May in Eastern Europe: the death of Normunds Kindzulis exposes a rot in Latvian society4 min read

 In Baltics, Civil Society, Eastern Europe, Editorial
I had originally intended to write an article on the rise of Chernobyl chic, when I came across reports of the death by immolation of a young Latvian man called Normunds Kindzulis. Like me he was 29, like me he was a gay man in his prime, trying to build a life for himself. Unlike me however, Normunds was unfortunate to find himself in a society so intolerant of his sexuality, that he was harassed, beaten, and seemingly murdered by being burnt alive. 

The local police only opened an investigation into the act after he passed away in hospital, claiming there was ‘no full evidence that a crime took place, only adding to the horrific injustice following years of failing to follow up on reports of assaults and threats. 

If things couldn’t be more tragic Normunds was a paramedic- someone dedicated to saving the lives of others. I rarely feel rage as an emotion, but today I felt it, unbridled and raw. This wasn’t a historical report, this was Europe in 2021. 

I have often cautioned patience when dealing with societies adapting to increasing tolerance of homosexuality. In the UK and Scandinavia we have had years to get us to the level of acceptance that LGBTQ+ people enjoy (though we are far from equality). A transition period for countries such as Latvia or Poland is to be understood and treated gently so as to ensure it progresses in the right direction.  However, I have come to the conclusion today, the transition period is now at an end! These countries are part of the EU, part of a group of nations committed to human rights and liberty, no longer should anything like this be remotely acceptable or even possible. The tragedy is however, far from taking a bit longer to adjust, many of these countries, Latvia included appear to be backsliding. The tragic case of Normunds is the result of years of inaction and tacit support for the beliefs that drove his attackers by the Latvian government. 

Despite President Egils Levits issuing a statement following Normunds murder ‘there is no place for hate in Latvia… the value of Latvian society is tolerance’, the track record of successive governments and the inaction of the police force suggest an endemic problem. 

In 2005 the conservative First Party of Latvia proposed a successful constitutional amendment which makes same-sex marriage illegal- a direct response to the first tentative LGBTQ+ Pride march in Riga that year. Only this year, despite being in the midst of a pandemic, the Saeima [Parliament] voted by 47-25 to constitutionally define a family as ‘a union of a male and female person’ effectively blocking recognition of LGBTQ+ families or indeed many heterosexual families. This followed similar endeavours in Hungary the year before. As of 2020 Latvia ranks as the second least safe place for LGBTQ+ people to live in the EU, having recently been overtaken by Poland in that dubious honour, and ranking far behind non-EU Serbia, Georgia, and Bosnia. 

As activist Kristine Garina of the European Pride Organisers Association put it, these actions ‘..  take us back to the times when being an openly homophobic politician was a thing to be proud of’. The danger is, in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Poland and many more, we are already at that point. After so much progress we risk falling back into a time where the murder of Normunds would not only be commonplace, but almost actively encouraged on a state level. It is perhaps time for the EU to grow some teeth and start becoming intolerant to intolerance. Liberal values can’t always be encouraged and cajoled, sometimes they must be fought for, and insisted upon no matter how incompatible those concepts may seem at first. 

This isn’t meant to be an epitaph against Latvia or the people of Latvia. I am certain that a majority of Latvians will be as appalled by the treatment of Normunds as I am, and will be fighting in their everyday lives to ensure Normunds death is the last. This is an opportunity for Latvian society and politicians to take action, and for the EU to insist that actions be taken. 

One can hope that like the horrifically violent murders of Matthew Shepherd in the United States or Daniel Zumudio in Chile, Normunds death becomes a pivotal watershed for Latvian society. To take a moment to reflect on what sort of future they want for their country and their children, and hopefully reject outright the sort of intolerance that enables these acts to occur. After all, Normunds and people like Normunds could be your child, your brother, your sister or even you. If you remember nothing more today after reading this, remember his name- Normunds. 

Featured image: Normunds Kindzulis 
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