Latvian vets put NATO before annual march

  • 2002-03-07
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The Latvian Legionnaires, veteran soldiers who served in Germany's Waffen SS during World War II, have canceled a controversial annual march following warnings from government officials that it would be a public relations problem for the country's NATO bid.

For more than a decade it has been a custom for the Legionnaires to walk from the Dome Cathedral in Riga's Old Town to the Freedom Monument to lay flowers for fallen comrades.

The march has drawn international media attention in the past.

But this year both the Latvian Foreign Ministry and the country's NATO lobbying organization LATO - Latvian Transatlantic Organization - have had meetings with the organizers of the Legionnaires march.

One of LATO's founders, Grigorijs Krupnikovs, who has criticized the march in the past, said the organization met with the Legionnaires.

He said that LATO did not pressure the Legionnaires to cancel the event this year but explained how it could affect Latvia's NATO aspirations.

"LATO believes the march would hamper Latvia's move toward NATO, so it must not take place," Krupnikovs said.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that officials there had talks with the march organizers.

Vilmars Henins said the ministry asked them to cancel because of the NATO summit in Prague in November, where Latvia hopes to be invited to join the alliance.

"We have discussed this with them, and we asked them to make a decision in the best interest of our nation," Henins said.

The event's organizers agreed.

"We want to join NATO," said organizer Nikolajs Romanovskis. "We know that NATO is the only chance for Latvia to be safe. We are not fascists but don't want the world to think that NATO is admitting a country that accepts fascism.

"There was no pressure from anyone. There were talks with LATO representatives where we were trying to make our point of view clear to them, but in the end we opted for canceling the march."

Organizers of the annual march deny having anything to do with the dogma of Nazi Germany.

Romanovskis said the international media had totally misinterpreted the meaning of the march and the history behind it.

"Calling us Nazis is a lie. We were mere soldiers at the front," he said. "It's true that we fought with the Germans, but it was simply to fight the Russians who had occupied our country.

"If the attitude toward us changes, and the world finds out who we really are, we'll have the march again in the future."Since 1998, politicians here have been asked not to participate or show any support of the march.

One of Latvia's most famous right-wing politicians, Palmira Lace, left the For Fatherland and Freedom party March 3 because she believes the party has abandoned its traditional nationalistic views.

"I appreciate the decision to cancel the march highly. It shows their patriotism, but I know they are also heartbroken about it," Lace said. "Their decision is based on what's best for the country's future, and in this case it is NATO membership."