Monthly Archives: September 2014

Latvian Parliamentary Elections 2014

Next Saturday October 4 Latvia will held elections for 12th Saeima the – Latvian parliament. Last elections took place 3 years ago on September 17 2011. They were emergency elections since former president of Latvia Valdis Zatlers dismissed the parliament and it was approved by the voters in the poll. In Latvia to dismiss the parliament a referendum is needed to approve the president decision. So the 11th Saeima was result of the Presidential Decree Nr.2. The results of this decree was varying. The pro-Kremlin party Harmony Center gained 31 vote majority. Valdis Zatlers with his Reform party came in second with 26 seats, leaving past leaders Unity (Vienotība) with 20 seats. The National Alliance and Green Farmers Union also made it. However, Harmony Center could not run the government and was left. in opposition. The Unity PM candidate Valdis Dombrovskis resumed his office and held the coalition together with Zatlers Reform Party and National Union. Green Farmers accused of being led by oligarch major of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs was thrown in to opposition. As it was one of the main election slogans to get rid of the oligarch parties. On November 27 after Maxima supermarket disaster Valdis Dombrovskis resigned and government was formed by Laimdota Straujuma from Unity. This time the Green Farmers came back in coalition, as the Reform Party was in path to disintegration. Indeed Zatler’s vision on his Decree Nr.2 had failed. At the first day after forming government his six elected members left the party. Zatlers was not elected as Chairman of Saeima and was assigned to lead the National Security Commission. His two most ambitious reformers Roberts Ķīlis Minister of Education and Edmunds Sprūdžs the Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development failed to achieve his goals and resigned. As Zatlers became sick with cancer he lost the direction of his party and in result the party was disbanded. His most successful members joined either Unity or National Alliance. So in these elections one of the leaders of the 2011 elections will not stand. But 13 parties will stand in 2014 elections so this article will describe who are the main contestants, what they offer and what they have done.

Unity (Vienotība)

Unity for last 5 years have been known as the leading party in the Latvian politics. From 2009 to 2014 Valdis Dombrovskis lead the country as the Prime Minister. His consequent approach on getting country out of the economic crisis was not without difficulties and protests, but in the end he came in history as the one man who brought Latvia to Eurozone on 2014. He survived the Saeima dismissals and coalition rumbles, but the Maxima Supermarket disaster on November 21 2013 made him resign to take the political responsibility. He was replaced by Laimdota Straujuma a Minister of Agriculture a rather silent personality to Latvian public and media. At first it seemed that Artis Pabriks from Unity a popular Minister of Defense would take the PM office. As the Russian aggression in Ukraine was looming he seemed obvious choice. However, President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš turned him down and instead named Laimdota Straujuma as the Prime Minister. She was chosen as compromise person that would lead the country until next elections. Now she is the candidate for PM from Unity again, but she does not exclude the possibility to give PM seat to another Unity member such as Andris Piebalgs   European Commissioner for Development at the European Commission. Straujuma is pragmatic and careful person, however sometimes she shows timidly and lack of concrete stance when regarding the security and international affairs. As Pabriks and Dombrovskis is now in EU Parliament the two past leaders are not on the election list.

The Unity election list leaders are Straujuma, Solvita Āboltiņa chairman of the Saeima, Edgars Rinkēvičs the Foreign Affairs Minister, Anrijs Matīss and Jānis Reirs in four election districts. Solvita Āboltiņa has been the chairman since 2010. She has been described as the Red Cardinal of the Latvian politics not just because of her red hair. A master of the salon politics she has great influence on coalition work and assigning important offices. A question yet remains if her backdrop politics serves good for her party and our country.

Unity has accumulated many former Reform Party front-runners. Edgars Rinkēvičs a professional and responsible Minister of Foreign Affairs  has shown strong supportive stance towards Ukraine and has reacted venerable national stance towards aggressive Russian policy against Latvia. Rihards Kozlovskis a Minister of Interior Affairs another ex reformist despite many issues has lead the Interior security carefully. His main issues are constant underfunding of the police force, slow investigation of the Maxima disaster and problems with Latvian Secret Services who are accused over lack of actions regarding the countries security. Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis an ex reformist took the office of education and now serves as Minister of Economy is a professional politician. His weak side is rather questionable relations with her adviser Anna Kononova an ex press secretary of the Riga Town Council. Not only the fact that she worked with pro-Kremlin Major Nils Ušakovs for many years, but also because of rumors about “too close” relations between her and Dombrovskis. Indeed this was not the only case in past 3 years when ministers and their advisers became too close and state issues may have been decided in bed.

 Apart from that the Unity has many pros and cons to be voted to rule for next five years. Being ruling party for five years has made a bit like its past rival Peoples Party, a desire to control every aspect of the state affairs, arrogance and intrigue – all that naturally comes when opposition party becomes the ruling party. Also the sacrifice of two most strongest leaders – Artis Pabriks and Valdis Dombrovskis is a great cost. Artis Pabriks showed greet effort towards national security in his long-term as the Minister of Defense. In the time of international crisis around, Latvia lacks strong leaders. The President Andris Bērziņš and Laimdota Straujuma lacks significantly towards the leaders of Estonia and Lithuania. So if Unity really wants to rule the country during these rough times, it should set intrigues and ambitions aside especially within the inside the party.

That same can be said about the National Alliance. Formed from two national conservative forces – For Fatherland and Freedom and All for Latvia the party has grown more powerful in last two elections. But, the party has been plagued by the scandals and controversy. Its have been the champion of the minister resignations and unfilled threats to bring down the government if their demands are not met. The Minister of Culture posh businessman Žaneta Jaunzeme-Grende who viewed this sector rather from financial side  then cultural, got in endless conflicts with various players of the sector. The most hardest player was the Latvian National Opera. Despite having worldwide reputations, best opera singers on the world stage, the opera experienced financial issues. Grende’s attempts to address the issue ended with bitter conflict with the opera director Andrejs Žagars. In the both Žagars and Grende was fired from  their office. She was replaced by long time ministry employee and professional Dace Melbārde who now runs from NA as the front-runner.

Because of the Reform’s Parties demise the Ministry of Regions and Environment was handed over to NA. Einārs Cilinskis a veteran in nationalist politics took over the office and was quickly dismissed because he disobeyed the PM. On March 16 the annual remembrance of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion took place. Because the “referendum” in Crimea took place on the same time, there was fear from Russian provocations. Straujuma warned no state official to take part in the commemorative march in the city center. Cilinskis who always participated in the event came anyway and was fired. He was replaced by Romāns Naudiņš a businessman who failed to gain allowance for the state secrets.

More gloom was the NA leadership over the Justice. Gaidis Bērziņš with experience in this field resigned after he refused to discuss the Jewish property restitution. Was this just a cover up reason to hide his corrupt dealings with Ventspils reminds a speculation. He was replaced by Jānis Bordāns. Bordāns did not re activate the Jewish property problem, instead he even attended some of the Jewish events such as concerts or Holocaust events. But, his main issue was the insolvency reform. It started to became clear that insolvency sector had great influence on NA. Many of the insolvency lawyers were the members of the party. As insolvency sector sometimes proved to be corrupt and unlawful, Bordāns tried to reform by introducing changes in the law. He was then excluded from his own party and asked to resign. The official reason was his close ties with Democratic Patriots society that wanted to became a party. He was accused of insubordination. The real reason as said by many was because he stepped on the parties interests. As the insolvency business has a shallowly grip on the party. However, as only the PM can ask minister to resign, Bordāns stayed in the office until Dombrovskis government resigned.  Left without party and ministry Bordāns raced to create his own New Conservative Party. That however seems  to be an ill fated choice as his new political force has less chance to reach above 5% barrier.

The new Straujuma government assigned NA leader of the Riga Town Council opposition Baiba Broka. She quickly dismissed all the proposed changes in insolvency – no wonder as her professional past was associated with it. But, then a grave problem came- she did not received permit to access the state secret from Constitutional Defense Bureau (SAB). SAB a top counter intelligence agency refused to explain why, so Broka resigned. A path reached the start again as Gaidis Bērziņš took the office again. If NA wants to lead the Justice sector further it must explain the voters the controversy over its problems with insolvency sector.

Another thing to explain for NA is why its front leaders Raivis Dzinars and Imants Parādnieks from All for Latvia has refused and continue to  refuse to take important offices. Instead the minister seats are allocated to For Fatherland and Freedom old timers and people from outside like Žanete Jaunzeme-Grende. Their PM candidate is EU parliament deputy Roberts Zīle another old-timer, who will rather stay at Brussels than really take over the country. As Baiba Broka who seemed a good candidate for  PM has demised from the scene the question of leadership from NA is important. Another question- if one of the All for Latvia ideologues Jānis Iealnieks, who is known for his dubious remarks about Norway massacre on 2011, and love for Christmas ginger bread swastikas will not cause embarrassment on the international scene.

Green Farmers Union was on high heels on 2010 when it formed a powerful two-party coalition with Unity. A year later Valdis Zatlers declared a crusade against oligarchy. His hit list was Ainārs Šlesers, Andris Šķēļe and Aivars Lembergs. Lembergs a oil business tycoon, a major of port city Ventspils for 20 years is also on trial for state-wide fraud. His Venstpils Party is also part of the Green Farmer Alliance. After 2011 election the party lost its power and came only with 13 seats and was dropped into opposition.  Lembergs who was stripped from his administrative powers continued to lead the  Venstpils city and was victorious in the 2013 municipal elections. Reformist Edmunds Spūdžs tried to legally oust him from the office, but failed.

After Dombrovskis resign, Green Farmers came back to coalition and took over the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Welfare. A rather exotic choice was to assign a Green Party leader Raimonds Vējonis as the Minister of Defense. The ex minister of Environment affected by the Ukrainian crisis begun to make calls for boosting the military budget, buy a new equipment and prepare for war.   Meanwhile Lembergs openly criticized the NATO, wrote open letter to NATO leadership about the bad behavior of the NATO sailors in Ventspils. He was then condemned by Vējonis. But, in the end Lembergs was again put forward as PM candidate.  With promise to end constant “obeying” to EU and NATO.

Harmony Center (“Saskaņas Centrs”), the main force of the Russian speaking community and leftist forces now enters as the Socialdemocrat Party “Harmony”. For years its main line that they are social democrats, that stood not just for Russians, but for all people in Latvia. Meanwhile the PM candidate Nils Ušakovs enjoys a posh lifestyle, spends the administrative resources for his political rallies and has led the state capital with deficit for many years. Ušakovs played significant role on 2012 two state language referendum of which he endorsed. His endorsement for referendum organized by Russian national radicals boosted massive support for the two state language movement. The referendum failed as 80% voted no, but Ušakovs achieved disharmony rather than harmony. When Latvia joined EU sanctions against Russia, and Russia in return banned the import of EU products, Ušakovs agonized over the closure of the Riga food store in Moscow. He blamed the Latvian government and went to Moscow to “beg” not to close the Rizhkij Dvorik completely. In process he met the Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kiril II. Also in the interview with the liberal Russian TV Dozhd he said that Vladimir Putin is the best one for Latvia, as if he would be replaced by Alexei Navalny who would be danger to the neighboring countries. Since Putin’s invasion in Ukraine, such talk seems ridiculous. Some 2 years ago placing Vladmir Zhirinovsky or the Russian ultra nationalists as scare crow not to replace Putin seemed to work. Now it does not work anymore. Harmony Center has failed to state what is happening in Ukraine and why they have association agreement with Putin’s United Russia party.  So they cannot no longer hide that they are pro-Kremlin party.

There is another pro Kremlin party that does not even hide it. Latvia Russian Union the ex Party for Equal Human Rights in Latvia, has taken the ultra nationalist spirit currently in Russia.  Their leader Tatjana Ždanoka a EU parliamentary deputy went to Crimea as “independent observer” for the Crimean referendum. A supporter of the Eastern Ukrainian “separatists”, she even went to Scotland to compare their legal referendum to Crimea one. The candidates of this party constantly warns  the voters of impeding Crimea in Latvia, if they would not be elected. Latvian Russian speakers are no strangers to Russian nationalist propaganda. There are many people here that would greet the Russian tanks in the same way some people greeted tanks in Crimea.

Ingūna’s Sudraba’s party is the biggest question and intrigue of this election. An ex State Controller, outspoken critic of the state funding and state policy after leaving the office her political future was in question. She was named as a potential PM candidate from the Harmony Center. Her connections with the Russian Secret Service was in question for many years. Then on same day when Dombrovskis resigned she came out with announcement to enter politics and form her own party. When she learned the news that Dombrovskis has resigned she fainted. That was just the beginning of her political crash course. Her new party is called  To Latvia with Heart “No Sirds Latvijai”. Party issues rather leftist messianic ideology to free Latvia from poverty and injustice. Her party gained large funding from unclear sources. Many of her party front-runners left the party because of the secrecy of the funding sources. If that was not enough Sudraba’s connections with Russian radicals and Russian agents popped up on the news one by another. Sudraba denied every each accusation as black PR. Even a video where she goes to private plane that belongs to Russian FSB agent, she denied that she is in that video. And then even more bizarre discovery was unrelieved yesterday. She has connections with a spiritual center “DVS Urantija” that preaches that Putin is a “child of the light” who fights against reptilians and grays. A kind a popular conspiracy theory in Russia, that describes that USA and EU is lead by aliens, and Russia is the only remaining spiritual country that fights of this invasion. That could explain rather messianic feel of Sudraba election campaign. As Bible has warned of the danger of a False Prophet, the Orthodox baptized Sudraba should bear the warning.

There are other more  smaller political parties, that could reach the 5% barrier. The ex Unity politician Einārs Repše has made political pro business movement (For the Development of Latvia) Latvijas Attīstībai. His second comeback seems rather doubtful as people had enough his time in politics and his liberal pro business utopia does not fit today reality.  Regional Alliance (Reģionu Apvienība) is formed from politicians within Latvian towns and municipalities. While their main  place of advance is the Municipal elections they hope to gain seats in the Parliament to affect local politics. That remains in the hands of the voters. Meanwhile Ainārs Šlesers a political veteran has never missed a chance to take place in elections. His last two elections was a failure, but it seems that a man has constant election frenzy. This  time he comes with party United for Latvia (Vienoti Latvijai). And he comes together with old timers PM Ivars Godmanis, Aigars Kalvītis, Jānis Jurkāns and others. Will people vote for the symbols of the old pre-crisis times, a times of spending corruption- Šlesers might also guess the answer – no. But, what is elections without Šlesers and friends?

Without mentioning the small fringe party lists, this concludes the story of the election contestants. This might be the most important elections in our history for decades. Will the right-wing Latvian parties keep the power and unite against the common enemy in Russia? Or the pro-Kremlin parties under “spiritually guided” Inguna Sudraba will take over? So all Latvian readers are urged to vote and make their votes responsible. The following weeks will be crucial for our country. Another west and east choice will take place. As Latvia is on the frontline of the New Cold War, the Latvia must choose between our independence and security or a Latvian Maidan.

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The Battle of More September 26-October 6 1944

Memorial stone for the fallen of the Battle of More

Memorial stone for the fallen of the Battle of More

70 years ago in Vidzeme region 3 Latvian 19th Waffen SS legion grenadier regiments along with 2 artillery regiments faced enormous Soviet offensive heading towards Riga. For five long days and nights the Latvian men fighting within the German lines stopped the attacks by superior Soviet forces. This battle was crucial for complete German evacuation from Northern Latvia and then Riga. If the soviets had managed  to break trough the German lines, Riga would face street battles and resort to destruction. Today Latvian army is using the history of this battle as example for operational and tactical training. Therefore as we mark 70 year anniversary of this important event this article will discuss it in detail. Despite the 19th division technically fighting on the German side in the article the Latvian units will be called as Latvians, because these were formed from the Latvian soldiers. Same approach would be taken describing Latvians fighting on the Soviet Army lines.

Soviet advance in the Baltic region 1944

Soviet advance in the Baltic region 1944

On September 1944 Soviets after breaking trough Belarus in Summer, had taken over Eastern Latvia, Rēzekne and Daugavpils. For a short time soviets had managed to make a gap between Riga and Courland by reaching Tukums and Jelgava from Lithuanian side. Germans eventually cleared off this threat for soviets had no proper resources to hold this gap and Soviets on the Vidzeme front had tough time capturing towns of Alūksne and Cesvaine. But Soviets were determined to capture Riga and gathered large forces to do this. Germans meanwhile devised Operation Aster to retreat from Estonia to Vidzeme to Riga and to Courland without major casualties. On September 17  Soviets attacked Tallinn and were confused by the orderly retreating Germans. As Germans retreated to Vidzeme, Northern Latvia Soviets chased the Germans, but failed to disrupt their retreat and faced great causalities. On September 25 Soviets reached Sigulda line.

Along with Germans the Latvian Waffen SS 19th division was retreating inland. Many of these man were conscripted, some of them joined the legion freely. Germans never wanted to add non-German soldiers to their armies at the first place. However, after the tides of war turned against them they started to form non-German units among the Waffen SS lines. While technically being auxiliary legions both the Latvian and Estonian legions were made overly from conscripts. As Latvia was occupied in 1940 by the Soviets, many Latvians wanted to rather fight with Germans against the Soviets to prevent another soviet occupation. Despite bearing the fact that Germany cannot win the war, and Germans had no regards for the Latvian independence, Latvians still hoped for the positive turn of events to their side. Latvian soldiers were highly trained in the spirit of the past Latvian army and still had great morale to defend their homeland.

The 19th division on September 25 was stationed at the village of Nītaure where it arrived after withdrawal from Lubāna on August 3. On September 25 the divisional HQ received order to leave Nītaure prior to to occupying the final defense line at More. The 42th, 43th and 43th Grenadier regiment and artillery units were the ones to do so. They covered the German 126th Infantry and Artillery regiment on his route from Nītaure to Sigulda defense line. With Soviets coming close by and making contact the Latvian units together with Germans moved to More on September 26. Latvians had shortage of ammunition that proved t0 be very crucial as the battle developed.

When Latvians arrived at the More they begun to establish defensive positions. Trench lines were already made with the help of the local populace. Machine gun nests were established, 12 MG 42 machine gun was used. Two German 75 m anti tank guns were placed. Also anti tank rockets were used to stop the tanks. Wired telephone communications were established with every platoon commander’s pit. Field radio was used a back up. The communications were crucial to lead the mortar fire and control the battle. Command group set up Command post in the More school-house. Medical Company arrived during the battle. The Latvians were faced by the Soviet 23th Rifle Division, 415th Rifle division, and Penal Companies. Each of the divisions more than 4 regiments and companies.

On 17:oo Soviet advance with tank T-34 support was spotted. T-34 approached 70 m to Latvia positions and 10 m from anti – tank mines. Men armed with panzerfaust anti tank missiles waited to tank to come in within range. Then a tall man with panzerfaust approached the tank looking for the best fire range. Tank moved its turret looking for target and killed the soldier with a main gun. He was the first causality of the Battle of More. The first attacking Soviet infantry detachments were repulsed and tank without getting fired by the anti tank guns reversed back. The tank could not find any targets and the anti tank did not want to reveal their positions prematurely. It was the only the reconnaissance attack to point out the positions. The real attack would begin next day.

The Battle of More. Soviet attacks and Latvian, Soviet unit positions

The Battle of More. Soviet attacks and Latvian, Soviet unit positions

After short preparatory fire soviets broke in to defensive point “Mazratnieki” and the 1st platoon sector, but were driven off by the counter attack. Two more attacks came, and without artillery support in the had to hand fighting were driven off. First Aid post was overflowed after first day fighting, the 3th company men were the most to receive wounds. In a night battle the 3th company destroyed a whole enemy battalion. Soviet commander, staff captain, lieutenant and political commissar perished in the battle.  Trenches were full of dead Soviet soldiers. 15 men taken as POW”S. On September 28 Soviets broke in again. During the battle men managed to gain important map from shot dead Soviet senior officer that contained important information about the soviet attacks that was vital for assisting the German withdrawal from Vidzeme and Riga.

Soviets fired endlessly with mortars towards Latvian positions sometimes not even hitting trenches, but area behind them. Direct frontal attacks were driven off with great causalities. Fields were covered with bodies of fallen Soviet soldiers. Tanks were stopped although the anti-tank units armed with panzerschreck’s were ill-equipped.

During the third day the defense points Mazratnieki and Mazkacēni changed hands many times. Soviet T-34 tanks came in support, 4 of them were destroyed with anti tank rockets. The tank who made the first Latvian causality on first day was finally destroyed with a direct hit of the artillery round. The score was settled. Without time to rest and eat the men had to fight off attacks day and night. Even night attacks proved fruitless, trenches were full of bodies. Soviets finally broke trough in the night of September 27/28. However, they did not get far and remained in the minefield and those who survived dug in. In great difficulty they were driven away from their positions.

Fourth day at the noon of 28 September Mazratnieki was again penetrated by the Soviets. And again pushed back. Repeated attacks accompanied by the artillery fire continued. Latvian artillery fought back. Air attacks against Latvians were also used without any friendly air support.

The fifth day battles evolved most fiercely around Kartūži estate. 42th regiment defended it. Soviets wanted to change attack route and come across the swamp to Kartūži. They managed to break in the positions and endanger the flanks but in another fierce battle were driven off. Soviets brought more supplies. But, the defense line despite great causalities was still mostly intact.

On September 30 the Latvians were ready to withdraw that commenced on October 5. Enemy attacks became more weaker.  A weaponless wandering soviet soldier was captured without food or shelter. Artillery attacks became more weaker and were more down to harassment.  Latvians gave their life’s in desperate fights, to keep the 18th German army withdrawal behind open. So Germans could march back to Riga. By October 2 most 18th German army units passed the Latvian 19th divison. The German 16th army of which 19th division belonged started to shorten their defensive line. On October 2 19th division was ordered to extend its line to far north lake Ummuri. Until October 5 Soviets battles became passive. On October 6 the 19th division left the More. On October 7 19th division was within the lake of Jugla in the Riga outskirts. As Soviets marched to Riga, Germans issued Riga an open city and so the 19th division moved to Courland. On October 13 Riga was entered by the Soviet forces. In Moscow fireworks were fired to mark the liberation of the “soviet” city Riga. But, the 19th division man had done their job. Allied German forces could withdraw from Vidzeme and Riga. And most important heavy battle for Riga was avoided as glory hungry soviet generals wanted to encircle Germans in Riga and make another Stalingrad. Riga would face the same destruction as Jelgava that was wiped out during fights in summer. All this with a heavy prize- 186 men were lost, 650 wounded. Soviets lost 2736  men, 9,576 were wounded. 1 transport plane and 1 IL-2 dive bomber was lost. Also those missing in action are not counted in.

Such enormous Soviet losses comparing to Latvian losses can be explained by the poor soviet attacking tactics. Soviets had clear majority and full equipment. Tanks and air support. However, their horde style attacks often directly to enemy lines and machine gun nests ended in complete disarray.  After reaching the enemy lines the hordes became disorganized and it was every soldier for himself. Latvians and their German colleges used extensive defensive tactics and ensured on the individual action and discipline. Latvian soldiers also showed great endurance and were ready to defend at all costs while soviets were quick to rout. Coincidentally Latvian soldiers fighting on Russian, Soviet and German side in both World wars have always surprisingly fared better  than their native colleges in arms. Russians always boast about the high number of casualties on their side to counter any criticism about their war history. However, they should note that large numbers of these casualties were lost due the poor commanding and tactics. With a great manpower, supplies the soviet command felt no remorse of sacrificing so many soldiers life’s. And same as Latvians, Germans they were not just numbers on the causality report.  They were sons, husbands,fathers, all lost for the cause of a brutal totalitarian regime fighting in a rogue land.

Latvian soldiers at the More monument on 1993

Latvian soldiers at the More monument on 1993

Today there is Memorial Museum at More. Commemorations takes place there today. Despite fighting on the Nazi German lines these men defended their homeland. Nazi Germany is the evil of the World War 2, but the Soviet Union is the second evil of the World War 2. For its actions on 1939-1941 were the main reason why the Latvian soldiers in German uniforms had to fight with the Soviet soldiers. Today as the new danger looms, the Latvians should set the Battle of More as example for defending homeland against the aggressor.  Hopefully, we will not see the second Battle of More, but this time we will defend our country in the uniform of the Latvian Armed Forces.

Selected Sources:

Kovtuņenko, Rolands (2009) Battle at More. Riga. Apvienība Timmermanis un Vējiņš.

Pētersons, Aivars. (2007) Krustugunīs. 60 gadus no tautas slēptais. 1940-1945. Rīga.

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Latvian-Polish Border Dispute 1919-1939

The percentage of the Polish population in eastern Latvia. The largest percent is seen at six parishes of the Ilūktse district claimed by Poland

The percentage of the Polish population in eastern Latvia. The largest percent is seen at six parishes of the Ilūktse district claimed by Poland

When Latvia proclaimed independence on November 18 1918 the borders of the new country were not clearly determined. The general idea was that Latvia should be based on three main regions – Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemgale), Vidzeme and Latgale. However, when it came to actual border setting between various neighboring countries. Latvia has border related issues with Lithuania and Estonia where Latvia lost the dispute. However, the question of the Ilūkste district and the town of Grīva – claimed by Poland and Lithuania – gained and controlled by Latvia remained unsolved for many years. The Polish- Latvian border dispute caused ethnic friction between Latvians and Poles within the disputed territory. In the end on 1931 it resulted tense diplomatic conflict between Poland and Latvia. How this dispute evolved and how it was solved will be discussed in this article.

The Ilūkste district was located in southern part of Latvia, on the left side of the river Daugava. The two main centers were Ilūkste and Grīva. Grīva was located on the left bank of river Daugava right across Daugavpils. Today both cities are joined together, however then Grīva and Daugavpils were administratively  separated by the river.  Also this district was part of the Courland Province of the Russian Empire, while Daugavpils or Dunaburg was within the Province of Vitebsk. As being located between crossroads of Lithuania, Belarus and Latvia the district was ethically diverse containing Latvian, Lithuanian,Polish, Belarusian and Jewish communities. So both Poland and Lithuania considered that they should have this piece of land.

Polish armies entered the district on August-September 1919. On September 27 the Red Army was forced to abandon the left side of Daugava and retreated to Daugavpils fortress. The Polish government decided that the district must be annexed by Poland. It was mainly do to the strategical reasons as Poland wanted the border to run along the river Daugava. Also the significant Polish population was the argument to include this district within Poland. The district was formed in six parishes Borne, Demene,Kalkūni, Skrundaliena and Borovka. They were added to Polish Braslava district.

Ilūkste and Grīva. Areas of the Polish -Latvian border dispute

Ilūkste and Grīva. Areas of the Polish -Latvian border dispute

However, Latvian government regarded this district also with sizable Latvian population as their legitimate land. On December 1919 both Polish and Latvian armies liberated Latgale from the Red Army. The Polish Military command issued to local Polish administration in Ilūkste to prevent any attempt of establishing of the Latvian authority. On February 22 before Warsaw conference the Polish Foreign Ministry decided to issue demand to Latvia to give up its claims on Ilūkste district. On the spot both sides started to bring in their own governing bodies which resulted in conflict. Latvians attempted to issue new Chief of the Police in Grīva while it was de facto controlled by the Poles. He was turned away, same happened with Latvian border guards who were instructed to establish border posts along the Latvian claimed border line. Poles turned them away and they were forced to establish the posts along the river Daugava. Petitions were gathered along the left bank against giving the disputed land to Latvia. If not the person was threatened to be deported to Latvia and was punished with high fees.

On February 26 the chief of Latgale region A Bērziņš reported to Foreign Affairs ministry that this district can only be gained back by guns. As on March 1 1920 Latvian FA gathered delegation to Warsaw, the notion was to convince Poland of restoring the borders of the former Courland province. Meanwhile Polish FA had already decided that Poland will keep the district. In Warsaw the Polish side argued that border line along the Daugava will be effective in case of military assistance to Latvia. Polish foreign minister F Patek even admitted that this territory is rightfully Latvian but still insisted on turning it over to Poland. Latvian side refused to accept this and the question remained open.  Latvians saw the danger of Polish having border along Daugava that would make them easily to influence or even capture Latgale. So the talks ended with no result. It was no secret that Polish nationalists wanted to restore Poland within its 1772 borders that means also Latgale or even whole Courland was under Polish deepest desires.

Latvia was in risk of loosing this territory for ever. Still in June Latvian side even manged to stage a propaganda trip along the district under the guise of Lutheran clergy visit to Latvian churches. The pastor asked people to pray God for “free, independent Latvia, all the regions of our homeland including those not yet liberated and our Constituent Assembly”. According to 192o census the 1500 km² wide area was populated by 18 571 people. 1702 Latvians, 6116 Poles, 758 Lithuanians, 3015 Belarusians, 6612 Russians, 323 Jews and 45 Germans. The Polish made census on 1919 gathered 9207 Poles, 1273 Belarusians, 251 Lithuanians, 5068 Russians, 1396 Latvians and 134 Jews. In so the both data greatly conflicted in numbers of the size of the Latvian and Polish communities. However, they both showed that the Latvia  community is rather small comparing to Polish, Russian and Belarusian communities.  For a long time this land was dominated by the Polish language and Christian church. Many people were unable to determine their true ethnicity and fluctuated between being Polish or Latvian. Also Belarusians had trouble as they were unsure of being Polish, Russian or even Latvian. Therefore there was large room for error or even fraud in these  statistics.

On summer 1920 the situation unexpectedly turned the other way around. Polish offensive in Ukraine was crushed and swift Soviet counter attack begun. The Polish forces in Ilūkste were in danger of being torn off from the main forces. Poland was unsure of the Latvian actions kept one division to protect the north side. Latvia was unable to take direct part as it has signed ceasefire with Soviet Russia and talks for peace agreement was under way.

However, as Polish forces were pushed inwards, the Latvian army started to cross the river and enter the Ilūkste district. At same time the Lithuanians appeared to gain their share of the district. A small gunfights without causalities erupted and Lithuanians had to turn back. With the help of the English military mission representatives the dispute between Latvians and Lithuanians were calmed and Lithuanians backed off. As there was no Soviet forces around and no Poles, Latvian forces took over the territory. Local populace afraid from the Soviets and disorder welcomed Latvian forces.

Latvians had a hard time restoring order in the devastated district  and installing loyal officials as nearly all past officials were Poles. Poland was caught in the war for survival and missed the event. On Autumn 1920 after the Polish victory over the Soviets at the Battle of Warsaw, Polish armies headed back towards the Ilūkste district. Polish forces captured Vilnius and reached the Latvian held territory on November. However, Poland was not willing for the conflict with Latvians and decided to leave by the demarcation line until issue is solved diplomatically.

While some local Poles protested the Latvian power, others like Belarusians decided they are better off with Latvia then with Poland. Despite Polish efforts on March 20 1921 The International Commission lead by D Simpson decided that Ilūkste district belongs to Latvia. However, the commission was intended to solve Latvian-Lithuanian border issues and because of Vilnius conflict it disregarded the Polish claims. Therefore Poland still kept its claims.

In next following years the question remained unsolved. Poland despite formal claims and protest notes did not make strong actions to gain Ilūkste back. Meanwhile the situation in the region stabilized. Latvians schools were opened, the Latvian education in Ilūkste was great concern for Riga. Poles had rights for state funded minority schools. Also the Belarusians gathered to open their own schools.

The issue was raised again sometimes. On 1923 the Polish Sejm (parliament) received 28 people signed memorandum from “the Latvian occupied parishes”. Some of the petitioners had Russian and even one Latvian surenames indicating poloniziation. On 1922 the Latvian Polish Political party declared that it cannot issue their candidates in Ilūkste district because of “sworn allegiance” to Poland on 1919. In the result only one candidate from Latgale was elected into Latvian Saeima. Later they canceled this fruitless principality and issued candidates in Zemgale election district to gain better results.

Latvians placed a great pressure on  Ilūkste resulting national frictions. The leading anti-Polish discourse stated that after the centuries of polonization that has made one large quarter of the Ilūkste Latvians into Poles, the Polish politicians and the Catholic church still try to polonize people of Latgale. The Polish schools were accused of spreading “traitorous spirit”, Catholic Church was accused of boosting separatism. The suspicion affected Belarusians too as  they were accused of separatism and their teachers placed on trial. Incidentally the cause of this trial was map showing Belarusian ethnic borders in one of the schools within Ilūkste district. The Latvian secret police thought that the map was actually map of the future Belarusian state that included Ilūkste district. In the end the Belarusian trial ended in fiasco forcing secret police to free the teachers. Meanwhile Poles in their newspapers accused Latvians of chauvinism and attempts of undermining the Polish language and culture.  Poles also accused Belarusians of attempts of taking away Polish kids and turning them into Belarusians. As matter of fact both Latvians and Poles even questioned if there such nation as “Belarusians”. Another important factor was the resurgence of the Latgalian nationalism. Latvians of Latgale have distinct dialect that some of them considers a distinctive language. As Latgalian nationalists campaigned for Latgalian autonomy and official Latgalian autonomy status, they issued strong messages of confrontation towards Poles of whom the viewed as the representatives of the “dark Polish times”. Polish activists argued back that they rule in 16-18th century was good and more better then the Russian Tzarist rule.

As Poland after 1926 became autocratic dictatorship by  Juzef Pilsudsky the Latvian Poles became more reliant on the Polish Mother State. Poland sponsored Polish minority movements. All the historic dates like the uprising of 183o and 1836 were celebrated making Latvians cringe as these events were made to restore united Polish commonwealth. Latvian Polish Union gained 2 deputy seats in the parliament and even more in local elections. The influence of the Polish state and regime was clearly visible in the Latvian Polish daily paper “Dzwon” (The Bell) where an ode to the president of Poland Juzef Pilsudsky was published. It was written by local from Krāslava a town with significant Polish minority. From today’s perspective that is a clear sign of the Polish “soft power”.

An Ode to President of Poland Juzef Pilsudsky written by local Pole from Krāslava Zofija Rujkowna

An Ode to President of Poland Juzef Pilsudsky written by local Pole from Krāslava Zofija Rujkowna

After many years of passive tension the Ilūkste dispute reached the boiling point. On 1931 the Ilūkste Catholic church tried to increase the number of church masses in Latgalian language. The local Poles were not impressed. On April 26 and May 3 during Latgalian church mass the Poles started to sing their Polish prayers loader than Latgalians. As both sides tried to sing loader then another the mass turned into riot. Many were arrested in result. A scandalous trials followed mostly issuing small term punishments for shouting the church and disrupting the civil order.

In Riga the Saeima parliamentary investigative commission was made and it concluded that the polonization has taken place in Ilūkste district and the Latvian Polish Union is responsible. The commission accused the Union of spreading separatist teachings in Polish schools and spreading school text books from Poland that marked Ilūkste as Polish territory.  1931 was also the election year boosting up the campaign against the rival Polish party. Polish Union split up in the pro-Latvian and pro-Polish block. Despite that two Polish representatives were elected, the Polish Union was temporally shot down and their six owned Polish schools were closed. The main Polish newspaper “Dzwon” was closed. Later do the “formal reasons” the Latvian Polish Union was disbanded. The Polish ambassador from Riga was temporary called off.

After being closed by the Latvian authorities the Polish newspaper issues a one issue call to all Polish voters to defend the Polish national rights and religions against the Latvian chauvinism and vote for the Polish Union that was later also closed down

After being closed by the Latvian authorities the Polish newspaper issues a one issue call to all Polish voters to defend the Polish national rights and religions against the Latvian chauvinism and vote for the Polish Union that was later also closed down

Despite condemnations from Warsaw and rumbling Polish press, Poland did not made any serious steps against Latvia. After all Latvia was one of the main Latvian trade partners and in secret deal between the two states on 1929 Poland by agreeing to pay compensations to  compensations to Polish citizen former land owners (including Ilūkste district) had de facto agreed on Ilūkste Latvian possession.

As Latvian population in the district increased (sometimes it was done artificially, by registering Pole or Belarusian as Latvian), and more Latvians taking over local administrations the tensions cooled down. The Poles made new party and restored their newspapers. However, on 1934 when Kārlis Ulmanis seized power, the new party was again banned. On 1933 both sides started negotiations on the border issue. The commission from the both countries finally reached agreement on 1938 ending the issue once and for all. Interesting event between 1933 and 1938 was the closure of the newspaper “Pēdējā Brīdī”. The newspaper had published article about celebrations of 1836 uprising that did not take place for some reason. Article included reference to the Polish claims of 1772 borders, that angered the Polish ambassador. The Latvian Foreign Ministry received complaints from him and asked to punish the newspaper. Newspaper was  fined for “spreading hate across the society”, soon after that the censors encountered another “bad” article about Baltic Germans and the Latvian Police and was closed down for “the bad conduct”.

That was last of the tensions. Eventually Ilūkste became recognized as a Latvian city. On 1939 after Eastern Poland was occupied and annexed  by the Soviet Union the border with Poland was lost forever. Now the Ilūkste district shares border with Lithuania and Belarus. Still ethnically diverse the Ilūkste district has become an integral part of Latvia.

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks. (1995). Sešu Pagastu un Grīvas pilsētas problēma Latvijas Polijas attiecībās. Latvijas Vēstures Instituta Žurnāls. Nr.1

Jēkabsons Ēriks. (1996) Poļi Latvijā. Rīga.

Newspaper “Dzwon” 1931

The Latvian History Archive. Ministry of the Society Affairs. Press and organization fund 3724.f. The “Pēdējā Brīdī” case Nr. 549.

Various Latvian Newspapers 1920-1936

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