Riga gears up for March 16 controversy

Riga City Council on March 4 said it would permit three public events on March 16 - sometimes dubbed "Legionnaires' Day" - a date that always causes controversy and sparks a wave of negative press in international media.

Though March 16 is not included on the nation's offficial calendar of events several hundred people always turn out to parade through the center of Riga and pay tribute to Latvian soldiers who served in the Latvian Waffen SS Legion and fought on the side of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Controversy inevitably follows with participants saying they are honoring freedom fighters and opponents accusing the event of rehabilitating and glorifying fascism.

Tensions are always high, but recent years have not seen any serious trouble thanks to a huge and well-organized police presence along the parade's route.

The three events to be permitted by Riga City Council include the parade itself, organized by the Daugavas Vanagi  veterans' association and groups calling themselves the Anti-Nazi Committee of Latvia and the Society for Support of National Soldiers.

Anti-Nazi Committee of Latvia will hold a counter-demonstration denouncing the main parade while the Society for Support of National Soldiers says it intends to distribute information about the history of the Latvian Legion to passers-by.

Riga City Council executive director Juris Radzevics said steps would be taken to ensure none of the opposing groups got too close to each other and that in contrast to some previous years, amplification would not be allowed.

In contrast to his predecessor Laimdota Straujuma who sacked a minister who attended the March 16 parade, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis has signalled a "hands off" approach, saying he left the decision on whether or not to attend to his individual ministers.

Thus it seems highly likely that regular March 16 attendee and Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnacs will participate again ths year, plus a considerable number of fellow MPs from the right-wing National Alliance parliamentary.grouping.

Kucinskis is even leaving the country for five days' leave on March 11 and will only return on March 16 itself, thus avoiding any tricky questions from international press and politicians in the interim.

March 16 was the date in 1944 on which both divisions of the Latvian Legion fought against the Red Army.

Similar numbers of Latvians fought on both the German and Soviet sides after seeing their independent state removed from the map by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then enduring successive occupations.

For more on the complex history and controversy surrounding the Latvian Legion, the Latvian Foreign Ministry has prepared materials HERE including a downloadable fact sheet HERE.

The Latvian Army has produced a short film about the history of the Legion HERE.

A less controversial commemoration of those who fought in the Latvian Legion also takes place on March 16 at the regimental cemetery in Lestene.

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