RIGA - Despite a face-off between hundreds of radical activists and an even larger number of bystanders hoping to witness a violent confrontation, police managed to prevent a repeat of last year's March 16 debacle. Interior Minister Dzintars Jaundzeikars said that police had detained at least 80 people, mainly organizers of the unauthorized gathering as well as individuals who disobeyed police orders.
The detained activists also included two leaders of Latvian nationalist groups - Aivars Garda, head of the Latvian National Front, and Viktors Birze, co-chairman of the National Force Union. State police representative Ieva Zvidre said officers detained only 65 people, including several individuals who were wearing masks or speaking over loudspeakers. Several people were detained for drinking alcohol.
The interior minister noted that police had been working for several months, gathering information and "discovering the plans of all groups." The nationalist groups had been hoping to organize an unauthorized march through Riga's Old Town to the Freedom Monument in honor of the Latvian Waffen S.S. unit, otherwise known as the Latvian Legionnaires, who fought on the side of Nazi Germany in World War II. Latvians regard the veterans as freedom fighters, while Russians consider them to be fascists.
Last year's procession, which was permitted by the Riga City Council, resulted in violent clashes with ethnic Russian groups and individuals. The scenes were caught on tape and reflected negatively on Latvia in the international media.
To avoid a repeat, Riga officials decided not to authorize the veterans' march.
Riga Mayor Aivars Aksenoks said he was satisfied with the police's performance. In an interview with LNT television, he said that, in his opinion, law enforcement officers managed to avert public disorder planned by some individuals.
"The performance of the police deserves praise. They worked professionally and prevented disorder... And the Latvian state was not defamed," Aksenoks said.
In his words, problems regarding March 16 have arisen not on this date but earlier. It means that politicians "must work continuously" to explain the meaning of March 16 to the world. The Latvian Legion was established in February 1943, though March 16 was picked as its commemoration date since on that day in 1944 the 15th and 19th divisions became enmeshed in a battle with the Soviet Army at the Velikaya River in Russia.
A total of 140,000 people were called up to form the Latvian Legion and about 50,000 of them died in the war or subsequent deportations.