Is Latvia Turning into a Security State?
By Joseph Fitsanakis | intelNews | 12.09.2008
UNLIKE POST-SOVIET RUSSIA, WHICH the US considers barely democratic , many other nations of the former Eastern bloc -former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “new Europe”- are often seen by Washington as “strong democracies” and “examples to all of Europe” . Many of these formerly Soviet-controlled countries have been welcomed with open arms by Washington and Western international institutions, which appear eager to snatch them from what is seen as Russia’s traditional geopolitical sphere of influence. This effort is systematically undertaken even when these former Eastern Bloc nations display questionable democratic credentials.
America’s attitude toward the Baltic nation of Latvia is a typical illustration of this policy. Latvia, a tiny country of 2.3 million inhabitants, was under Soviet control until August of 1991. In 1995, less than four years after its formal independence from the USSR, it was admitted to the Council of Europe. Nine years later, it had been admitted to NATO and the European Union, of which it is now a full member. A few months ago, Latvia even joined Washington’s visa waiver program, which gives all Latvians the right to travel to the US without a visa [03. In 2005, when US President George W. Bush visited the country, he praised the Latvian people for demonstrating “that the love of liberty is stronger than the will of an empire”  (presumably the Soviet empire) and assured them that he “love[d] the fact that [Latvia is] a free nation and willing to speak out so clearly for freedom” . Bush, who at the time was touring Europe on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the German capitulation in World War II, went on to give the Latvians a brief lecture on the history of the war. He reminded them that in the 1930s “the evil that seized power in Germany brought war to all of Europe and waged war against morality itself. What began as a movement of thugs became a government without conscience, and then an empire of bottomless cruelty. The Third Reich exalted the strong over the weak, overran and humiliated peaceful countries, undertook a mad quest for racial purity, coldly planned and carried out the murder of millions, and defined evil for the ages. Brave men and women of many countries faced that evil” .
A SLIGHT GLITCH
There was a small glitch in President Bush’s eloquent summary of popular resistance to the Nazi threat: most Latvians were not among the “[b]rave men and women of many countries” who faced the Nazis; in fact, the majority of Latvians fought on the side of the Third Reich. In the words of Latvian history expert Valdis Lumans , the standard Latvian view of World War II is that it was “the Reds [who] were the guilty ones” (p2). On the other hand, the Nazis, who in Bush’s (and most people’s) view were “a movement of thugs [...] without conscience, [...] an empire of bottomless cruelty [which] coldly planned and carried out the murder of millions, and defined evil for the ages” actually “came to Latvia in 1941 as liberators”, says Lumans (ibid). Enthusiastic Latvian collaboration with the Nazis culminated in the formation of the revered Latvian Legion, comprising two Waffen-SS divisions of over 40,000 volunteers (p283). Lumans cites several sources pointing to “as many as 146,610 Latvians [having] served the Germans in various uniformed and armed capacities [during World War II], far more than those fighting in the narrowly defined Legion of the two Waffen-SS divisions” (p.292). That is an astonishing number, considering that the Latvian armed forces -that is, the combined total of Latvia’s army, navy and air force- currently consist of fewer than 6,000 members.
The sad truth is that the Latvians were not the only non-Germans to collaborate with the Nazis in World War II. Many Italians, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Croatians, Bulgarians, Romanians and others fought and died in Nazi uniforms. Yet these nations have typically repented on behalf of their Nazi collaborationists and have tried to deal in various ways with that dark side of their history. Not the Latvians. Typically, Latvian Waffen-SS collaborators continue to be glorified in that country and there has even emerged a trend of ceremoniously replacing Soviet-built World War II monuments with post-Soviet ones exalting Latvian Nazi units. One such ceremony took place in 1998, when Latvian government and military officials joined a thousand people, including surviving Waffen-SS collaborators, in attending a burial of the remains of 53 Latvian Nazi volunteers . Jewish groups around the world did not take kindly to that honorary ceremony, since Latvian Nazis are said to be partly responsible for the extermination of nearly 100,000 Latvian Jews in the early 1940s. Heads of Jewish organizations in Russia warned at the time that Latvia was “drifting toward fascism” . But the US did not condemn this and many other similar events, probably fearing reactions from thousands of pro-Nazi Latvian Americans, most of whom emigrated to the US right after World War II. They were able to do so because Washington chose not to bar Latvian SS veterans from immigrating to the US after World War II .
Last March, Russian UN representatives, alarmed by the apparent resurgence of Nazi veneration in Latvia, proposed a resolution condemning “the glorification of Nazism and the desecration of WWII monuments”  in various countries of Europe. In supporting the proposed resolution, one Russian diplomat explained that “it is totally inadmissible to glorify those who were involved in Nazi crimes, including whitewashing former SS members, such as the Waffen-SS unit that has been recognized as criminal by the Nuremberg Tribunal” . These practices, argued the Russian delegation, “contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” . The resolution was adopted by the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, despite firm US opposition and the abstaining of the Ukraine, Estonia, and Latvia . It is expected that it will be adopted by the UN General Assembly later on this month .
DISCRIMINATION OF ETHNIC MINORITIES
One area where Latvian glorification of Nazism could be said to contribute to “contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” concerns the treatment of Latvian minorities. In his speech in 2005, George Bush praised the Latvians for “facing the challenges that come with ethnic diversity and [...] addressing [them] in a uniformly peaceful way” . Alas, this statement is a world apart from the way Latvian minorities view their current situation. According to the 2001 Latvian census, a stunning 42,3% of the country’s permanent population comprised of various ethnic minorities including Jews, Georgians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Russians and others . Most of these, around 400,000, are currently denied Latvian citizenship and are forced to live in a stateless condition, despite the facts that (a) all of them are permanent Latvian residents; (b) a third of them were born in Latvia; and (c) all of them have lived in the country for an average of approximately 40 years . In 2007, the Latvian Human Rights Committee published a report detailing a list of 80 areas of everyday life characterized by discrimination against stateless residents, who, among other prohibitions, are systematically denied the right to vote. These include 31 bans on various professions, as well as 17 cases in which Latvian-born stateless residents of the country are denied rights afforded to foreigners from European Union countries . Earlier this year, Amnesty International joined the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in once again urging Latvia to “ensure that the lack of citizenship of the permanent residents does not hinder equal enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, including employment, social security, health services and education” .
For reasons that are probably linked to US-Russian relations, Washington refuses to recognize the disturbing reality of severe ethnic discrimination in Latvia. In its annual report on human rights in the country the US State Department continued to describe Latvia as “a parliamentary, multiparty democracy [...with a] government generally respect[ing] the human rights of its citizens and the large resident noncitizen community” .
THE SECURITY SERVICES MOVE IN
The US State Department might wish to take note of recent developments in the “multiparty democracy [...] respect[ing] the human rights of its citizens” that is Latvia.
In the past few months, the country has been one among many around the world witnessing their financial sector stagnate. Its economy is now officially in recession and its national output is expected to decline by 5% next year . The government has already nationalized Parex Banka, the nation’s second largest bank and “the country’s largest indigenous financial institution” , and it recently became the second European country to turn to the International Monetary Fund for economic assistance.
Nationalization and asking the IMF for assistance was the first part of the Latvian government’s plan to protect the nation’s economy. The second part appears to be, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, “round[ing] up the pessimists” . What appears to be happening is that Latvia’s Security Police, which is normally responsible for counterespionage and antiterrorism operations, has been tasked with shadowing, arresting and generally intimidating public figures that dare to express doubts about the government’s handling of the economy .
Among their recent victims is Dmitrijs Smirnov, a 32-year-old economics lecturer at Ventspils University College, a small, accredited higher education institution situated on the coast of the Baltic Sea, 130 miles from the capital, Riga. On October 2, Dr. Smirnov participated in an online debate on the state of Latvian economy, facilitated by Ventas Balss, a small provincial newspaper. During the debate, Smirnov was “highly critical of Latvian central bank policy” . Expecting an imminent devaluation of the local currency, the lat, he advised savers to convert their lats into US dollars . Several days later, Smirnov was arrested by two plainclothes Latvian Security Police agents, apparently on grounds that he attempted “to destabilize Latvia’s financial system” . He spent a number of nights in prison, had his personal computer confiscated  and was forbidden to exit the country “pending further inquiries” .
Remarkably, Smirnov’s case is not unprecedented. Last year the Security Service made a harassing call to Alf Vanags, director of the Baltic International Center for Economic Policy Studies. This took place after a news conference in which Vanags “sounded the alarm over Latvia’s ballooning current-account deficit” . The economics researcher said that “within an hour” the Security Service “were on the phone asking to see [his] materials”, which he promptly handed over . This time, however, it appears that the counterespionage agency is making a more concerted effort, directing its attention “to Internet chat rooms, newspaper articles, cell phone text messages and even rock concerts” . On November 9, they even detained a pop singer, Valters Frindbergs. His crime? Telling his amused audience during a concert to hold off withdrawing their funds from Latvia’s faltering banks until the gig was over . He was charged with “knowingly spreading false information about the Latvian financial system” .
Ordinary Latvians are incensed by these frightening incidents. Prominent political commentator Karlis Streips has warned that “once you start banning rumors about the financial situation you don’t have too far to go before you have a totalitarian dictatorship” . However, wealthy members of the financial sector appear to be supportive of the roundup. Ilmars Rimsevics, governor of the Latvian Central Bank, applauded the Security Services and bizarrely explained that “[i]n any [...] country [...] people [...] intentionally spreading rumors of a bank’s bankruptcy or currency devaluation [...] would be detained in ten or fifteen minutes” . The Wall Street Journal quotes Gene Zolotarev, an American financier living in Latvia, who claims he is not “generally a fan of totalitarianism”, but is not opposed to the arrests: “[e]xtraordinary times call for extraordinary measures”, he says .
BUSINESS AS USUAL IN WASHINGTON
Meanwhile, the US still views Latvia as an important bulwark in the struggle for the spread of democracy in eastern Europe. Last month the US Department of State’s official blog, DipNote, hosted an extolling entry  on Latvia by Colleen Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Graffy had just returned from an event-packed official tour of Latvia, which included stops at the “Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991″ (no, it’s not referring to the Nazi liberation -sorry, occupation) as well as a formal dinner with “some of the country’s eminent cultural leaders to discuss how we can increase our cultural ties” (“a superb way to end my visit to Latvia”). One would speculate that singer Valters Frindbergs, who was arrested by the Latvian Security Service while Ms Graffy was touring the country, was probably unable to attend the dinner due to extraneous circumstances.
Meanwhile, ordinary Latvians have received the intended message sent out by the Security Service. Asked by a BBC journalist whether he had changed his views on the Latvian economy in light of his arrest and imprisonment, economist Dmitrijs Smirnov responded without hesitation: “[o]f course. I will be more careful. I don’t want again to go to prison” .
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02 Bush, G.W. (2002) Remarks delivered at Oakland University, Rochester, MI, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, 18 July.
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15 Graffy, C. (2008) “US and Latvia: Creating Mutual Understanding“, DipNote, 10 November.