Mike Collier in Riga
At risk of being flippant, at least this is one thing the Estonians didn't do first. When Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics came out as gay via Twitter on the night of November 6, it marked a first not only for Latvia and the Baltic states, but for Central and Eastern Europe as a whole: a government minister (and an important one at that) who stated not only that he was gay, but that he was proud of the fact.
In fact, Estonia could take a small part of credit (or blame, if you are that way inclined) for Rinkevics' decision. When the Estonian parliament, or Riigikogu, approved legislation on October 9 that will give legal status to same-sex partnerships in Estonia from 2016, it fundamentally changed the landscape of the gay debate in the region, moving it on from theological discussions of what God wants us to do (or not do), to whether same-sex couples can have legal protection like everyone else, pay taxes like everyone else and feel part of society the same as everyone else.
In Latvia and Lithuania, all mainstream parties immediately said they would never back such legislation, but the genie was out of the bottle. Incidentally, no-one knows if genies are gay or not.
The English-language tweet quoted by most Western media as Rinkevics' coming out moment was actually preceded by another in Latvian an hour or so earlier, which was far more interesting. ”Our country must create a legal framework for all types of partnerships, I will fight for it, I know that there will immediately be megahysteria but #Proudtobegay”, Rinkevics wrote.
He was referring not only to the lead given by Estonia, but to the out-of-date rules in Latvia which have been exposed by last year's disaster at a supermarket in the Riga suburb of Zolitude when the roof collapsed, killing 54 people. Some of the bereaved were not married to loved ones they had lost and in the absence of a UK-style common-law-spouse status or an Estonian registered partnership model, they have been left shut out of legal claims and compensation payments.
Fear of Russian outing
Rinkevics' announcement was unexpected, though rumours about his sexuality have occasionally been whispered in the corridors of power, sometimes with the implicit encouragement of his political opponents. Not too long ago, opposition Harmony party leader and Riga mayor Nil Ushakov was hinting about Rinkevics' supposed “psychological problems”, yet he was also among the first to say he respected Rinkevics' coming-out and wished him luck in his future career.
One theory doing the rounds is that, following Rinkevics' decisions to ban a string of Russian entertainers from Latvia for extremist anti-Ukraine and anti-gay statements (such as actor Ivan Okhlobystin's advice that gays should be burned in ovens), Russia was preparing to out him in such a way as to cause maximum embarrassment ahead of Latvia's presidency of the EU during the first six months of 2015. the idea seems credible, particularly bearing in mind similar claims about Russian 'black propaganda' being prepared to 'out' Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite as a lesbian (which she denies) in the run-up to Lithuania's EU presidency.
But whatever the reason for the timing, the decision itself remains a landmark. It is true that anonymous message boards in Latvia and elsewhere quickly filled with abusive comments. With sad predictability, Russian posters were particularly venomous, many as a result of their clear inability to differentiate homosexuality and paedophilia. But no major politicians suggested Rinkevics should resign and a couple of public officails who did quickly had their own suitability for their positions questioned.
On Twitter itself where users are more readily identifiable, Rinkevics received overwhelming support – a far cry from the 'megahysteria' he had predicted. That itself says something about the maturity and increasingly westernized orientation of large parts of society in CEE.
Inevitably, President of Estonia (and de facto president of Twitter) Toomas Hendrik Ilves was among the first officialsto offer, support tweeting: “A very brave man and a very good foreign minister”.
He later noted how, “Russia continues to troll Latvia's Foreign Minister for coming out. Pretty weird, I'd say”. As if to prove Ilves' point, Russian Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin – who had already told Rinkevics he “had nothing else to be proud of” – then tweeted to Ilves: “I say you're having a get-together”, which Ilves himself cleverly re-tweeted in case Rogozin got the idea of deleting it.
Newly-installed EU foreign policy supremo Federica Mogherini delivered such strong support for Rinkevics it would be interesting to know what they thought of it back home in Italy: “Proud of you @edgarsrinkevics! Hope we'll make it possible for all to say so, without necessarily being strong and brave (as you are!)”.
Now that he is out of the closet, perhaps the biggest challenge Rinkevics will face will be to carry on in his role as a more than ordinarily competent foreign minister. The pressure will be on for him to become a figurehead for gay rights, a role with which this quiet and generally unassuming man will probably not be comfortable. But with Riga set to host the major Europride festival from June 15-21 next year, just as Latvia's EU Presidency draws to a close, he will be under intense pressure to nail his colours to the mast all over again for a global audience.
And while many in the West like to pretend that being gay simply isn't an issue any more, it was noticeable that Western media were if anything even more voluminous in their reporting of Rinkevics' step out of the closet than local media. Certainly there was more coverage of this one man's personal lifestyle choice than there was of the results of the recent parliamentary elections.
Off course Western media have the inbuilt alibi that they were reporting it not because it was big news to them but because it must be big news 'over there' in the East where everyone must be grabbing flaming torches and heading out for a gay-bashing pogrom. In fact, if there was any hysteria at all it was more mini- than mega-. Before anyone in Brussels, London, Washington or Paris gets too worked up, they might like to consider how many members of their own executives are openly gay.
Of course there's German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and... er...