RIGA - World War II veterans and nationalist youth clashed with members of Latvia's minority on March 16 during a sanctioned procession, forcing police to drag away dozens of protestors.
The veterans, members of WWII’s controversial SS Waffen unit known as the Latvian Legion, had held a procession earlier in the day without disturbance. But when walking a second time, several former soldiers were joined by the nationalist youth organization Klubs 415, which had been given permission by Riga city officials to march from the Occupation Museum to the Freedom Monument.
Members of Latvia’s minorities, including prominent figures in the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia and a new group, Rodina (“motherland” in Russian), lock arms in a human chain to block the procession’s path. Several were dressed in striped prison uniforms with an attached star of David.
Police responded by dragging away the protestors and hauling them into a policer van. Police then entered the crowd of protestors after a demonstrator threw an egg at a veteran legionnaire.
In all, some 35 arrests were made. Among them were For Human Rights members Aleksandrs Gilmans, a former member of the Riga City Council, and newly elected members Viktors Dergunovs and Vladislavs Rafalskis.
Jakovs Pliners, an MP from the same party, was photographed handing over money to a man in the crowd. This led to speculation that he was funding the protest, a charge he vehemently denied. Police are currently investigating the case.
Both the Russian and international press covered the much-ballyhooed event, which cast a dubious light over Latvia’s reputation.
“Again and again it is increasingly clear that certain segments of Latvian society continue to view those who murdered Jews and/or fought together with the Nazis as heroes, when it should be clear that these people do not deserve to be glorified,” Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wisenthal Center in Jerusalem wrote in a statement.
President Vaira Vike-Frei-berga, who had earlier advocated moving the march to Nov. 11, the day the state honors all its fallen soldiers, said the procession showed how democratic freedoms could be used against democratic interests.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis blamed For Human Rights in a United Latvia for the melee.
The appearance of a new political group at the event, Rodina (the same name of a nationalist political party in Russia whose leader, Dmitry Rogozin, is a vociferous critic of Latvia) added an element of intrigue to the event and left many wondering to what degree the protestors were orchestrated by Moscow.
But Eduard Goncharov, one of the group’s leaders, told The Baltic Times that Latvia’s Rodina formed in summer 2004 and that while it had no technical connection with the Moscow-based party of the same name, the two have maintained friendly relations.
The Latvian press has in the past speculated that Russia’s Rodina and Rogozin have been linked to the radical anti-education reform organization Shtab, many of whose leaders are also members of For Human Rights in a United Latvia.
Last year’s march by Klubs 415, the radical nationalist youth organization, had few participants and were not allowed to pass through the old city. Organization officials have said they would take the issue to court for damages over 100,000 lats (142,000 euros).
Founded in the mid-90s, Klubs 415 grew out of a youth essay contest sponsored by the American Latvian Aivars Slucis. The competition asked contestants up to the age of 23 to write a thesis on why Latvia’s decolonization was necessary. The post box number, 415, soon became the organization’s moniker.
But due to the current acrimony between the Baltic states and Moscow, and the backdrop of the upcoming 60th anniversary commemorating the end of World War II, Russian attention to the march has been exceptionally critical. Footage of the demonstration headlined every major Russian news program. One televised broadcast gave heavy coverage to Viktors Alksnis, an ethnic Latvian member of the Duma (lower house of Russia’s parliament) and fringe critic, as well as Vladimir Linderman, a former leader of the radical National Bolsheviks wanted for allegedly plotting the assassination of President Vike-Freiberga.
Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s council for the development of human and civil rights, said the march was “sheer barbarity smacking from the Middle Ages,” the RIA Novosti agency reported.
For its part, Latvia’s political elite appeared to be growing tired of the annual procession, which regularly draws the foreign media’s attention and no small amount of international condemnation. Officials are now discussing whether or not to ban future marches.
Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks admitted that law enforcement authorities had not been sufficiently prepared to respond to the protests. In an interview carried in Latvijas Avize, a nationalist daily, he said, “Speaking about security situation on March 16, we indeed did not use all the possibilities we had to ensure security in the events that could turn into street-fighting.”
He added, “Although I am not a security expert, I believe we should have prepared better for the possibility that a confrontation could break out on the street, with reporters from Russia and other countries expecting such turn of events to shoot on video.”
The Latvian Legion consisted of two divisions numbering over 100,000 soldiers and was formed in 1943 - after the Holocaust in Latvia had ended. While few say that the legion committed crimes against Jews, critics have long contended that the march should not take place. They argue that some legionnaires committed atrocities against Jews and Roma under the Arajs Commando, a unit numbering more than 500, or as part of the Auxiliary forces, which participated in killings in Belarus and Russia.