Bigotry and denial
By Anton Dwyer, Marge Tubalkain-Trell and Adam Mullet
First published May 22, 2008
A man, let’s call him Joe Bloggs, told The Baltic Times about a horrible experience he had while traveling to the Baltics in the days before the Schengen zone.
He was crossing the border by bus between Estonia and Latvia when immigration officials came to look over the passengers. They frog-marched Bloggs off the bus and took him to a room to interrogate him. He was striped naked and inspected. His belongings were searched.
The officials took away his mobile phone and did not allow him to call his embassy. He was locked in a windowless room where he spent the night. Eventually, in the morning, they let him call his embassy and they came and got him out.
This was not the first time that Bloggs had been detained. If it had happened once it could be just bad luck, if two or three times then exceptionally bad luck, but after the fourth incident he realized that it was more than just bad luck. Joe Bloggs, you see, is black.
“I had been detained so often I actually lost count. Basically [it happened] every time I came to Estonia from [my home country],” he said.
“Every time I got to the airport my palms would begin to sweat. The problem is I’m from a Western European country and immigration officials couldn’t accept that I was entitled to my passport looking the way I do,” he said.
Bloggs eventually complained to the Estonian ambassador in his home country and she sent an apologetic letter.
“The next time I was detained, which was the next time I was in Estonia, I had the letter on me. Immigration asked to keep a copy of the letter,” Bloggs said.
Bloggs is not the only one facing problems. In 2006 the Dutch ambassador to Estonia, Hans Glaubitz, had to be reassigned at his own request after his gay black partner suffered constant abuse.
More recently, in Lithuania in May 2008, the glamorous and beautiful South African born singer and local celebrity, Berneen, was beaten up in Vilnius. Her lawyers have told her not to talk to the press.
In Vilnius skinheads are so confident that they march openly through the streets.
Ethnic minorities who live in the region have noticed attitudes worsening.
“For a while I felt safe and walked around normally and freely, but since the Berneen incident I have realized that these things do actually happen and it could happen to me too,” said Nicholas Aubin, a black Canadian living in the Baltics.
Some believe the situation is getting worse.
“I get abuse and shouted at on a weekly basis, and not just in dodgy places but anywhere and everywhere,” Bloggs said, adding that it never used to be like this.
The defining feature of racism in the Baltics is not that it exists – you could argue it exists everywhere – it is the blatant denial that there is a problem. In this sense the situation is similar to the relationship the Baltics have with their Russian-speaking populations.
“If I talk to colleagues or co-workers about it they refuse to believe that it is happening unless they are actually with me,” Bloggs said.
Responses from official sources are very illuminating. Neither the Estonian government, nor the Latvian government nor the Lithuanian government was willing to comment to The Baltic Times on the issue by the time we went to press. That in itself speaks volumes.
TBT tried to speak to educators and psychologists about the issue. None were willing to go on record.
The Estonian Institute of Human Rights complain that they are poorly funded and don’t have the resources to deal with problems. Still they say the situation is not worse than in any other European countries.
Despite this wall of silence it doesn’t take much searching to discover that there is a problem.
When TBT reporters asked acquaintances what they really thought of black people, the shocking answers showed how people in the country feel about minorities.
“The fewer, the better – they should move away. If they feel bad here or are being abused they should go to where their place is,” one said.
Dharminder Singh Kandola, a British Asian, strongly feels that the problem is deep-rooted in Lithuanian society and that general apathy affects attitudes not only towards race but toward society at large.
“What scares me more than skinheads is that if I did get attacked, no one would stop and help me. They would probably just walk on by. Lithuanians deny the problem exists,” Kandola said.
The problem he says is not the fact that people don’t care about black or Asian people, but that people don’t care about their fellow man in general.
“I bet that if an old lady was mugged on a busy street that most people would walk by and say ‘not my problem’ and avoid getting involved. How can you feel safe in a community when people are not accountable for their actions?” Kandola added.
Nonetheless, the relationship between black people and the Baltics is complex. A lot depends on who you are and where you are from.
Whilst ethnic minorities may face problems, the fact is that many black people in the region have high social status. They are sent over by their companies, work for foreign embassies, are professional sportsmen or entertainers, they are investors and tourists. A large portion have higher incomes and status than many locals. In fact the editor of this newspaper is a black Briton.
“The Baltics are still relatively poor countries, so the people of color who come here tend to come from rich Western countries. People can be quite positive towards you once they know you are from the West,” Bloggs said.
Aubin is quick to defend Lithuanians as a whole citing the fact that he only has problems with a small minority of people.
“It is just a few idiots who are ruining everything,” he said.
Meanwhile in Western Europe, Baltic people are themselves being discriminated against. Maybe the experiences that Balts have there will help foster a little bit more understanding when they return home.