Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov on March 4 denounced as "repulsive" and "scandalous" the Latvian police measure to disperse a demonstration by "Russian-speaking pensioners and women" in downtown Riga. Expressing the "Russian Foreign Ministry’s indignation" during a news conference, Primakov charged that the incident "typified Latvia’s violations of elementary human rights." An accompanying commentary on Russian government television accused "Latvia’s leaders" of telling "plain lies" when they deny violating human rights. The Duma’s Communist chairman Gennady Seleznev and the Zhirinovsky party seconded Primakov’s statements. Vladimir Zhirinovsky added that the Riga crowd included "many Russian officers" — a reference to military retirees who have been allowed to settle in Latvia following the Russian troop withdrawal. (Russian TV and agencies, March 4)
On March 3, Russia’s private Independent Television (NTV) showed footage of that day’s riot — which numbered more than 1,000 participants, mostly retired Russians — outside Riga’s city hall. Organizers had failed to request the demonstration permit required by law. Participants blocked traffic in the city center for several hours.
Protesting against the rising cost of living and demanding higher salaries and pensions, the demonstrators carried "Long Live Socialism" placards. Police appeals to clear the thoroughfare were met with shouts of "we don’t understand Latvian." Switching to Russian, police loudspeakers — recorded on the NTV soundtrack — asked the crowd to "please be so kind as to continue the demonstration on the sidewalks." This apparently encouraged the crowd to grow more unruly. The police finally used batons to clear the downtown thoroughfare, releasing the monumental traffic jam caused by the riot. (NTV, March 3)
Responding to Primakov’s statement, Latvia’s Foreign Ministry noted "the attempt to justify the disturbance of public order" and to "turn a clear violation of the law into an ethnic problem." (BNS, March 4) The incident in Riga is the most serious in the last few years, and may have been planned. An appeal to participate the unauthorized demonstration was published on the eve of the event in a popular Russian-language newspaper in Riga. The incident is likely to undermine the position of those Latvian politicians who favor concessions to Soviet-era settlers on citizenship issues. By the same token, Moscow’s reaction probably comes as a disappointment to top Latvian officials who have gone out of their way to improve bilateral relations and are still awaiting invitations to Russia.
Top-Level Meeting Scheduled to Discuss Transdniester Settlement.