Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Crackdown on expression could follow Riga riots

Latvian prime minister Ivars Godmanis said that it "is another Latvia" after the January 13 riots in Riga and that "other methods" would be used to quell violent protests. Speaking on a morning news show January 14, Godmanis hinted that further mass rallies in Riga's Old Town could be restricted or forbidden. The peaceful rally ahead of the unrest was organized by a new opposition party and supported by various non-governmental organizations. It was called to demand that President Valdis Zatlers dissolve the Latvian Parliament, the Saiema.
Following the rally in Riga's Dom Square a large crowd moved on to the nearby Saeima building where confrontations erupted between a small police contingent guarding the entrance to the building and the demonstrators. Snow, ice and eggs were thrown, followed by paving stones, smashing several windows. There were a number of injuries on both sides.
The rioting spilled over into other parts of the historic downtown, with youths overturning several police vehicles, smashing windows at the Finance Ministry and several shops and offices. A liquour store was looted. Charges by riot police were met with showers of stones and other objects, including uprooted street signs tossed as spears at both the police and store windows.
My assessment:
On one level, the ruling coalition in Latvia had this coming to it. Regardless of what the law and the book of etiquette says, a riot is a form of political struggle, though less focussed and clear than a well-defined non-violent protest. Seeing eggs and rocks fly at the Saeima building as a symbol of the ruling elite and Latvian politicians  made not only me but many others feel that they had this coming. 
If there is more severe repression against future protests, it will most likely escalate to the West European model of periodic clashes between the police and young streetfighters.
While this is unfortunate, especially for those suffering collateral damage -- looted stores, injured police and bystanders -- it now seems inevitable that street violence will become part of the political scene here and the threat of such violence -- a likely excuse for curbing non-violent expression. Post-Soviet authoritarian thinking in Latvia is strong, and it will not diminish but find some self-justification after the Riga riots. 

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