Washington, 19 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A march by veterans of Latvian Waffen SS Legion held in Riga on Tuesday had been widely expected to trigger confrontations between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians inside Latvia and lead to a deterioration of relations between Riga and Moscow.
But these disastrous outcomes did not happen. Not only did the march of 300 aging veterans of a German-organized unit that fought advancing Soviet troops during World War II not lead to popular unrest in Latvia itself, but it also demonstrated some quite remarkable restraint at the official level in both the Latvian and Russian capitals.
As a result, the prospects for inter-ethnic relations in Latvia have dramatically improved; and the possibility of better relations between Latvia and Russia has increased, something few observers would have predicted only a month ago.
There were some very good reasons for the earlier pessimism. A year ago, a march by Waffen SS veterans exacerbated tensions all around. There were clashes between the marchers and ethnic Russians in the Latvian capital. Several senior Latvian government officials took part in the demonstration. And the Russian government roundly condemned Riga for permitting what it called a manifestation of fascism.
Even though the Latvian authorities dismissed the officials who took part, the Latvian government appeared to have compounded its problems when the parliament voted to make March 16 an official state day of remembrance for all those who fell in the service of Latvia regardless of what uniform they wore.
While supporters of this measure argued that such a memorial day was appropriate, opponents were deeply troubled. By choosing March 16, the anniversary of the Legion's first battle against Soviet troops near Velikyy Luky in 1944, opponents argued, Riga appeared to be giving special preference to those Latvians who served in German uniforms rather than all Latvians.
And consequently, many Latvians, ethnic Russians and Moscow officials predicted that this year's commemoration would provoke an explosion. All were wrong.
First, Latvian officials carefully distanced themselves from the demonstration. The Latvian government announced that no official would take part. President Guntis Ulmanis suggested that the date of such a memorial was wrong and should be changed. And both he and other senior officials chose to be out of town on the date of the march.
Second, all press accounts suggest, the Latvian police performed with professionalism, discipline and restraint. In contrast to their handling of some earlier demonstration, the police acted in a manner that suggested they were there to protect public order rather than to back any particular group. That in turn had the effect of reassuring many in the Latvian capital that they could now count on the police, regardless of their own ethnicity. And third, the predominantly ethnic Russian counter demonstration called attention to a pattern many of the earlier doomsayers had missed. Local ethnic Russians who participated in it behaved with dignity. Only those with close ties to Moscow political groups appeared interested in provoking any real problems.
The counter demonstration, which attracted ethnic Latvians as well as ethnic Russians, was both peaceful and respectful. Speakers denounced the fact of the march without denouncing Latvia as such, also a sharp contrast with some similar events in the past. The only disturbance came from a group of extreme Russian nationalists, both the Latvian and Russian media reported. They condemned Latvia in terms which questioned its right to national existence and even raised a portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on a balloon.
So hostile and violent were the remarks of this group that others at the counter demonstration denounced them in even sharper terms than they had criticized those who had taken part in the Waffen SS demonstration itself.
Some in Moscow who had indicated they planned to be outraged by the Latvian demonstration continued to complain -- but in remarkably mild terms. Roman Popkovich, the chairman of the Russian parliament's defense committee, said the Russian Duma "regrets and does not understand" Riga's sanctioning of the demonstration and believes Europe should understand that "Latvia is a country where human rights are not respected."
But a statement by the Russian foreign ministry is perhaps more telling. While its spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said Moscow "will always denounce any attempts" to make national heroes of those who supported the German side in World War II or to revive fascism, he concluded with some surprisingly mild and conciliatory words.
Rakhmanin noted that "Moscow has paid attention to the fact that the Latvian authorities have disassociated themselves from the celebrations." And he expressed the hope that "the next step will be made" and the date of the soldiers' memorial day there will be changed.
If that happens, Rakhmanin said, "that will be the best proof of Latvia's genuine adherence to the course of integration of society and the country's merging with democratic Europe." Because Latvian leaders are now saying the same thing, the disaster that didn't happen may point to an even better outcome in the future.