Russia supporters in Riga staged a protest after officials bulldozed flowers left at a WWII monument Protesters sang Soviet songs and used pro-Russian symbols the day after Latvia officially commemorated the victims in Ukraine
On May 10, a spontaneous protest broke out in Riga’s Victory Park after city officials used a bulldozer to remove the flowers left at the park’s Monument to the Liberators of Riga. Residents who were upset by the authorities’ actions started bringing new flowers to the monument, and a crowd formed. The impromptu gathering, which included demonstrations of Russian symbols and Soviet songs, spurred outrage among other residents — and the country’s leaders.
Riga residents celebrating Victory Day traditionally leave flowers next to the Monument to the Liberators of Riga in Victory Park on the left bank of the Daugava. The monument, which was first unveiled in 1985, is itself controversial — Latvians have long been discussing its demolition. This year, there was no official event marking the holiday in Riga; in April, it was declared a day of commemoration of the victims in Ukraine. On May 2, an exhibit titled “Georgia to Ukraine — Glory to the Heroes” opened up next to the monument with information about events that have occurred in the war so far.
The Latvian State Police called on people not to take part in any protests on May 9, including by leaving flowers, since “this could be used by Russian propaganda to justify the war in Ukraine.” The police also cautioned people against using the letters Z and V, Soviet symbolism, the Russian flag, or the flags of the self-proclaimed Donbas republics, as any of those things would “be considered symbols in support of the war.” They also cited the pandemic as a reason not to hold rallies. Part of the square was fenced off in advance of May 9.
Bringing flowers to the monument as an individual wasn’t prohibited, though it wasn’t possible for people to do it themselves; anyone who wanted to leave flowers could set them on a table, where city officials would pick them up and take them to the monument. According to police data, a total of about 20 thousand people came to the park on May 9, and “no serious offenses were recorded.”
Early in the morning on May 10, the flowers lying in front of the Monument to the Liberators of Riga were removed with a bulldozer — something that, judging by reports from the Latvian media, has never happened before. According to Latvian Public Broadcasting, “footage of the equipment working at the monument spread quickly around social media and caused a wave of discontent.” The political party Latvian Russian Union called the authorities’ actions “immoral,” accused them of “complete moral decay,” and announced a protest rally.
Over the course of the day, people started bringing new flowers to the monument. Judging from photographs, by the evening, a significant portion of the area in front of the moment was covered in flowers. Videos taken next to the monument on May 10 show hundreds of people gathered around the monument at once; Russian-speaking Latvia residents can be heard arguing with police officers and activists who support Ukrainian, with Soviet songs sung and played in the background. Several people came to the scene with Russian flags.
Latvian Russian Union wasn’t the only organization to react enthusiastically to the second wave of flowers: the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that people “brought, are bringing, and will continue to bring flowers” to the memorial, “no matter what the local authorities come up with.”
On the evening of May 10, the Latvian State Police announced that it had “dispersed” the Victory Park protesters, arresting multiple people and using force in several cases. The Riga Municipal Police reported that they had arrested a young man who was walking around the park wrapped in a Russian flag. Another video shows a person getting arrested after kicking a wreath next to the monument. On the morning of May 11, the police announced that the walkway to the memorial had been closed.
The footage from the square that was shot on May 10 also caused outrage — this time among people who oppose Russia’s current actions and feel negatively toward the Soviet Union. Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš demanded an explanation from the Interior Minister and stated that “nothing can justify” what happened in the park. “Expressions of disrespect toward Latvian statehood, Latvia’s historical experience, and the victims of the Russian war in Ukraine are unacceptable,” he said.
Latvian Interior Minister Maria Golubeva responded that while the police could have reacted more promptly, they did enforce the law. “Unfortunately, demands from people on Twitter for a more severe reaction from the police have no basis in current Latvian legislation,” she said. According to Golubeva, the police could not arrest people for leaving flowers, but they did stop provocative behavior and the use of prohibited symbols. “Bad and immoral behavior isn’t against the law,” said the Minister.
Latvian State Police Chief Armands Ruks acknowledged that “the removal of the flowers caused social unrest among a certain part of society” and that because of the spontaneous nature of the rally, the police were initially unable to deploy enough officers. He also said that the authorities intend to prosecute at least four people who they believe effectively served as the “organizers” of the May 10 rally, including Russian Latvian Union representatives and former Riga City Council deputies Alexey Roslikov and Vadim Barannik. Roslikov said that he doesn’t know what he’s being accused of, but he considers it “an honor” to answer for the events of May 10.
Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks called the Riga City Council’s actions inadequate and noted that “kicking flowers and crushing them with tractors is primitive and unbecoming for a civilized nation.”
The Riga authorities reported that the removal of flowers on the morning of May 10 was part of a plan that was coordinated with the State Police. According to Rīgas Meži, the company responsible for the removal, “there was frost that night” and “the flowers wilted.” The city authorities said they have no plans to remove the flowers left on May 10 in the near future.