Radicals preparing another standoff during legionnaires' March procession

  • 2006-02-22
  • By TBT staff
History and nationality are set to clash again in Latvia on March 16 when the legionnaires, a small group of World War II veterans, plan to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument amid radical factions that aim to either protect the march or disrupt it. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis has assured that all security measures would be implemented during the commemoration of the Latvian Legionnaires, who fought on the side of Nazi Germany.

Speaking on national television, Kalvitis called on "all those responsible for the state not to yield to provocations, because provocative extremists both from abroad and inside Latvia are taking advantage of this date."

Last year's procession was ruined after a group of ethnic Russians and other minorities, standing arm in arm, blocked the procession of the veterans to the Freedom Monument. Police had to haul the protestors away, and the ensuing tussles and skirmishes were filmed and shown on television around the world. Government officials seemed braced for the worst. Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks released a statement saying, "Radicals in Latvia are again attempting to express their ideas on March 16. With their activities, radicals of both the right and left-wing are attempting to discredit Latvia at the international level."

Pabriks warned of the risks posed by both participants of the event and the media.

"The first [people] to assert their readiness to defend Latvia, are also the ones who create new problems. Others are prepared to push their propaganda by attributing fascism to Latvians," he said. "The international media is hypocritically creating a perception of Latvia that has never been accepted by our society and nation."

The left-wing party For Human Rights in United Latvia asked the Riga City Council not to issue any permits.

The left-wing party For Human Rights in United Latvia asked the Riga City Council not to issue any permits to hold public actions on March 16.

However, two nationalist organizations, the youth association Klubs 415 and the Union of National Forces, have already submitted permit applications to hold processions on March 16. But Pabriks has asked local authorities to reject any "pseudo-patriotic events."

However, the executive director of Riga City Council, Eriks Skapars, said there was no reason to refuse the Union of National Forces permission to march. "A special committee will review all applications and will make a decision," he told the Russian daily Chas.

The Riga City Council commission can decide whether or not to grant the request no later than 10 days before the event.

Even moderate nationalist forces recommended caution.

"I don't want any Russian television to be there, which will film everything and then broadcast it world-wide," Juris Dobelis, who represents the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom Party, told the daily Telegraf.

The legionnaires themselves have explained that they are not former Nazi SS members, and only want the occasion to commemorate the lives of those lost while fighting for Latvia. But given the Baltic state's complex history, and its equally complex nationality issues now, such a march is taken as an affront by many non-Latvians whose relatives died fighting fascist Germany.

According to Latvian historians, 140,000 people were called up to form the legion in 1943, and 50,000 of them died in the war or the deportations that followed during Soviet rule. In the years since regaining independence in 1991, surviving veterans and their relatives and friends have marched through Riga on March 16, which Latvians commemorate as the anniversary of the legionnaires' first battle against Red Army forces. The clash took place at the Velikaya River in the Opochka region of Russia.

Still, the legionnaires' Nazi connection has caused much controversy abroad, particularly in Russia and Israel. In Russian media, the event is used against Latvia as evidence of a "rebirth of fascism" in the Baltic state.

In 1950, Washington published a declaration on the Baltic SS legions, defining them as special units to be distinguished from other German SS troops.