Thu, Mar 18, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Latvia plans to celebrate World War II SS legion

Some might find plans to celebrate the SS Latvian Legion appalling, but for locals heaping plaudits on Communist Russia’s Red Army is equally unacceptable

By Ed Vulliamy  /  THE OBSERVER , RIGA

The number three bus in Riga winds from the mouth of the river Daugava, past the lovely old center of the city, to the miles of Lego-brick, Soviet-era blocks in Plavnieki. At the foot of one of them, Natalija is sitting at one table and Maksimam at another in the Tris Pelmeni cafe, eating herring with onions and drinking beer while ice melts down the windows and the radio relays a highly charged ice-hockey game between Dinamo Riga and Ska St Petersburg. Old ladies pick through the snow with shopping, men rummage through rubbish bins and boys with shaven heads fly the Russian flag from cars screeching through the slush.

This weekend, there was also a widespread sense of anger. In this ethnic Russian suburb of the Latvian capital, there was disbelief at the prospect of a commemoration to be held on Tuesday by veterans and supporters of the Latvian Legion of the wartime SS.

Natalija’s uncle “was killed by the fascists,” she says, yet “still the Latvians allow a parade of the SS of Adolf Hitler!”

Maksimam, younger, hunches the collar of his leather jacket, sips his drink and says he cares little what the old people get up to — but spits at the idea of an SS ceremony.

In a nod to ethnic allegiance, he is supporting St Petersburg in the ice-hockey contest against his home town. Many of his fellow ethnic Russians, who form the majority in the capital but a minority nationwide, are doing the same.

A few kilometers away in the city center, rows of young Latvians greet the end of the match, a sensational 3-1 away win for Riga, at the Folk Klubs Ala, with beers and cheers for a stab at the Russian foe on his own terrain.

Here the view of Tuesday’s controversial commemoration is very different. A boy called Uldis thinks “it’s correct to allow those who fought for Latvia to honor the dead.” The idea they were Nazis is “bullshit — they were defending our country.”

Battered by recession and emerging from the harshest winter in 30 years, Riga is bitterly divided over an annual commemoration that has also become an international controversy.

Ever since the British Tory leader David Cameron pulled his party out of the center-right coalition in the European parliament to align his members alongside right-wingers such as Latvia’s Fatherland and Freedom, which helps organize the SS event, an unexpected spotlight has shone on this corner of eastern Europe.

The UK’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, has called such links “sickening.” The Tory chairman, Eric Pickles, has accused critics of recycling “old Soviet smears” about the Latvians. And the annual SS veterans’ march has become for many a disturbing symbol of right-wing extremism within the EU.

The ramifications of the row that electrified British politics and Brussels have now been felt in Riga. Tuesday’s events were banned by the courts — citing security reasons — at the behest of the pro-Russian Harmony party which controls Riga.

“Although the legionnaires themselves decrease with time, the problem is increasing,” the party’s chairman, Janis Urbanovics, says. “After independence, this country became so preoccupied with hating Russia that it is not coming to terms with what happened during German occupation. We need that in order to draw a line under the past.”

Juris Dobelis, a parliamentary deputy for the Fatherland and Freedom party, said he would be there in defiance of the ban.

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