RIGA - The controversial annual procession of veterans who belonged to the Latvian Waffen S.S. or so-called Latvian Legionnaires, has been prohibited from taking place by Riga City Council. The committee responsible for granting approval to rallies, processions and pickets decided on March 13 to ban the procession, scheduled for March 16, claiming that it could lead to a serious case of public disorder.
Latvia's leadership emitted a sigh of relief at the news, since the inevitable confrontation between radical forces at the procession would have thrown the Baltic state into the international spotlight and muddy its image once again.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said that those who wanted to pay tribute to defenders of the homeland could do so on Nov. 11 (the day remembering all those who died fighting for Latvia).
Both leaders suggested that provocations from far-right and far-left groups would ruin any significance the day might have, and give Latvia's critics, particularly in Russia, another chance to point to a "resurgent fascism" in the country.
Atis Lejins, director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, who has written profusely on the legionnaires, said he supported the city's decision. "By doing this, the state is protecting itself," he told The Baltic Times. "They were absolutely correct in their decision. The state can't be blamed for what happens on March 16."
In the past, the event has attracted strong condemnation from within Latvia and abroad, despite repeated attempts by the veterans to explain that they were not S.S.-soldiers.
Last year's procession was disrupted when a group of ethnic minority protestors stood arm in arm to block the veterans' path to the Freedom Monument, located in the heart of Riga. Police had to haul the protestors away, although the ensuing skirmishes were caught on film and televised, much to the government's embarrassment.
The legionnaires, however, claim they only want to commemorate the lives of their compatriots who died fighting for Latvia.
"The whole tradition of marching has nothing to do with the legionnaires," Lejins said. "I spoke with them last week and they're not even planning to attend. The event has become little more than an opportunity for radical organizations to carry on their agenda."
The march was originally scheduled to begin at the Latvian Occupation Museum in Riga and culminate in a flower-laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument. The Union of National Force, Klubs 415, and Igors Siskins, a former member of the now defunct radical nationalist organization Perkonkrusts (Thunder Cross), had all applied for permission to go ahead with the procession.
City Executive Director Eriks Skapars said the council refused to authorize the procession due to security considerations, as it could result in "unauthorized mass public disorder."
NSS representative Kristaps Kaupe said the procession would probably take place regardless of the council's decision, as in previous years.
Siskins, for one, said he would march with or without municipal approval. "Personally I will walk there and lay flowers, even if I have to leave them by the fence," the Thunder Cross member said, referring to a plan to erect a fence around the monument shortly before March 16, supposedly for renovation purposes.
Security Police have expressed relief over the council's decision. "It is good that they took into account the opinion of security services that there would be provocation. The security police will be put on standby and work within the limits of their powers," security police spokeswoman Kristine Apse-Krumina said.
According to Latvian historians, 140,000 people were called up to form the legion in 1943, 50,000 of whom died in the war or the deportations that followed the post-war Soviet occupation.
Since 1991, the legion's surviving veterans and their relatives and friends have marched through Riga on March 16, the day they 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.
"For the legionnaires [the media's negative response] is hard," Lejins said. "They understand that the event is hurting Latvia's image, but in their hearts, they fought for Latvia."
Most, he added, agree that the march is unnecessary. On March 12, the Latvian National Soldiers' Society issued an appeal, calling for its members to mark the day in quiet and calm remembrance.
"We have a tragic history. We should remember all of our soldiers 's those who fought for the Red Army and as S.S. soldiers 's on November 11. They all suffered," Lejins said.