption.
"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 [can we be – Lithuania Tribune] 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, the Impressum press club, described by annual Baltic security service reports as a group lobbying for the Kremlin's interests, organized a roundtable discussion. The main speaker was Ruby Harrold Cleasson, "a world-renowned human rights defender" from Sweden who actively supports the interests of families whose children were taken away by the child services and defends the rights of parents to physically punish their offspring. 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 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, Aleksandr Gaponenko, a Russian-bankrolled activist from Latvia, was going to take part in a conference in Tallinn organized by the Latvian 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 against 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 to 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 with Re:Baltica, said that Russia awarded him 13,000 euros to make this film.

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