Earlier this year, Latvia received a nasty reality check when the popular Centrs department store was bombed. As a result of the incident, people realised that, whatever the reason for the blast was and whoever the perpetrators were, Latvia, like any other country in the world, is not immune from public terrorism.
Unfortunately, Latvia seems to be a magnet for such occurences, very much due to its complicated history. History plays a major role in modern society, and is especially visible in Latvia. Latvia's diplomatic premises in Russia are regularly attacked with eggs or even firebombs, such as this past week. Requests for additional security from Russian authorities have been denied each time on funding grounds. The diplomatic premises also constantly face protests from various groups, demanding, for example, the release of those convicted of genocide or the relaxation of language and citizenship laws.
However, others go even further, calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union or some form of revocation of Latvia's independence. One such group in particular is causing Latvian authorities a lot of headaches. Worse, that group could soon be testing the patience of ordinary Latvians, which will to little to relieve tension between the Latvian—and Russian-speaking communities in Rīga and the rest of the country.
A "lost generation" courted
One of the various right-wing extremist groups that operate in Russia, and by proxy anywhere that boasts a large ethnic Russian population, is the National Bolsheviks. This group represents the worst chauvinistic attitudes of the former Moscow regime and openly challenges the independence of countries such as Latvia.
As expected, the Bolsheviks have an active branch in Latvia, comprised mostly of young, unemployed and disenfranchised males—very much a textbook case of extremism. Many of these young men grew up in Rīga, a city that is, despite what any nationalist sympathisers would say, effectively bilingual. The Bolsheviks' sympathisers, however, have had little chance or need to learn Latvian and become enfranchised.
Many Russian-speaking youths in their teens and 20s comprise a "lost generation" in both Latvia and Estonia; most finished their compulsory education around the time the local languages were made official and thus were never really pushed into learning the language. The younger set probably lived out the tail end of their school years in post-restoration Latvia, but was already rooted in a different reality.
Therefore, the best excuse for educators, and, more importantly, those who set education policy, to prioritise language learning—thus, de facto enfranchising—is a good close look at this "lost generation." And, of course, there are opportunistic members of an older generation that become leaders of such groups and take advantage of their youthful followers' conditions.
Like in many countries around the world, the disenfranchisement felt by these young men evolved into extremism. Belonging to a group such as the National Bolsheviks, the Russian National Unity or other extremist orgnaisations is a kind of enfranchisement for these youths. Parallels can be drawn with the gangs of Los Angeles, the neo-Nazis of Germany and even the out-of-hand protests in Prague and Seattle. And for the disenfranchised Russian-speaking youth in Latvia, a group such as the National Bolsheviks provides one such outlet (some argue better than drugs). However, as do many of the similar groups around the world, the group goes beyond legal boundaries.
Crashing a party
The celebration of Latvia's 82nd independence day on 18 November was marred by several negative news bits, one of which has direct bearing on the issue of extremist youths. With information and help from Russia, Latvian authorities prepared for possible disruption of the festivities surrounding the holiday. News first came earlier in the week that three National Bolsheviks, en route from Russia to Kaliningrad and in transit through Latvian territory, jumped the train; however, through the co-operation of law enforcement officers in both countries and the work of the Latvian Border Guards and others the four fugitives were caught in no time.
The incident confirmed that something was, in fact, brewing, and officials feared the stunt—in which one youth ended up in hospital due to the jump—was a diversion for something more serious. Several other local and Russian members of the group were also detained as a precaution when they were found meeting in the eastern city of Daugavpils.
On the eve of independence day, two more events occurred. First, flyers were found around Rīga's train station calling for a National Bolshevik-led protest at the Lestene cemetery, where there is a monument to fallen members of the Latvian Legion. Police kept a close eye on the cemetery, but nothing happened. Authorities were tipped off that something could happen in Rīga at some of the city's famous landmarks and began heavy patrolling of those areas. Then it happened.
After the incident, one of the more notorious local members of the National Bolsheviks, Aijo Beness, voiced off against Latvian authorities for the detention of his mates. Beness, already known to authorities on account of a conviction for vandalism he received earlier this year, told a local Russian-language paper that there are almost two dozen other National Bolsheviks in Latvia and that they are "angry and ready to do anything." Beness suggested in the interview that Latvian citizens could be kidnapped in order to be exchanged for their compatriots' release and that other Latvian sites could be "occupied."
These are among the most extremist threats ever made publicly to Latvians, and they have forced officials to deal more seriously with what was previously thought to be just a rag-tag group of misfits. The Foreign Ministry has said that it has information indicating that possibly several other National Bolsheviks from Russia are in Latvia.
What if it had been real?
The obvious issue here is what if the grenade had been real? That question is both a practical and a philosophical one. Practically, it is obvious what possible carnage could have occurred with a live grenade in the hands of extremists. But it is the philosophical view that is the more dangerous one. What if the threats voiced by Beness are carried through, and Latvian citizens in Russia face the prospect of injury, kidnapping or worse? The Latvian consulate in St Petersburg was hit by firebombs the same evening the Bolsheviks climbed the steeple; could the terror campaign escalate to a point where someone is injured or killed?
Even before the St Peter's protest, Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš had already called the earlier events a "very, very serious warning" of possible further extremist behaviour around the independence day celebrations. As this rag-tag bunch of disenfranchised kids—led by opportunistic schemers—become more radicalised, the possibilities of further action
Such events can also snowball very quickly and get out of control. Take, for example, the case in Lviv, Ukraine, in which a well-known composer was beaten to death by Russian speakers just because he was singing folk songs in Ukrainian. That set off a spiral of tension in the city, and something similar could very easily happen in Rīga. And that would be a major blow to the slow but noticeable progress in the country's integration process. Such fears should, if anything, force officials to take more seriously the entire integration issue and bring a positive light to something many in officialdom see as negative.
In many respects, the problem of the National Bolsheviks in this situation is one of a wider scope and is closely connected to the ever more encompassing integration problem. As long as there are groups that feel disenfranchised, extremist organisations will always find new members. Latvia does not take much care of those "down and out," a good example being the large number of street children in Rīga. But completely losing these already parlty "lost" generations now will just bring more headaches in the future and will negatively impact Latvia for many more generations. Officials in Rīga need to take heed and remember that they serve everyone.
Mel Huang, 27 November 2000
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