One of the most strongest and dangerous weapons used by breaking Soviet regime was OMON – Отряд Милиции Особого Назначения (Militsiya Special Purpose Unit). The so called “black berets” were heavily equipped and fanatical protector or the Soviet order. It was under command of Soviet Ministry of Interior, made to combat organized crime and support Soviet Police or Militsiya raids, however from 1990 its tasks became more political and toward against the restoration of the Latvian independence. The actions of this unit became violent and criminal and their actions took life’s both in Latvia and Lithuania. It was OMON who was responsible for attack against Latvian Ministry of Interior on January 20 1991 during the time of the Barricades in Riga. The attack on the night of 20 January still sheds in mystery because of the involvement in so-called “third force” and many details of the history of OMON in Latvia still is quite unclear. Here all the known aspects of this unit and the 20 January event is gathered, knowing that many questions still will be unanswered for some time.
The OMON Riga unit was made in 2 December 1988 under the orders of the Soviet Minister of Interior Vadim Bakatin. It was one first of 5 such units in the Soviet Union. The original unit consisted 148 men 20 of them were officers. The commander was Edgars Limmars while the real leadership was held by militsiya officer Česlvav Miljnik and his deputy Sergej Parfijonov. The working style of the OMON was often brutal; the destruction of the illegal trade places, direct takeover of the proceeds from crime without documentation and the torture of the suspects. However, in the unstable economic situation when crime level was critical the OMON was praised as a brave fighter of the organized crime.
OMON became involved in politics in May 15 1990 when after protest held by the Interfronte – movement against independent Latvia a large crowd of the Soviet Army officers and military cadets attempted to break in the Latvian Supreme Council building. The OMON used brutal force to disperse the crowd and saved the Latvian national government from trouble. Many saw them as heroes and good allies for independence movement.
However, after the 4 May 1990 when Latvian Soviet Supreme Council voted for Declaration of the Restoration of Latvian Independence the relations between new national Latvian Ministry of the Interior and the OMON begun to deteriorate. The members of OMON were mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian nationals from Soviet Union who had no sympathy for Latvian fight for independence as they viewed Moscow as their main command in charge.
The conflict begun in June 1990 when new Latvian Minister of Interior Aloizs Vaznis issued many orders that affected OMON. The members of OMON were forbidden to have a part-time job in private security company “Vikings” that caused resentment as it was good way to gain extra funds. Next order was the depolitization of the interior structure workers that OMON resisted. OMON raised a red Soviet flag at their base at Vecmīlgrvāvis in Riga and refused to follow the orders of the Latvian government. Many similarly minded members of the interior ministry joined OMON and its size raised up to 200 members. The Latvian government had no proper units to stand against such well-trained and heavily armed force and now the Latvian independence got itself a dangerous enemy. And the rulers from Moscow knew about this and looked to use OMON for their efforts.
The situation got worsen when in November 14 OMON was officially disbanded. Minister Aloizs Vaznis ordered to halt payments and food delivery to OMON. The OMON now became stateless paramilitary unit that only subordinated to Soviet Ministry of Interior in Moscow formed of angry and heavily armed men.
OMON now switched to terrorism, attacks and provocations. OMON were responsible for many detonated explosions around Latvia to provoke the national violence so the Moscow can issue a state of emergency in Latvia. OMON attacked the memorial monuments to Latvian soldiers fighting in the German ranks. After that the OMON switched to political buildings in Riga.
In 27 September 1990 OMON invaded the Press House a mid size high-rise building. Press House was home to Latvian Communist Party Central Committee publishing and editorial stuff and printing equipment. Under the pretext of defending the property of the communist party, OMON made difficult for other national newspapers to publish. OMON attacked the Press House again in 2 November 1990 in 7 November during the official Soviet celebrations OMON raised the red banner on the Press House roof.
In 12 December 1990 at 3:10 an explosion took place near the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee society political center at Kr. Valdemara street 5. Then at the night of 18 December someone threw an explosive above the fence and hit the yard of the War prosecutors office of Riga war garrison. Few minutes after that an explosion took place near Latvian communist party Riga regional committee building. A third explosion took place near the Latvian Council of Ministers just 13 meters away from then standing monument of Lenin. In 21 December explosion hit the political war school building territory. More explosions followed in 26 and 27 December. All of them were specially intended not to make any causalities and to look like a work of Latvian national radicals. The terrorist acts were made to make way for further actions by Moscow to install presidential order in Latvia.
In January 2 1991 OMON took complete control over the Press House. Latvian Minister of Interior Aloizs Vaznis arrived at the site along with deputies of the chairman of the Latvian Council of Ministers Ilmārs Bišers and Dainis Īvāns, but were ignored by OMON. Later at that day the members from criminal militsiya came to document the criminal act and were attacked by OMON, their certificates destroyed and car damaged by bullets. In January 8 Aloizs Vaznis wrote a letter to the Soviet Minister of Interior Boris Pugo where he informed him about the crimes done by OMON and advised full disbandment of it to escape further crisis caused by them.
In 13 January the Barricade movement begun as the answer to violent events in Vilnius, Lithuania and the actions of the OMON became more extreme. At 14 January OMON opened fire at the Barricade defenders driving by on the Vecmīlgrvāvis bridge. Later at that day OMON assaulted the barricades at Brasas bridge shooting cars and throwing the Molotov cocktails. At the night of 15 January OMON invaded the Riga police school, abusing the students and vandalizing the school rooms and stealing the weapons.
In January 16 OMON took their first victim. Again attacking the barricades at Vecmīlgrāvja bridge the OMON shot a driver Roberts Mūrnieks who later died in hospital. Now murder was added to the list of the OMON’s crimes and they did not dare the enter the city center filled with crowds of Barricade defenders.
At the night of the 20 January OMON stopped a bus with five Latvian policeman, attacked them, abused them and took them to their base were they continued to abuse them.
On January 20 21:09 OMON arrived at the city center and assaulted the Latvian Ministry of Interior located then at Raiņa boulevard 6. Just at this time the Chairman of the Council of Ministers Ivars Godmanis on the live air was speaking that the situation has normalized and people may leave the streets. He was cut short just as the live TV reports moved to city center near Old Riga canal where gun fights had erupted all over.
OMON raided the ministry of Interior and killed the militsiya lieutenant Vladimir Gomorovich. The OMON faced an armed resistance from the militsiya unit from town of Bauska who were near the spot and opened fire. However, there was not only OMON there was unknown unit the so called “third force” that based on the rooftops of the ministry and the nearby buildings and first opened fire above OMON men to provoke them, and then at the building and park in front of the ministry. It’s still unknown who was the third force, either some special squad of army or KGB or some other Soviet unit.
The attack was intended to provoke various armed units in Riga on both sides to join the firefight. So that the bloody outcome will result the imposition of the presidential government in Latvia. The direct rule from Moscow would halt the move to full independence.
After a hour of chaotic fire exchange the first news of the causalities were confirmed. Two members of Militsiya on the Latvian side Sergey Kononenko and Vladimir Gomorovich were killed. One schoolboy Edijs Riekstiņš were killed. Two TV operators Andrejs Slapiņš and Gvido Zvaignze who were filming the fire exchange were shot dead. 4 Latvian militsiya members were wounded along with TV operators from Russia and Hungary. It is possible but not confirmed that at the time of the siege one OMON gunman was shot dead, as the video footage showing truck entering the ministry yard and taking away the unidentified body.
The provocation failed as the resistance was not too significant to cause a greater eruption of events. Also just as in Vilnius on 13 January the TV cameras and foreign journalists were all around causing great backlash against Soviet Union.
The Barricades was later removed, but Latvia was not still fully free from Soviet Union and OMON continued to cause mayhem. Their next target was Latvian customs posts at the borders. As Latvia had declared restoration of the independence, the own border guards and customs were needed. However, the Soviet Union still regarded Latvia as their territory and therefore viewed Latvian customs stations illegal. On the night of the 23 May OMON attacked four customs stations. On 29 May Latvian Supreme Council addressed a protest note to Soviet Supreme Council and Mikhail Gorbachev about the criminal actions of the OMON, demanding to remove them from Latvia. Soviet minister of the Interior Boris Pugo however called the OMON actions according to interests of the society and their actions were made without the consent of Moscow.
The last call for OMON was the August coup in Moscow in 1991. While Latvian government defied against the coup, Latvian communist leaders and members of army and KGB took active part in installing coup in Latvia. In 19. August at 19:15 OMON raided the Latvian TV building and halted the broadcast at 19:30. In 20:30 OMON raided the Riga Interior affairs office, at 20:45 OMON was back at the Latvian Ministry of the Interior. Then OMON seized the base of the First police battalion. At 22:30 OMON invaded and vandalized the office of the Latvian People’s Front. At 22:15 near the Riga Interior affairs office OMON gunmen killed the driver of Jurmala House of Culture Jānis Salmiņš.
At 20 August OMON continued to take over the main Latvian objects. The Riga International phone and telegraph central and Latvian Radio building. The workers of the Latvian Radio installed a clandestine radio station in Salaspils. At evening together with Soviet Army troops OMON raided the Latvian police training center in Kauguri. Latvia seemed under complete grip under OMON at that time.
However the Latvian government was still working and the coup in Moscow itself faced an unsuspected resistance. On 21 August at 13:00 four armored OMON transporters entered the Dome Square and headed for the Supreme Council building where desperate Latvian government was looking to vote for complete restoration of the independence. The vote was done in 13:10 and Latvia was now officially a fully independent from Soviet Union. The OMON left the scene at 14:10. At that day the August coup was defeated and officials of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic officially supported the independence of the Baltic states. The OMON retreated to its base at Vecmīlgrāvis an were commanded by deputy of the Soviet Minister of Interior not to leave their base. In August 31 OMON evacuated its base and went to its new location Tyumen, Russia. The one of the most greatest enemies of the free Latvia was ultimately defeated and exiled.
After the regain of the independence the Latvian authorities tried to find and sentence the criminals of the OMON. The main leader of the OMON Sergey Parfjonov was held and arrested at Tyumen airport by Latvian criminal police team. He was sentenced for many years, however he was asked back president of Russia Boris Yeltsin to face sentence at home. He was then amnestied and became local politician. He is still in the international search by Latvia. Two other OMON criminals escaped to separatist republic of Transistria and took important governmental posts. Other OMON men joined the armed conflicts in Georgia at early nighties and supported the movement against Yeltsin in 1993, however they may have been supported Yeltsin himself by making provocations to help Yeltsin issue a state of emergency. OMON men may also be responsible for killing of the St. Petersburg Duma deputy Galina Starovoitov because she stood against hiring the ex OMON members in government offices.
In Latvia Dmitry Mashkov sentenced for stealing jewelry while working at the police despite the fact that he was included in OMON’s criminal file. Later he was held suspicious for attack on Riga Synagogue on 1998 and for the murder of judge Jānis Laukroze. Also Konstantin Nikulin was involved in many criminal cases combined with murders of state officials.
The Riga OMON is just small part of giant list of unpunished crimes made by Soviet Authorities. The records of OMON men after their departure from Riga show that they have not abandoned their criminal lifestyle. Russia still has its own OMON that is tough guard of Vladimir Putin regime. OMON today can be seen at the streets of Moscow arresting opposition activists and dispersing demonstrations. The Russian interior system is just as brutal and criminal minded just as it was 20 years ago. Latvian politicians, security officials and the people must to do anything in their hands not to allow the return of the new OMON in Latvia.