About 1,500 Latvians on Sunday celebrated Legionnaires Day — which their government abolished in 2000 — by paying tribute to World War II veterans who fought alongside Nazi troops.
After a church service in the Lutheran Cathedral in Riga, the capital, the marchers went to the Freedom Monument, where they laid roses in the red and white colors of the Latvian flag, closely watched by police and security guards.
A few dozen anti-fascist demonstrators, including from Germany and Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority, protested at a nearby park behind police barricades, shouting: “Shame!” and “Fascism will never end!”
Police said their abundant presence and the cold, windy weather helped keep tensions under control at the annual event, which stokes ethnic animosity between Latvians and minority Russians. Seven people were arrested for minor offenses.
Former Environment Minister Einars Cilinskis, of the right-wing National Alliance, who was dismissed Friday for announcing he would participate in the procession, ignored Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma’s orders not to attend.
The Jewish human rights organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, denounced the march and welcomed the ouster of Cilinskis.
“We welcome the steps taken by the Latvian government against the minister who indicated his intention to participate in the march,” the group said in a statement.
Latvia, which gained its independence after World War I, was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany a year later, and again by the Soviets in 1944. The country restored its independence in 1991, after nearly five decades of Soviet occupation, in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
About 250,000 Latvians fought alongside either the Germans or the Soviets — and about 150,000 Latvians died in the fighting.
Nearly 80,000 Jews, or 90 percent of Latvia’s prewar Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42, two years before the formation of the Latvian Waffen SS unit — which some Latvians claim shows the unit couldn’t have played a role in the Holocaust.
Many Latvians honor war veterans on Legionnaires Day, but ethnic Russians who account for about one-third of Latvia’s 2.3 million population, see it as glorifying fascism.