Defense minister faces raucous residents

  • 2002-01-24
  • Nick Coleman
AUDRINI - Latvian Defense Minister Girts Kristovskis got a raucous reception on Jan. 18 from residents angered over plans to build a NATO-compatible radar in their village near the Russian border.

"If the radar is so safe then why don't you build it in the backyard of your summerhouse," shouted one angry middle-aged resident.

Kristovskis admitted the government made a public relations disaster when deciding last year to build the three-dimensional TPS-117 radar in the village, which is located 40 kilometers from the border, without first consulting residents.

"We should have started consulting earlier," the minister told about 200 of the village's 540 residents, who packed into a small auditorium. "We feel guilty in front of you that the first information you got was negative."

The radar, which will be able to peer up to 400 kilometers into Russia, is seen as a major asset in the Baltic state's bid to join NATO.

But Kristovskis tried to reassure the village's residents, overwhelmingly ethnic-Russian, that the radar was not aimed against Russia and was not for NATO.

He noted, however, that information from the radar would be used by NATO if the country receives an invitation to join the defense alliance later this year.

The minister also tried to convince the skeptical locals that the radar poses no health risks, and offered to send a delegation of them to a site in another country where such a radar is located, to talk to residents there.

A Soviet radar at Skrunda, western Latvia, which was finally dismantled in 1999, was claimed to have caused a myriad of illnesses there, although no damage was ever scientifically proven.

Kristovskis, who initially tried to address the meeting in Latvian, was forced to switch to Russian by the rowdy residents, who jeered him throughout the meeting.

Some 20,000 people who live in the area have signed a petition opposing the construction of the radar.

But not all residents oppose it, said Valentina, the village librarian. "Many people are undecided. It is those opposed who are the loudest," she said.

That villagers might question the need to join NATO should not surprise the government. Many residents were attached to a nearby military base in the Soviet era, and most of Audrini's prewar inhabitants died when the village was razed to the ground by Latvian police during the country's Nazi occupation in World War II for assisting Soviet partisans.

U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin has been commissioned to build the radar base under a contract worth 8 million lats ($12.6 million).

The Latvian government decided to build the radar at the end of November. It is expected to be operational by mid-2003.