Latvia responds to mayhem

  • 2007-05-02
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon
RIGA - Given the similar structure of its society to Estonia's, Latvia produced the gamut of reaction to the violence and upheaval that Tallinn witnessed during three nights last week. As expected, the Latvian government expressed solidarity with its Estonian neighbors, while Latvia's minorities were appalled by the decision to move the World War II monument honoring Soviet troops.

"Estonia is a Night Disgrace" read the headline of the Russian language daily Chas, using the word (disgrace) that Russian protesters shouted at police in Tallinn.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official statement the day after the riots strongly condemning the vandalism. They noted the importance of protest for a functioning democracy, but said that the riots in Tallinn went way beyond democratically acceptable forms of protest.

"In a democratic country, any group of society which disagrees with government decisions is free to express its own opinion: however, it must not violate the law," the statement read.
"Acts of vandalism which pose a threat to the life and health of people and damage and destroy property have nothing in common with democratic forms of protest," it continued.
The Foreign Ministry added that it is the sole responsibility of the Estonian government to decide on "the reburial of the remnants of people buried at this monument."

Josifs Korens, a leading member of the Latvian Anti-Fascist Committee, disagreed. He argued that the organizers did not incite violence but merely exercised their right to protest.
"They are our friends. We know them as very peaceful guys who for more than a year have tried to find a solution, but the government did not want to hear them. I am 100 percent sure that [the violence] was not the organization, but just marginal people who use this situation," Korens told The Baltic Times.
Korens was one of nine Latvian residents who attempted to enter Estonia on April 24 but was turned away at the border under Estonia's new stricter border regulations.

Korens' group was the first who had been subjected to the new laws. "There were nine members of our organization, three journalists, and three others who just wanted to go and visit friends. The Estonian government refused our entry on the grounds that they said we were extremists," Korens explained. "We just wanted to go and support our friends."
Unable to go to Estonia, the anti-fascist committee decided to stage its own rally in Riga. Approximately 30 people gathered outside of the Estonian Embassy in Riga on April 27 to voice protest over the removal of the statue. The protesters wielded several Estonian flags with mourning ribbons, and shouted phrases such as "villains," "fascists," and "shame" in an organized manner.

About 30 policemen were at the embassy to ensure order; the national police later reported that the picket passed smoothly, no offences were committed and no one was detained.
"I think that it's a very great error, it's a provocation by the Estonian government. The main problem was that Estonia destroyed the monument of victory in WWII," Korens said when asked about his thoughts on the decision to move the statue.
He also said that he thought the same sort of thing could happen in Latvia, but he hopes the Latvian government "will be smarter than the Estonian government" in dealing with similar monuments and events in Riga.
Talk of the Estonian riots was on the tips of most Latvians tongues. Most Latvians are first and foremost concerned by the Latvian citizen who was injured by a brick while working at the embassy.

A brick thrown by vandals during the riots smashed a window of the Latvian Embassy and injured an office cleaner. One Latvian resident was reportedly detained in connection with the riots.
Many Latvians have also expressed concern at how the riots are indicative of Russia's ever-powerful presence in the Baltic states and accuse Russia of having stoked the flames of the controversy.
The Latvian language daily Diena offered a provocative analysis. In its April 30 issue, the paper wrote, "Even if Estonia can successful restore peace on Tallinn's streets, then an even more difficult task lies ahead 's inquiring as to how the previous integration policy failed, and encouraging the socially and politically isolated Russian language citizens to take part in society."