There is little more than a week left until the March 16 deadline, which is one among many days remembering war dead in Latvia. There are several reasons why World’s media pays thus much attention to this date, and in this blog entry I shall try to look back in recent history and find causes for that. However, the fact is that Latvia differently from its Nordic neighbours is still struggling with legacy of the Soviet past. It means that instead of commemorating all the soldiers who fought for Latvian freedom, regardless of uniforms they wore, Latvian political elite has not thought about consolidating on its complicated past and therefore allows unnecessary extremism to flourish. I was advocating in “Diena” to reassess the need to have thus numerous state commemoration days (June 19, 2007 blog entry in Latvian), and proposed to establish November 11 as the commemoration date, when everybody is given a chance to remember Latvia’s sons and daughters who fell for freedom of their state. Also prominent Latvian journalist Kārlis Streips supported my idea last June in his daily blog in www.vdiena.lv. The discussion emanating from my article and Kārlis Streips blog entry was positive, however there were no changes proposed in the Latvian legislature last year. Mostly it was due to the fact that liberal minded folks prepared to take a part in the 07.07.07 referendum about changes in the law on security organizations. It means that Latvian present elite still not only annually commemorates the occupation by USSR in June 16, 1940, but also flags must be in half – mast by law in four more occasions on all the buildings in Latvia.
In March 16 surviving Latvian Legion members commemorate their fallen brothers in arms. The commemoration day was founded in 1952 by the “Daugavas Vanagi (DV-Daugava Hawks)” organization in the US. The primarily concern of DV was about humanitarian help to those Latvian soldiers (legionaries), who had fought in German army, and found themselves in the West after the end of the World War II. The March 16 commemorates fierce battles at Velikaja River, when from March 16 – 19, 1944 Latvian 15. and 19. Latvian divisions of the German army on the Eastern Front at the Velikaya River were fighting against the Red army.
This commemoration day was founded in order to remember extremely high number of fallen soldiers. Motivation of legionaries and attitude about fighting with the Axis powers were different. Rather many considered it as a useless bloodshed for wrong cause, but were forced to fight. In 1944, immediately after the Red army crossed Latvian border, forced mobilization started into the Soviet forces. Here also an ideological indoctrination did not have an appeal. Rather often members of the same family were fighting on both sides of the frontline, and there were cases when the same person managed to serve both Soviets and Nazis. Mobilization into German army touched almost every family in Latvia, and not only ethnic Latvians, but also Russians from whom several police battalions were formed.
Probably gratifying DV donations the Fatherland and Freedom Party TB/LNNK included March 16 in the official list of state commemoration days. Thus, the commemoration of war dead took place throughout the 1990’s. Nobody outside Latvia really paid attention to this date, and the biggest critique of the Latvian government was about the fact, that the March 16 was included into the list of official commemoration days even though it was requested only by a mere NGO [Daugavas Vanagi].
Snowballing Latvia to the centre of media attention
In 1998 many simultaneous events just happened to initiate the snowballing effect that finally capitalized the world media attention on Latvian events. It was a time when Guntars Krasts (TB/LNNK) was Prime Minister, when talks with transatlantic partners were laborious and proposed security assurances from Russian Federation were openly turned down. Russian oil giant Lukoil during early 1998 was not allowed to take a part in the Ventspils Nafta privatization process. On top of it, Latvian police dispersed protest demonstration in central Riga, when mostly Russian pensioners demonstrated against the rise of utility bills. The way demonstration was dispersed happened to be the central news item in most of the Russian TV channels.
In March 16, 1998 allowed Russian propaganda machine to amplify formerly uttered accusations about discrimination of non-citizens and ethnic minorities. Russian accusations, about Latvian government supporting Nazi SS veterans who were responsible for holocaust, appeared to be rather effective in discrediting Latvia in the eyes of its Western partners. Latvian political elite was caught unawares, and was surprised that groundless Russian accusations (as Latvian elite perceived them) found an attentive audience in the West. The US State Department, Israel, Simon Wiesenthal centre and others criticized events of the March 16 and especially participation of the state officials in them. The image of Latvia was tarnished furthermore by a bomb blast in the front of the Riga synagogue in April 2, 1998. As a result several Latvian officials (Head of Armed Forces Mr Dalbiņš among them) had to resign because of participation in the March 16 commemorative events, as well as due to failed implementation of anti - terror policies.
Media event for fringe parties
Starting from ominous events in the March 16, 1998 Riga is crowded now with reporters from the major world media and TV stations. It is a very comfortable opportunity for any sort of political radicals, who are not part of mainstream political culture, to draw attention and appear on the newspaper front pages. For example, Latvian Socialist party and the Equal Rights Movement (FHRUL) started to be known from the excesses during the March 16 commemorative events. Such movements as Russian Diaspora, Russian National Bolsheviks, as well as followers of Alexander Barkashov fascist movement in Latvia (Russian National Unity) came on stage. In 2005 huge media event was crated by “antifascists”. The latter were mostly members of the Equal rights movement (FHRUL), and defenders of the Russian Schools who dressed in striped cloth of the death camp inmates and who tried to prevent former legionnaires from laying flowers in front of the Freedom Monument. In 2007 a radical Union of National Forces (NSS) came into existence. In 2007 rather ominously members of far right and far left, NSS and National Bolsheviks respectively, reeled about the decision of the Riga City Council to secure the area around the Freedom Monument, thus allowing official demonstrations to take place only in Riga outskirts away from media attention.
Ever since ominous events in 1998 the government and mainstream political parties avoid events of the March 16, and now they are extremists and radical political groups that have monopolized this event. Obvious part of latter is media frenzy, thus extremists try to escalate confrontation in order to draw attention and such tactics appears to be successful. Thus, Russia used the March 16 as an event, when it could draw worlds attention to the “revival of fascism” and Latvia’s aspirations “to revise the outcome of the second World war”. History turned out to be an essential weapon in political battles. Latvian political elite and society had to admit, that events of the Second World War have not been fully investigated. An understanding set in, that there is a need to cover the gap about how results of the WW2 are remembered, understood, and interpreted by Latvians, and how they are perceived and interpreted in the West. As a result the History Commission was formed under guidance of the President Vaira Vike Freiberga, and it has been a constructive agent for fostering research about the WW2 and post-war history in Latvia ever since.
The deadline is approaching and there probably shall be some media attention this year as well. Vaira Vīķe - Freiberga is not the president anymore, but the History commission is continuing its work and clarifying persistent popular history myths. Also 2007 saw several developments that allow one to see gradual breaking away from the traditional post-Soviet political culture, thus not giving the media silly causes to blame officials for their inactivity or stupidity. Firstly, the Riga City government took the springboard of media attention away last year from the radical parties. Radicals tried to accuse the City Government in curtailing their basic freedoms, thus they were allowed to demonstrate near Riga Zoo instead of Riga Centre. Secondly, also Russian – Latvian relations have improved, and that was traditionally Russian media that inflamed the media frenzy in Riga. The fact that radical parties do not get traditional media attention in central Riga, or that Latvia-Russian relations have improved does not answer a very important question – what was the price to achieve it? My very short answer to this question is that the price Latvian citizenry paid was – postponed Europeanization of the Latvian political and administrative culture. I find it useless to elaborate in details what do I mean by the latter answer because data by several international agencies speak for themselves. Eurobarometer, Freedom House, UNDP, Heritage Foundation, Pisa and many others show that Latvia gradually lags further and further behind its neighbours Estonia and Lithuania. There are buds of hope, however, that not only could help to turn the tide of political nihilism in Latvia, but also finally put the Latvian governance on the stable and transparent European track. This is already another story and there will be a need to discuss it next time.
P.S. Whilst writing this piece I am also indebted to background information that was entrusted to me by my colleague Dr. Daina Bleiere.
P.P.S. Those of you reading Estonian may find my piece in Postimees.