Sunday, September 09, 2007

Marches and riots

Over the last week, Latvia saw a controversy over a "Russian March" proposed by several activist groups. On the surface, the Russian March looked like a regular demonstration for the usual ethnically Russian concerns (bigger role for Russian language in Latvia, more liberal citizenship laws, etc.). A closer look revealed several reasons for concern.

First, the event had the same name as a sequence of ultra-nationalist demonstrations in Russia, in 2006 which had often turned violent. And that did not look like a coincidence. One of organizers was Latvian National Democratic Party, lead by Yevgeniy Osipov, a former member of Russian National Unity, a Russian ultra-nationalist organization with neo-Nazi undertones. Reportedly, Osipov used to have a fair amount of neo-Nazi symbols on his webpage a few years ago (which have now been removed).

And even the official poster of the event looked quite threatening, with a violent looking bear under a text "Russians don't surrender!"
Given all that and the recent "Bronze Soldier" riots in Estonia, everyone was weary. Riga City Council decided not to allow the march because of possible violence and the court upheld the decision.

At the end, there was a demonstration in a city park instead of a march. About 150 demonstrators showed up, surrounded by a significantly bigger crowd of bystanders, journalists and police. They chanted "Russians don't surrender" but there was no violence.

The only violence on Saturday unexpectedly came from a different source. About 500 drunk soccer fans from Northern Ireland, in Riga for Latvia-Northern Ireland game. They started by breaking chairs and dishes in outdoor cafes and finished by throwing a brick and other objects at the arriving police cars. Riga has seen some instances of tourist misbehaviour recently but this was by far the worst one.

Luckily, our soccer team managed to punish the North Irish fans for that by winning the game 1-0.


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