Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 25
26 March 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Latvia's Marching Season

Mel Huang

In Ulster, the annual marching season always brings heightened tension and fear that the progress achieved in the past year will be wiped out in one emotionally-charged event. Though the situation in Latvia is nowhere near that in intensity, the month of March brings about a similar clash of history on today's streets. There is no fear of petrol bombs and rubber bullets being discharged in Riga during this turbulent month, but nevertheless, some of the underlying tension becomes very apparent.

It is the March of 1998 that causes the anxiety for March 1999. Within that single month, Latvia's international image took its worst beating, from which it still has not recovered. Thanks to Moscow's daily diatribes, Latvia was branded among other things as "anti-Russian", "sympathetic to Nazism", "discriminatory", "dictatorial" and "anti-Semitic". Several mysterious bombings around town, strategically placed to cause controversy and not damage, remain unsolved. After all, to cause more distress, what two better places to place small explosive devices than at the Russian Embassy and the lone remaining Synagogue in Riga?

March 1998

It all began back then in a protest by mostly Russophone pensioners outside the Riga City Hall on 3 March 1998. The protest became a little unruly and the crowd disrupted traffic. Unfortunately, the Riga police used excessive means to disperse the elderly crowd. The actions were condemned by west and east alike and soon relations with Russia hit an all-time low - Moscow stepped up calls to protect its "compatriots" abroad. The bomb that went off near the Russian Embassy (no damage, just a small explosive device) did not help the growing tension between Riga and Moscow. The bomb that went off at the Synagogue triggered the second explosive part of March 1998: the march.

The march on 16 March proved to be the focal point of all the rhetoric against Latvia. The symbolic march by members of the Latvian Legion, already controversial, took on heightened attention with the earlier protests and bombings. Condemnations for the protest, which was joined by politicians and military leaders of Latvia, brought Latvia's image to its knees. Both ITAR-TASS (the Russian news agency)and the BBCran scathing stories against the event, dragging Latvia's international reputation through the mud. After all, which country in the world still paraded soldiers fighting on the side of Nazi Germany?

The Legion

What exactly is the Latvian Legion? Many would outright accuse its members of being anti-Semitic Nazis just for fighting on the side of Germany. Russians see the unit in this light, as do Jewish groups. The West, understanding little about Latvian history, takes the simplistic approach and condemns automatically. In reality, the Latvian Legion was a conscript unit in German-occupied Latvia. The Nazis, realising they needed more forces, rounded up Latvians for this unit against the Soviets.

Before the Nazi occupation, the Soviet Union invaded, occupied and illegally annexed Latvia. The year under Soviet rule was brutal, with tens of thousands murdered and deported to uninhabitable zones of the USSR. Those deported include President Karlis Ulmanis, whose remains are still missing somewhere in the former Soviet Union. When the German forces came in, it was seen as a reprieve from Soviet atrocities against Latvia. As in several countries which were subjected to atrocities from Moscow (such as Estonia and Ukraine), Germany appeared to be the lesser of two evils.

Furthermore, there is general confusion on how things worked in the era. The Latvian Legion was just a conscripted fighting unit. Many erroneously throw it into the same pot with the Latvians who committed horrendous atrocities against Jews and others. The Arajs Commando, which did Hitler's bidding in rounding up Jews, was a different story. The history is complicated, thus the shallow explanations and responses in the international forum give Latvia little chance to tell its side of the story.

March 1999

As the month approached this year there were signs of worry in Latvia. Will this year prove to be more contentious than the last? After all, the same two events that sparked the controversies will occur again. In addition, several more mysterious bombings and fires, including the destruction of a national guard (Aizsargi) aircraft, brought back memories of the destabilising month last year.

The 3 March protest by mostly Russophone pensioners proceeded without notable problems. Both protesters and city authorities made extra efforts in keeping the demonstrations peaceful and within regulations. Despite some minor problems, the day passed without incident. The first hurdle crossed.

The lead-up to the 16 March parade is more difficult to contemplate. In an attempt to defuse some controversy, the government and Saeima (parliament) initiated several changes to existing rules. First of all, the government asked for officials and military leaders to stay away from the Latvian Legion parade, which has been accepted. The parliament proclaimed 16 March as a commemorations day for all Latvian soldiers from all sides.

However, the pre-emptive event did not serve its purpose. Counter-demonstrations requests came in from many groups. Jewish organisations denounced the event and called for its cancellation. Moscow stepped up its rhetoric against Latvia. In the end, even President Guntis Ulmanis stated that making 16 March a commemorations day for all Latvian soldiers was "wrong" and it may change next year. After meeting with groups from all persuasions, President Ulmanis (already in a lame-duck position as his term ends this summer and hence he is bound by term-limits) appeared to side with those calling for the event's cancellation.

What to Do?

No doubt 16 March will be the focal point in Latvian-Russian relations for a long time coming. The events will spark controversy and send Latvian diplomats around the world scrambling to explain the events before tainted reports from ITAR-TASS and BBC alike flood the wires and airwaves. In other words, the chaos of 1998 may re-appear this week.

Perhaps it is time for a neutral day to be assigned as a commemorations day for soldiers. There are already celebrations to that effect coinciding with Independence Day in November, and many are suggesting shifting the focus of the entire issue to that festive occasion. Whatever Latvia chooses, 16 March has to be abandoned if the country is to move forward. Though many sympathise with the march and participants, it nevertheless causes more damage than good at this stage. One analyst suggested that if the participants are truly patriots and support the continual independence of Latvia, the best thing to do is to cancel the marches for the sake of their children's future.

Everyone is crossing their fingers, hoping for this marching season to come to an end with no serious repercussions. As it moves into the new millennium, Latvia needs to come to grips with this ugly episode of its history and look towards the future. One should learn from history to prevent the same mistakes from being made, but history should not and cannot hinder the entire country's progression into the future.

Mel Huang, 16 March 1999


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