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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SS Veterans Stir Anger Of Russians In Latvia

RIGA, Latvia -- Once every week, Alfred Taubertis takes his placards and megaphone to Riga's central square, where he hurls insults at passing Russians.

"Russian invaders have destroyed Latvia," Taubertis howls at strolling couples and mothers taking their kids for sled rides on the slopes of a city park. "I will never let you forget this."

A Latvian, Taubertis was sent by the Soviets in 1950 to camp No. 35 in Perm for helping the Germans fight the Red Army during World War II. Letting loose his outrage at the Soviet postwar occupation of the Baltics on Monday, Taubertis joined some 500 of his fellow Latvian Nazi Waffen SS legionnaires in a march through the cobblestone streets of old Riga.

The procession, to mark the Latvian legion's 55th anniversary, drew warm applause and flowers from many Latvians, especially the elderly. But ethnic Russians, who are far outnumbered in Latvia, chanted, "Killers," as the marchers drew slowly by. One Russian man began throwing rotten carrots at the march leaders before a Latvian-speaking man punched him and police rushed in to break up the fight.

The marked difference in the parade's reception illustrates the passions that divide the country's two communities when it comes to World War II. The Latvians view their SS veterans as brave warriors who fought Moscow to free their state from communism, while the Russians see the soldiers as mass-murdering collaborators.

More than 100,000 Latvians came into the special SS legion after Germany invaded in 1941. Some volunteered, seeing the Nazi SS troops as "liberators" from Soviet oppression, but a large majority were forced to join at gunpoint. The SS executed 90 percent of Latvia's Jewish population during its three-year occupation.

"The Germans gave me free guns to fight the Russians," said marcher Fricis Kursietis, who fled Latvia when the Soviets took the country back from Germany in 1944. He lived in England until 1991 but moved back to Riga after Latvia declared independence in 1991.

About 42,000 Latvians were deported to Siberia on March 25, 1949. "I feel like today I am surrounded by my friends -- friends for a free Latvia. Of course, we are not for the Germans at all. And of course, we are not for the Russians," said Kursietis, clutching a rose bouquet he would lay at the city's Freedom Monument.

The marchers, who carried no banners but waved plenty of Latvian and Latvian neo-Nazi flags, made their way quietly through the 800-year-old city center for 30 minutes, until they reached the monument, referred to by locals as "Milda" for the green statue of a portly woman at its top.

There, they were to lay flowers and light yellow candles to the memory of fellow SS legionnaires, but they met trouble.

Several scuffles broke out as Russians and the marchers' mostly Latvian sympathizers got into shouting matches.

"Here they come, smiling. I should take a Kalashnikov to each one of them," one man said.

Several women chanting, "Killers, fascists," held up signs that said "Death, death. Black death is walking past us." The man who tossed carrots at the marchers was taken to the police station.

The marchers seemed unfazed. Some smiled serenely and waved back. One man looked at the Russians and gave them the SS salute.

In a statement released Monday and reported by Reuters, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: "Moscow feels indignation ... that veterans of the Latvian voluntary SS legion have, with the blessing of officials, celebrated the anniversary of the unit, whose history is marked with blood and deaths of thousands.

"This attention to fascist underlings is shameful for Europe and is a challenge to the memories of many millions of war victims."

Tensions between ethnic Russians and Latvians escalated dramatically earlier this month after a Latvian police officer beat several elderly Russians protesting the increased cost of living.

The Kremlin has demanded an official apology and threatened economic sanctions. Riga insists that the incident was played up for propaganda effect in Moscow, adding that the police broke no laws.

Many Russians, who make up 30 percent of Latvia's 2,450,000 population according to last year's census, feel that tough Latvian-language requirements are designed to make it difficult for them to exercise their rights to vote in elections and work where they choose.

Latvia granted citizenship only to pre-World War II residents and their direct descendants. Latvia's population is now 28 percent noncitizens.

Russians here consider the SS march, which has been officially sanctioned, another slap in their face by the Latvian government. The Russian-language daily newspaper, Chas, on its front page this weekend threatened to publish photographs of all state officials found attending the SS rally.

The head of Latvia's ground forces, Yury Dalbinis, as well as the navy chief, the head of Riga police, and members of the right-wing National Union of Latvia parliamentary faction filled the front rows of Monday's march.

Latvian authorities rejected official requests by local Russian organizations to cancel the event. Such marches have been held every year since independence, although organizers said Monday's was the largest yet, attributing it to Latvian nationalists' desire to show up the Kremlin's tough talk against the March 3 beatings.

In response, Russians organized a counter-rally a few hundred meters up the street at Riga's Confederation Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church.

"We are fully loyal to this government, but they are disloyal to us. They won't let us live," said Mikhail Makarov, an organizer with the Russian Communities of Latvia. He said Riga sanctioned the march not to spite Jews, but ethnic Russians.

Monday's remembrances began when hundreds of Latvians filed inside Riga's Dome Cathedral to hear a 75-minute sermon by Father Janis Liepiys. "The Latvian legion fought bravely. It gave honor to Riga," he said in his remarks.

Some older women and men wept at his words. Less moved were about 70 Latvian army conscripts, dressed in winter camouflage uniforms, also there to honor the SS.

"They said I should come," one young conscript said on his way out of the cathedral.