Riga residents bemoan Bush visit for security inconveniences

  • 2005-05-04
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The May 6 's 7 visit by U.S. President George W. Bush will temporarily alter Riga residents' lives, as officials are creating a security zone that stretches outside Old Town all the way to Dzirnavu Street.

Those who wish to enter the precinct will be required to carry identification and proof of residence to pass security checkpoints, while people who normally work within the zone must appear on a pre-approved list, compiled by employers and verified by authorities.

The state-employed security measures had residents complaining that it would be difficult to gain entry to the Old Town, and some city officials hinted that residents should simply leave town for a couple of days.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga admonished those complaining about the Bush visit. "One might think that we were facing some kind of disaster, and somehow big harm would be done to our people. It is simply ridiculous," she was quoted as saying.

Some of the concern was connected with alleged security plans to check houses on the U.S. President's route.

"No one is going to walk into your private bedroom. Only public spaces will be checked," Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis assuaged.

The government has had to tackle massive hospitality dilemmas in connection with the visit. Finding beds to accommodate the president and his entourage of some 700 people in a city that has a notorious lack of hotel rooms required an emergency solution - a Finnish ferry anchored in the Daugava River for lodging.

The security and preparation cost of Bush's visit was estimated between 1.5 's 2 million lats (2.1 million 's 2.8 million euros).

The visit will be the third by an American president and the second by Bush to the Baltic states. Bush visited Vilnius in 2002 and former President Bill Clinton traveled to Riga in 1994.

For relatively small countries like the Baltic states, a visit by the leader of the world's most powerful nation, especially at a time when the Baltics are entangled in a propaganda battle with the Kremlin, is crucial.

"On May 7 we won't be just a small country. We will be a country important on a global scale; therefore I think the slight inconveniences that people will have to bear for half a day is a very small payment for this," Kalvitis said of the Bush visit.

Charter flights will be cancelled during the two days, although international carriers will not be disrupted, officials added. The prime and defense ministers will also be given the power to authorize that planes be shot down if needed for security measures.

Some picketing is expected, as the City Council gave permission to radical National Bolsheviks to protest against U.S. foreign policy on May 7, although they will be confined to Grizinkalns, an area outside downtown Riga. Other groups have also applied to protest on environmental grounds and human rights abuses in Iraq.

After visiting Latvia, Bush is scheduled to travel to the Netherlands and then on to Moscow. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will accompany him on the visit.

Vike-Freiberga will be the only Baltic head of state attending the ceremony in Moscow.

According to the Foreign Ministry, press passes have been given out to nearly 500 foreign and local journalists covering the event. Bush's itinerary was not known as The Baltic Times went to press due to security measures, but he was expected to give a speech and meet with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian presidents.

The Diena daily reported he would speak at the Small Guild on May 7 at 5 p.m.