by Aleksandr Kuzmin (Riga)
The annual marches of March the 16th in Riga, Latvia, honor veterans of the local Waffen SS legion. These marches, sponsored by the co-ruling National Alliance, are consistently criticized by bodies of the European Union, the United Nations, and the Council of Europe. The most recent criticism came from the European Parliament resolution of 25 October 2018 on the rise of neo-fascist violence in Europe:
“AC. whereas every year on 16 March thousands of people gather in Riga for Latvian Legion Day to honor Latvians who served in the Waffen-SS;”
The most detailed description was given by Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance, in a report from 2011:
“86. Further, ECRI expresses concern as regards the authorization of certain public events to commemorate two incidents and the authorities’ reaction in this connection. As concerns the first incident, every year, on 16 March, a gathering commemorating soldiers who fought in a Latvian unit of the Waffen SS is held in the center of Riga. In this connection, ECRI regrets that, in spring 2010, an administrative district court overruled a decision of the Riga City Council prohibiting this march. Moreover, ECRI is concerned that the speaker of the Latvian Parliament allegedly publicly expressed regret concerning the formal prohibition of this event and that certain MPs have voted for the restoration of March 16 as day of remembrance.
“Further, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs did not condemn the march, stating, on the contrary, that there was nothing wrong with former soldiers gathering together privately to remember their fallen comrades in-arms and that any attempt to characterize this commemoration as the glorification of Nazism is unacceptable. ECRI understands that part of Latvian public opinion considers that: the legion did not fight for Nazism but to restore Latvian sovereignty (further to Soviet occupation); they did not commit atrocities against Jews; and that, although many individuals joined the legion willingly, many others were conscripted. However, ECRI cannot but express concern about any attempt to justify fighting in the Waffen SS and collaborating with the Nazis, as it risks fueling racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance [..]
“87. ECRI recommends that the Latvian authorities condemn all attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborated with the Nazis. ECRI further recommends that the authorities ban any gathering or march legitimizing in any way Nazism.”
Moreover, concerns were expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in a still-unanswered letter to the Latvian foreign ministry from 2013:
“I am concerned by the public demonstrations that have been allowed by the authorities, the most recent on 16 March 2013, to glorify the Latvian veterans who fought with the Nazi armed forces. I am also concerned that the above mentioned draft law may contribute to legitimize such public demonstrations and that politicians who attend them may contribute to messages aimed at glorifying the Nazi past.”
However, those are anti-Fascists nonviolently opposing of the marches, who get punished by Latvian courts and stigmatized by the Security Police as “so-called ‘anti-fascists’ [..] trying to organize provocative demonstrations”, all this in the last year alone.
Will this change? Currently, negotiations on forming a new government of Latvia are ongoing after the 6 October 2018 elections. The aforementioned National Alliance has obtained 13 seats from 100, and the New Conservative Party, founded by a NA splitter, 16. It is certain that at least one of these parties, and possibly both, will be in government. The reason is the “cordon sanitaire” in Latvian politics against the parties mostly supported by ethnic minorities (“Harmony”, 23 seats). To add a cherry on top, one of the candidates for prime minister, named by the parties “For Development” and “In Favor”, is Mr. Artis Pabriks, a member of the European Parliament and a former minister. He is known for having said, in 2013, “We are welcoming German boots on the ground here in Latvia ever since 1940”. It was later described as a misunderstanding.