RIGA - The much-anticipated protests against the state's school reform program largely turned out to be anticlimactic, as organizers' claims that hundreds of thousands would hit the streets in protest and that minority schools would be plagued with empty classrooms proved wildly exaggerated.
The start of the school year, in fact, ended with no violence, few arrests and one deportation.
The only confrontation came when a few male members of Shtab (Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools), as a part of their hunger-strike, chained themselves to the doors of the Cabinet of Ministers building since, until then, their protest had gone ignored by bureaucrats and government officials.
The members were subsequently dragged away by police. Other Shtab supporters held a candlelight vigil outside the Cabinet building on Brivibas Boulevard.
To be sure, the protest, which had been gathering momentum throughout the year, was largely ignored by the international media due to the hostage crisis in Russia.
Russian TV channels that had continuously covered the school reform issue, all but left Latvia out of their regular news reports.
The standoff reached its culmination on Sept. 3 when the Interior Ministry announced it would deport Alexander Kazakov, a Russian citizen and leader of Shtab, for his role in the protests and using the threat of violence.
"My patience is up. We cannot forever go on taking care of people who consciously push for promoting ethnic hatred," Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons said at a press conference.
The deportation set off a diplomatic row with Russia, which demanded an explanation for the expulsion, as well as terming it "repressive."
Kazakov had been seeking refugee status in Russia, which he believed would improve the chances for a legal decision in his favor either in Latvia or in the European Court of Human Rights.
Kazakov, whose mother lives in Latvia, promised to return soon.
"I will never forgive Latvia if something happens to my mother. My main task is to return to Latvia as soon as possible. I hope it will happen. Maybe not in a week, maybe in a year. But I will be back for sure," the Baltic News Service quoted him as saying.
Vladimir Buzayev, an MP from For Human Rights in a United Latvia, called the decision "Stalinist."
Kazakov, who has been referred to as the hand of Moscow by Prime Minister Indulis Emsis, was a figure many government officials loathed. His deportation has been discussed for months by the People's Party, a member of the three-party coalition Cabinet. Kazakov was even placed on the persona non grata list of individuals banned from Latvia as early as May, according to officials.
The Shtab leader admitted to working, albeit as a volunteer, for controversial Russian MP Dmitry Rogozin. Though Kazakov is from Latvia, he left for Russia in the early 1990s and later received Russian citizenship. Kazakov was issued a residence permit to stay in Latvia until October because his wife was a Latvian citizen. However, she died in August.
Still, many minority students, parents and teachers failed to heed Shtab's call to battle. The militant terminology and the massive police presence scared some parents, while a Sept. 1 concert organized by the Education Ministry helped dilute the protesting mood.
Though Shtab had predicted as many as 30,000 would attend their rally, the numbers were far lower, and as usual, estimations varied widely among different ethnic media. Latvian Television placed the number at approximately 5,000, while the Russian language daily Vesti Segedonya claimed that 25,000 people had turned out. Shtab member Jurij Petropavlovsky estimated that there were between 30,000 and 35,000 people at the demonstration.
The Baltic Times estimates 8,000 protesters were present at the Soviet era monument located across the Daugava River.
The protesters themselves were either young or very old, with few representing the middle - not exactly revolutionary types. Shtab's demonstration outside the Cabinet of Ministers later that night also failed to bring any tangible results.
Many believe that the increasingly aggressive and abrasive rhetoric of Shtab, an unregistered organization, turned many moderate reform opponents away from their protests.
Special Task Minister for Integration Nils Muiznieks said officials, after all was said and done, were pleased by three factors 's the low turnout at the protest, the lack of serious incidents and that kids were in school.
If the number of children skipping school was 5 percent higher than usual for Sept. 1, followed by 4 percent the following day, then it trickled to virtually nothing by Sept. 3. This forced Shtab to nearly abandon the idea of encouraging children to skip school.
On the same day, Kazakov claimed that Shtab's headquarters were bugged and that the security police were responsible.
Police denied the accusations, saying that the bugs Shtab allegedly found and displayed on national television were derided by security agencies as "primitive," and something that could be bought at the Latgalite market of used goods.
Approximately 52 people were arrested or detained by police, many cited simply for public drunkenness, which may have had nothing to do with the protests, said Krists Leiskalns, Interior Ministry spokeswoman.
On Sept. 1 two girls were detained for handing out flyers and then released shortly there after.
Shtab, however, has promised more demonstrations outside of the Cabinet of Ministers, and will demand the resignation of Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons.
The concert in the Old Town also brought criticism, since headliner Mummy Troll reportedly received nearly 40,000 lats (60,000 euros) for their participation. While some groups pulled out before the concert, others requested more money. The theme of the concert was unity and fun, and some musicians stressed that all nationalities in Latvia needed to get along.