Latvia's Russians mark 73 years since Soviet victory

Riga (AFP) –


Latvia's large Russian minority gathered in the capital Riga on Wednesday in tribute to fallen Red Army soldiers 73 years since the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany ended World War II on the eastern front.

Around 20,000 ethnic-Russian Latvians laid flowers at the foot of the controversial Soviet Victory Monument as veterans displayed their medals.

Known as Victory Day to Russians, May 9 remains a divisive date in the Baltic state and is not a public holiday.

Accounting for around 30 percent of Latvia's 1.9 million-strong population, ethnic Russians see it as a celebration of the 1945 Nazi surrender to the Red Army in Berlin, but most ethnic Latvians see it as the start of a harsh 50-year Soviet occupation.

Relatives of fallen Soviet soldiers later marched in Riga with their portraits and names in what locals call the "Bezsmertnij Polk", literally "Regiment of the Undead".

"My grandfather was drafted in the Soviet army, he was killed in action on the frontline on 25 January 1945, and I made this placard with his photo four years ago in honour of him," Viktors Opolchencevs, a mild-mannered and middle-aged man, told AFP.

This year's commemorations had extra meaning in light of the discovery of the remains of some 400 Red Army soldiers in a mass grave earlier this year during road-works near Saldus in the western part of the Baltic EU and NATO state.

The remains are yet to be identified and re-buried in a war cemetery later this year.

Protesters honouring victims of Soviet regime held a counter-demonstration at the Latvian capital's Museum of Occupation, which is focused on Soviet-era abuses before the regime fell in 1991.

Latvians officially commemorate the victory over the Third Reich a day earlier on May 8 in line with the tradition in Western Europe.

The orange and black striped Ribbon of Saint George, which is a controversial symbol of support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as well as for fallen Soviet soldiers, was pinned to the clothes of many attending Wednesday's commemorations.

Caught between Russia and Germany, more than 100,000 Latvians fought on both sides during the war.

The controversy generated on May 9 is matched each year on March 16 when veterans parade through central Riga commemorating members of the Latvian Legion, a combat division of Nazi Germany's Waffen-SS.