I Didn’t Predict A Riot

Troops on the steps of the Saeima

Troops on the steps of the Saeima

Having got used to hogging the headlines it seems Latvia is now reluctant to let anyone else into them.

After mopping up all the Baltic news coverage in the run-up to Christmas with the on-off IMF saga, Latvia ensured yet more coverage (including all-important video) by staging a riot of very respectable proportions on January 13th.

I would be lying if I said I had seen it coming. That old unattributable standby, “internet rumours” had been saying violence was possible, but I didn’t take it seriously. Who believes what they read on the internet, eh?

The initial demonstration in Dome Square was just as I expected – rather subdued and generally good natured, though the reliance on singing uplifting songs has fallen foul of the lawof diminishing returns.

However, I didnotice that in among the large number of students and ordinary folk were some strange bedfellows including a group of young twats with swastikas (the Nazi type, not the folksy type) sewn on their bomber jackets, the usual ultra-nationalist Russkies and the oh-so-obsessed rabid gay bashing brigade.

At one point I did see a supposed demonstrator talking into a walkie-talkie under his jacket, which suggests he was either a plainclothes policeman (he looked too young) or some sort of co-ordination was taking place.

Rioters lined up against St Jacob's church

Rioters lined up against St Jacob's church

Anyway, having written up a suitably dull account of the demo I was somewhat surprised when a friend called to inform me he had just been tear-gassed.

I arrived on the scene a few minutes later and sure enough, a proper riot was in full swing. The cold night air of the demo seemed to have become supercharged in minutes, as the shouts of rioters mingled with the barked orders of police and military personnel.

The steps of the Saiema were littered with paving stones and the smashed glassof windows and bottles. Suddenly, defence minister Vinets Veldre swept past surrounded by heavily-armed paramilitary troops – presumably the renowned Alfa force.

For perhaps the only time, Veldre’s laconic, hang-dog expression looked rather impressive – he certainly wasn’t panicking. Along with his sub-machine gun toting phalanx, Veldre slipped into the Saeima by the side door, presumably to dig in if a real assault on the building was launched.

Stones and glass outside the Saeima

Stones and glass outside the Saeima

And so now the question turns to why it all happened. One approach would be to look at who gains from it. The peaceful protest preceding the riot was undermined and the organisers made convenient scapegoats by the ever-irritating interior minister, Mareks Seglins, whose idea of a suitable response was to send sarcastic text messages to Stokenbergs and Pabriks. Thus he demonstrated that he has not only the temperament but also the gravitas and intellect of a hormonally-challenged teenager.

And for all his calling Pabriks a “coward” for going to give a TV interview after the demo, I don’t recall seeing Seglins anywhere in the vicinity during the whole evening.

Zatlers lays down the law on Jan 14th

Happily, the reaction of President Valdis Zatlers on Wednesday was infinitely more statesmanlike. Clearly emotional, Zatlers seized the initiative by criticising both the “hooligans” and the government’s inability to listen to the public.

By naming March 31st as the date when he will start the process of dissolving parliament unless the government gets its act together, he has seized the initiative and added some much needed “truth or consequences” to the situation.

Let’s hope it finally concentrates the minds of everyone.


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