Security concerns blemish Riga 800

  • 2001-08-16
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The Latvian capital is in danger of being thrown into chaos this weekend as the climax of its 800th anniversary approaches. Well over a million visitors, including top foreign officials, are expected to turn up for the festivities, which are to take place Aug. 17-19.

Latvia's police threatened last week that they could not to take responsibility for the well-being of visitors unless the City Council puts essential security barriers into place.

Officials in the City Council have finally purchased the safety barriers, it was announced on Aug. 13. But they may have broken procedures in doing so. No tender was announced to buy them.

According to Baltic News Service, the City Council reassured critics that 70,000 lats ($110,000) have been spent on the barriers, with an additional 103,000 lats spent to ensure Riga 800 will be a safe and memorable festival.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said she would attend some of the events. After she met with Gundars Bojars, Riga's mayor, on Aug. 14, she reassured the press that there was little reason to worry about security. She pointed out that the City Council has taken adequate precautions to avoid any serious incidents.

"There is much to do in the city this weekend, and the prospects are promising. I wish for Riga to have a happy celebration and a bright future,"Vike-Freiberga told reporters.

In a letter to Bojars last week, Interior Minister Mareks Seglins reminded him of repeated requests to the City Council by the police for the purchase of the safety barriers.

"Even though only one week remains until the events, Riga City Council has still not solved the issue,"Seglins wrote in his letter.

During a press conference on Aug. 9, Seglins told reporters that the Interior Ministry has sent a heap of letters to the City Council but nothing has been done.

"If these suggestions are not followed, the police force will not be able to take on full responsibility for security during the main events,"Seglins told reporters.

The strong words from Seglins prompted Bojars to act fast and hastily buy the barriers.

Krists Leiskalns, a spokesman for the state police, said the police have been working out the security plans for the Riga 800 festivities since last year.

"We will be cooperating with the municipal police, and in total there will be more than 5,000 officers working round the clock,"he said.

Police officers from municipalities all over the country will be pulled in for duty in Riga this weekend, but it has been promised that law and order will prevail in those municipalities and no areas around the country will be left short of officers.

The safety barriers are something the police have been demanding for a long time. One of the top priorities of the police is to be able to have some sort of control over crowd movement during the celebrations.

Trying to calm fears over the cost, he reminded Bojars that the barriers can always be reused. "We will use the barriers to seal off streets when they get overcrowded with people,"Leiskalns said. "After the celebrations we will be able to use the barriers for other events when a lot of guests are expected."

According to a poll carried out by the company SKDS, around half of the country's population intends to make its way to the capital. Some 49.6 percent of respondents polled around the country said they will "definitely"take part in Riga 800, 33.6 percent said they didn't want to participate, and 16.8 percent were still not sure if they would attend.

The poll also revealed that more young people were willing to celebrate. Of those replying 67.4 percent between the age of 18 and 24 will be attending. Meanwhile, just short of a third of the population above the age of 55 gave a positive response to the poll.

Rudite Kalpina, a spokeswoman for the Riga 800 agency responsible for the celebration program, confirmed that there would be around 1 million visitors in Riga this weekend.

She also said there have been no estimates on how much revenue could be earned from the party. "We have a budget of roughly 2 million lats over the year, and this has to cover everything. So far we haven't made any calculations on income from the party,"Kalpina said.

Most of the activities will take place in Riga's Old Town. A huge fireworks display will erupt on Aug. 18, together with an all-star musical performance.