Since regaining their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic states have shown unwavering determination to pursue democracy and the rule of law. They are among the staunchest supporters of other countries in the region seeking to join the EU and NATO. Yet when it comes to LGBT+ people’s rights, the three countries are stragglers.
The newest edition of ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map illustrates the paradox: compared to their Nordic neighbors, not to mention frontrunners like Belgium, the Baltics are far behind on most aspects of legal rights and policies protecting LGBT+ persons.
The phenomenon is not so easy to explain by obvious categories such as traditional versus modern. Countries with traditionally religious societies such as Spain and Ireland are doing much better accepting and protecting their LGBT+ populations than Latvia, Lithuania, or even Estonia, which have predominantly secular societies. However, in the last decades, narratives of “Western decline” have spread from Russia to other countries that had once been part of the Soviet empire.
Similar narratives, centered on disinformation about LGBT+ as an ideology rather than a category of persons requiring rights, found fertile ground also among new religious groups with strong ties to US religious conservatives. Latvia, in particular, has been exposed to both phenomena – from NGOs spreading narratives similar to Kremlin propaganda to politically connected religious groups opposing the need for any form of legal recognition of same-sex unions.
Estonia is now ahead of its Baltic neighbors. On May 15, the government approved a draft same-sex marriage act, which was part of the coalition agreement of the governing liberal coalition. It is still to be adopted by parliament. The government also agreed on implementation acts for the existing Registered Partnership Act, making it easier for citizens to register partnerships and enjoy the rights that registered unions provide. The rights and obligations of partners under the Registered Partnership Act will remain the same as now, including the right of registered partners to only adopt the children of their registered partner (second-parent adoption).
In Latvia, attempts to pass a law on civil partnerships including same-sex couples have been thwarted by the parliament’s majority in 2019 and again in 2022, when the law, prepared by the Ministry of Justice and supported by three out of four governments coalition parties, was accepted in its first and second reading, but rejected in the last vote. The draft law was prepared in response to the ruling of the Constitutional Court which stated that legal protection should be ensured for all families, irrespective of the gender of partners, by June 2021. Currently, no corresponding regulation is in force in Latvia, in defiance of the Constitution which mandates that laws should comply with Constitutional Court rulings.
Lithuania is not faring much better. Like Latvia, it still has no form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. In May, after a law on civil partnership had survived the first of three votes, there was an attempt to take it off the agenda. Eventually, the law was approved also in the second vote in the Seimas and is now awaiting a final vote. Like Latvia, the draft law divided the ruling coalition, liberal politicians voting in favor, but without support from their conservative colleagues.
There is hope that social change which is well underway in all three Baltic countries will eventually bring about a change in laws. Even in Latvia, the majority of the population supports the introduction of civil partnerships, and support is higher among young people. It is a matter of time until the country joins the majority of the EU member states in ensuring legal recognition to same-sex couples and protecting their rights. The time spent waiting, however, makes Latvian society more insecure for the LGBT+ community.
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and also as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.