Monday, April 8, 2013

Some belated (unpublished) thoughts on the March 16 events in Latvia

This was submitted to a major international publication, but didn't fit into what it needed (also, perhaps, it was a little late, as we hadn't agreed on covering the events of March 16). I post it here because I think there are some interesting points to be made about the repercussions of the annual March 16 war veterans march and counter-demonstrations. It is written in a news analysis style. 

Deafening sirens from “anti-fascist” counterdemonstrators on March 16 disrupted a march to commemorate Latvians, mostly draftees, who fought on the German side in World War II, but they also started off a week of political tremors in the Baltic country that uncovered some sinister cracks in Latvia’s ruling three-party coalition.
The loud counter-demonstration against the march by a dwindling number of Waffen-SS veterans and around 1 000 supporters, set events in motion that could tighten laws regulating freedom of assembly in Latvia and perhaps impose special restrictions and penalties on forms of expression deemed to commit “sacrilege” against national symbols.  
Going along with such measures could be the price that Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis of the centrist liberal Unity party must pay for maintaining the tense “stability” of Latvia’s coalition and for turning a blind eye to the creeping influence of the nationalist right. Otherwise, nationalist politicians would have sought a vote of confidence against the man responsible for policing the annual veterans march and accompanying counter-demonstrations, Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis, a member of the liberal Reform Party. The relatively new party has been moribund in recent voter polls and its unlikely to get seats in Latvia’s parliament when elections are held in late 2014. 
The screws on expression could be tightened because another member of Latvia’s government coalition, the National Alliance, which brings together several right-of-center nationalist factions, was outraged at the disruptive protest by a small group of demonstrators, many of whom were Latvian Jews. The counterprotestors denounced the Waffen-SS march as a glorification of Nazism even while admitting through a spokesman, Josif Koren, that most veterans were probably not Nazis.
As non-Germans, Latvians were not allowed to join the Nazi party. In pre-war Latvia, which had an authoritarian regime from 1934 to 1940, the small fascist “Thundercross” movement was banned. Its leader Gustavs Celmins was driven into exile only to return with the German occupation of Latvia in 1941, then fall out with the Germans and end up in a series of concentration camps to finally be liberated by American forces in May 1945. Mr. Celmins died in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.  
As the March 16 sirens turned to booming Russian wartime music and then to a stentorian voice reciting wartime Nazi crimes in Latvia and elsewhere, two members of the Latvian parliament or Saeima, representing the National Alliance, rushed a rapidly-set-up cordon of riot police and, failing to get close enough to topple the counterdemonstrators’ loudspeakers, tore down some posters of photographs of cringing Latvian Jewish women about to be shot by a German Einsatzgruppe or unit dedicated to executing civilians.
One of the parliamentarians, Janis Dombrava, threatened to have fired the policemen who restrained him from continuing his rampage ripping down posters. He later apologized on television for having acted “in an emotional state” because the Latvian police had been ordered “to protect those committing sacrilege against our sacred place (the Freedom Monument) and our national soldiers.” Mr. Dombrava’s quasi-religious phrases may set the tone for what the National Alliance wants included in any new legislation pertaining to public assembly, demonstrations and the like.
Mr. Kozlovskis apologized for the events of March 16 despite the fact the City of Riga under mayor Nils Usakovs of the opposition and allegedly “pro-Kremlin” Harmony Center was responsible for granting permission for both the march and the counter-demonstration. In withdrawing its demand to call a vote of no confidence against Mr. Kozlovskis, the National Alliance under its co-chairman Raivis Dzintars, who was also involved in the March 16 scuffle with police, gave the Interior Minister a three-month grace period to push through legislation to prevent a repeat of the events of March 16, by which the nationalists meant the use of deafening sound and permitting two opposing events in such close proximity, but also the “ sacrilege” of allowing a protest by those seen as disloyal and subversive – among the milder epithets hurled at the counterdemonstrators.
Some of the harsher remarks were phrases like “Jews don’t belong here” using an older Latvian word, which phonetically is pronounced zheeds but is close to the Russian zhid, a term of abuse. While pre-war Latvian Jews referred to themselves as (plural) zheedee, the accepted present day word is the Latvian word ebreji or Hebrews, a shift in use roughly like the move from “Negro” to “Afro-American” in the US over the past few decades. In another disturbing sidelight to the March 16 events, wreaths left at the Freedom Monument by the counterdemonstrators to Jewish victims had ribbons with memorial texts removed and were then covered by flowers laid by the veterans and their sympathizers.
While no public figures from the National Alliance made any remarks about Jews, the mutterings among those gathering ahead of the Waffen-SS veterans march suggested that there were some anti-Semitic and extremist elements in the crowd, almost all of them too young to have participated in World War II. This gives some credence to claims by Latvia’s “anti-fascists” and some sympathizers who came to Riga, such as New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, that the Nazi aspect to March 16 was not in the veterans, but in some of their younger followers.
It would be unfair to say that the National Alliance has anything to do with Latvia’s handful of neo-Nazis. The “All For Latvia” component of the National Alliances states that it is for “positive nationalism” in the English-language page of its website and elaborates by saying that “Latvian nationalism to us means the elevation of kinship to the level of whole nation. Each Latvian is like a family member, who may not be forsaken in adversity, who must be cared for in difficult times, and who is worthy of respect or compassion by the mere fact of being one of our own.”
Nonetheless there are parallels between the Latvian nationalists and similar political movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe, such as the Jobbik party in Hungary. The readiness of the party not only to urge respect for Latvian national symbols but to enforce it under penalty of law suggest an authoritarian streak, although elsewhere in the world, there is a mixed picture of laws on such matters as flag desecration, ranging from First Amendment protection in the US to misdemeanor and disorderly conduct penalties in some European countries.
The National Alliance and some of its sympathizers in recent months have also pushed such “culture wars” issues as opposing gender equality education in primary schools. The nationalists criticized a book adapted from a Danish textbook suggesting that kindergarten children switch gender roles, with girls playing boys’ games and the like. However, a nationalist politician didn’t hesitate to bring military weapons (presumable disabled) such as rifles, machine guns and grenades into a private kindergarten he owns as part of a lesson in “patriotism” for pre-school children.
Some political analysts, such as Iveta Kazoka, a researcher at Latvia’s Providus Center for Public Policy says “ I am not convinced that the National Alliance wants more repressive laws with regard to demonstrations because they themselves may wish to organize such demonstrations. They will try to define restrictions that their own activities won’t fall under, but that will be hard to do in human rights terms.
Ainars Leijejs, a Latvian journalist covering political affairs points out that the nationalists are not the only politicians narrowing democratic rights. Mr. Dombrovskis Unity party backed a change in Latvia’s law on referendums, raising the minimum number of signatures to get a referendum initiative started to 30 000 for 10 000 earlier. This was a reaction to last year’s failed referendum to make Russian a second state language in Latvia, which some commentator said was evidence that the voters at large will simply reject controversial referenda without raising the threshold for initiating them.