The beginning-of-September anti-school reform demonstrations, organized by the unregistered Shtab, were one of the most anticipated events of the year. Activists believed that the protests would turn the tide in the public debate, and once even hinted at the possibility of violence. Judging by the sheer size of previous protest marches, officials were worried enough to fill the streets with large numbers of police units and fork up a large chunk of cash for a concert-counter-demonstration.
At the Sept. 1 at Victory Park the typical radical speeches were made, and inflammatory literature was handed out, one containing only two words in Latvian 's Baiga Ziema (the terrible winter). Those who know Latvian history will recognize the phrase, barrowed from an earlier "terrible year," or what is known as the first year of the Soviet occupation in 1940-1941, where over 15,000 people were deported in one night. The authors chose their language carefully, and the brochure went on to claim that ethnic Russian children would remember this winter of the education reform in the same way that Latvians remember Stalin's actions.
However, the demonstrations quickly exhausted themselves. Parents kept their kids at home, government officials engaged the media en masse and the horrifying images of Beslan made the gripes of schoolchildren who have to take two more classes in their non-native tongue seem ludicrous.
Still, it is not the least bit surprising that, given the quasi-legal nature of Shtab's actions, its complete lack of liability while it aims to draw tens of thousands of people (including adolescents) out in protest, the nontransparent nature of its finances, and finally, references to the possibility of "ethnic violence," the government could not sit back and passively watch. The security services were obliged to keep a close eye on the organization, and indeed they may have bugged Shtab's phones and office. But when Shtab activists displayed on TV what appeared to be primitive listening devices, the Security Police and the Constitutional Protection Bureau denied any involvement.
But the decision to deport Alexander Kazakov, a Shtab leader, was an altogether trickier affair. Coming as it did on Sept. 3, when the protests were all but finished and just weeks remained before Kazakov had to leave the country anyway (his residency permit was about to expire), the Interior Ministry move seemed an unjustified gamble.
Kazakov, a Russian citizen, could hardly have been surprised by the expulsion. The People's Party had already threatened him with deportation earlier, the prime minister had claimed he was "the hand of Moscow" and that he was paid to fuel rebellion. Kazakov naturally denied the charges, though he did admit he was working as a volunteer for Russian MP Dmitry Rogozin's Motherland party. Rogozin has been one of the most vociferous critics of the Baltic states, and his party has signed a partnership agreement with For Human Rights in a United Latvia, a party that, even among left-wing politicians, represents Russian nationalism.
Perhaps the Interior Ministry will release some of the evidence it had gathered on Kazakov, as well as the information on Shtab's financial sources it is said to have, clearing up some of the ambiguity surrounding the expulsion. Because by ostracizing the man, as prosaic and unimpressive as he is, the government only did him a huge favor in the eyes of Latvia's minorities, who are constantly in search of a charismatic leader.