Annual procession commemorating the Latvian W
Annual procession commemorating the Latvian WReuters

Latvian veterans who fought on Nazi Germany's side against the Soviets in World War II staged a march in Riga on Sunday, amid a heavy police presence and low-key protests, AFP reports.

Around 1,500 people took part in the controversial parade through the capital's Old Town, police told the news agency.

Dozens of opponents, some from Germany, brandished signs denouncing fascism, but there were no clashes.

Veterans of the Latvian Legion have paraded in Riga every March 16 since Soviet rule ended in 1991. The date marks a failed 1944 battle to repel the Soviet Red Army, paving the way for nearly half a century of occupation.

Jewish groups, Moscow and Latvia's large ethnic-Russian community, accounting for quarter of its two million citizens, see the parade as glorifying Nazism because the Legion, founded in 1943, was commanded by Germany's Waffen SS.

The veterans insist they were trying to defend their homeland against Soviet occupation.

AFP reported that several members of parliament from the right-wing National Alliance party, a partner in the government coalition, joined the parade.

Among them was Einars Cilinskis, who was fired as environment minister on Friday for defying Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma's ban on ministers attending the event.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned the parade, telling AFP, "In the Baltics, many of the people who fought against Communism also murdered Jews. In that respect they're not worthy to be the heroes of new, democratic Latvia."

Zuroff took part in the protest against the annual procession.

Simon Wiesenthal Center Director Efraim Zuroff attends protest against Latvian Waffen-SS procession.
Simon Wiesenthal Center Director Efraim Zuroff attends protest against Latvian Waffen-SS procession.Photo: Reuters

Two years ago, Riga banned the annual March 16 demonstrations, saying said it received applications from eight different organizations wanting to stage demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on the date, but rejected them all.

The Riga city council noted at the time that the restrictions had been imposed to "avoid possible provocations and threats to public security."

Last year, Latvian President Andris Berzins avoided attending a Holocaust memorial ceremony together with visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Berzins aides responded to a request from senior Israeli staff that he attend the ceremony at the Rumbula Forest with Peres, saying Berzins was too busy. They also reportedly told Israeli aides there is a state policy in the country preventing the Latvian president from accompanying visiting presidents to ceremonies.