BALTIC BLOG: Out and about in Latvia

By bne IntelliNews November 10, 2014

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  quoted by most Western media as Rinkevics' coming out moment was actually

He was referring not only to the lead given by Estonia, but to the out-of-date rules in Latvia which have been exposed by last year's disaster at a supermarket in the Riga suburb of Zolitude when the roof collapsed, killing 54 people.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 officials 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 officials , “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 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.

Of 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...

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