Latvia: Rioting in Riga

Global Voices Online
Saturday, January 17, 2009

In his post about the Jan. 13 peaceful anti-government protest followed by rioting in Riga, Aleks Tapinsh of All About Latvia wrote that Ivars Godmanis, the Latvian PM, had "told the people in his New Year’s Eve address how penguins deal with severe winter - they huddle together to stay warm - the same way as Latvians ought to do when going through the economic turmoil."

What happened in Latvia's capital on Tuesday has thus been labeled by some as the "penguin revolution."

Below are some of the accounts and opinions from the blogosphere.

More from All About Latvia's post linked to above:

Shattered glass. Blue paint on the building. Broken plastic bottles. Cobblestones. Ninety-eight detained.


But it started all so peaceful. Around 5 p.m. several hundred people had already flooded the Dom Square in the heart of the capital of Latvia. People of different ages, ethnicity, backgrounds appeared united in their disdain for the ruling coalition, and – more importantly – the culture of political cynicism.

Following the 90-minute event mostly young people moved toward the Saeima building. They tried to get in. Prevented from doing so by the riot police, they began throwing anything that they could lay their hands on - from snowballs to street cobblestones. [...]

An English-language interview with a protester, conducted by Aleks Tapinsh, is here. The man believes that "new people" should be allowed into Latvia's politics for the country to prosper and talks about the effect that the ongoing crisis has so far had on his business.

A selection of relevant photo and video reports - at a Russian-language blog on the disturbances of Jan. 13:

Juris Kaža of Free Speech Emergency in Latvia offers this assessment:

[...] On one level, the ruling coalition in Latvia had this coming to it. Regardless of what the law and the book of etiquette says, a riot is a form of political struggle, though less focussed and clear than a well-defined non-violent protest. Seeing eggs and rocks fly at the Saeima building as a symbol of the ruling elite and Latvian politicians made not only me but many others feel that they had this coming.

If there is more severe repression against future protests, it will most likely escalate to the West European model of periodic clashes between the police and young streetfighters.

While this is unfortunate, especially for those suffering collateral damage -- looted stores, injured police and bystanders -- it now seems inevitable that street violence will become part of the political scene here and the threat of such violence -- a likely excuse for curbing non-violent expression. Post-Soviet authoritarian thinking in Latvia is strong, and it will not diminish but find some self-justification after the Riga riots.

A pre-protest roundup on the political and economic situation in Latvia - defaulted bank loans, corrupt politicians, legislative chaos - in earlier posts at All About Latvia, here and here.

Juris Kaža, in a Jan. 16 post, reports on the Riga City Council's decision "[to deny] permits for two politically-oriented gatherings in Riga's Old Town" on Saturday and Sunday:

[...] There are comments and appeals circulating on the internet asking people to defy the ban on gatherings in the Old Town and hinting at a repeat of the January 13 disorders if the police attempt to disperse or interfere with any unsanctioned public meetings. [...]

A reader, however, refutes the information about the banning of the rallies in this comment to Juris Kaža's post:

[...] Blanket ban of assembly in Old Town would, of course, be wrong and unlawful, and even ban on particular kind of gatherings would, I think. No such ban has been established, public comments of officials proposing to ban particular kind of gatherings notwithstanding. [...]

Riga-based LJ user xzirnisx posted several pictures and wrote this (RUS) the morning after the disturbances:

In all kinds of tourist booklets, they've always liked to call Riga the "small Paris." Last night, the city turned into a small Athens, and I'm incredibly happy about it, because I used to think that for our people, who are patiently enduring all the troubles and deprivations, there is nothing that can force them to drag their behinds off the couch. But, it turns out, there is something.

Naturally, the mass media are trying to turn everything into farce, emphasizing the fact that the "vandals have looted the Latvijas balzams (liquor) store," but for some reason failing to mention the [five dozen] injured protesters, faces of girls adorned with running mascara and bruises, and pensioners who've also got a taste of black rubber.

Over a hundred people are now huddling at [police] stations all over the city. Most of them are not vandals. I still can't get through to my brother. The PM said that "there'll be no more actions on the territory of the Old Riga." Here it is, the true face of our pseudo-democracy ;)

In response to a reader's question, LJ user xzirnisx listed some of the reasons (RUS) for the people's discontent:

[...] We currently have the highest unemployment rates in the EU. In December, some 300 people were losing jobs every day - this with the population of 2 million. Per capita GDP is the lowest in the EU (or [it's the lowest] in Polans, which places us on the second place from the end). And what are the measures that the government is taking? They are raising the VAT to 21 percent and cut [state employees'] salaries by 15 percent. In the private sector, salaries have also gone down - by about [a half] since October. In addition to all this, public transportation has become twice as expensive this year and costs Ls 0.50 ($1). They've also raised [natural] gas prices - and they are selling it to us at four times (!!!) the price that Russia is charging them for it. And the more expensive the gas, the more expensive the electricity and heating. [...]

Daugavpils-based LJ user aljena-beljaeva posted information (RUS) about a fundraising effort for Edgar Gorban, a 16-year-old protester who lost his eye during the rioting:

[...] They say the eye was hit either by a stone, or he lost it as a result of [tear] gas, but originally there was information about a rubber bullet. I don't know what really happened and I don't really care. One way or another, I saw this boy's crying mother on TV, an ordinary Russian-speaking woman, and I feel very sorry for her. Some people are now saying that we shouldn't be turning him into a romantic hero - he must have been throwing stones himself, so he is the one to blame. [...]

Riga-based LJ user kris_reid posted his policeman friend's account (RUS) of what had occurred on Jan. 13, addressing the entry to readers from Russia - who, according to the blogger, were likely to get the other side of the story - "the protester's version" - from "the zombie-box [Russian TV]":


"[...] When [...] the number of people returning from the rally decreased and we were expecting to hear "thank you for your work" over our walkie-talkies, we got information about groups gathering by the Saeima [Latvian parliament] [...]. And at 8 PM, a general alert was issued and an order came for all the free units and the reserves to go to certain points to get instructions. [...]

About the "non-use of special devices" - lies. I myself was among those who used them. Got caught on [some videos]. [Beat up] one guy [who was] five meters away and about to throw a stone, and handed him to [the riot police guys], who [beat him up some more] and led him away [...]. Him and his cocky [girlfriend]. I heard from colleagues that flash/noise and gas grenades were being used by the Saeima.


Upd. [Rioters] were multinational. There were enough of both [ethnic] Latvians and [ethnic] Russians.

Can't say anything about the rally - didn't see it [...]. People leaving the rally made a good impression - more or less normal people. The whole mess happened because of the predominantly marginal youth, most of them [drunk]. [...] And the disturbances were of a totally European scale - with ripped out cobblestone. [...]"

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