• 2006-03-15

Cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

Common sense prevailed in Latvia this week after a Riga City Council committee decided not to permit a commemorative march of Latvian Legionnaires planned for March 16. Security concerns were the primary reason, since the high-profile PR campaigns by radical youth groups on both the left and right of the spectrum promised a nasty confrontation, if not violence. Remarkably, the decision shows that civic 's and national 's authorities are capable of learning from past mistakes. Even eighth graders know that any march by this group of World War II veterans through downtown Riga would result in trouble.

To be sure, city officials didn't need "intelligence reports" to know that the probability of "mass public disorder" was high; all they had to do was rerun the tapes of last year's march. It's all there in full color. Several issues are clashing here at once: fundamental constitutional rights, varying interpretations of history, Latvia's international image, and not least of all, society's need for reconciliation. (We won't even dare touch the historical nuances for fear of readers' wrath.) Each person will attach priority to the issue he or she considers paramount, but to do so at the expense of the other factors is to simplify an extraordinarily complex dilemma. So it would appear that this year, as opposed to last, Latvian officials have learned their lesson. That's progress.

But in recent weeks the situation around the Legionnaires' march has taken on an absurdity that is appalling. Incredibly, it turns out that the leaders of two radical youth groups 's the nationalist Visu Latvijai! and the leftist Latvian National Democratic Party, in which Russians predominate 's have cohorted in the past, and there is a suspicion that they might have coordinated their agitprop activities for March 16. Both men, Raivis Dzintars and Yevgeny Osipov, are young and primarily interested in ratcheting up their own images and PR during what should be a solemn commemoration. Indeed, with a cast of characters like these, any other decision from Riga officials would be astounding.

As President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told the weekly "De facto" program, "Latvian residents need to understand that March 16 is being used in order to disgrace Latvia and present us as fascists and Nazis to the entire world. Both far-left and far-right groups want to use this day to attract attention and once again inform the world that fascism is beginning to grow in Latvia and that we recognize the Nazi army and Nazis are marching on our streets."
In the president's opinion, those who want to remember fallen Latvia soldiers may do so on Nov. 11 's Lacplesis Day. "We don't need another date," she said.