Vienna, January 14 – A mass protest in Riga last night that advanced political as well as economic demands, degenerated into violence, and resulted in more than a 100 people being arrested reflected some distinctively Latvian problems as well as difficulties that afflict not only that Baltic republic but many countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space.
More than 10,000 people from Riga and other Latvian cities assembled in the Latvian capital’s Old Town to protest the deteriorating economic situation in their country and to listen to Artis Pabriks, the former foreign minister and current head of the Different Policy Party, demand that the president dismiss the current government, disband parliament and hold new elections.
After the meeting, Russian and Latvian news agencies reported, approximately 1,000 of the protesters, many of whom were young, went on a rampage, breaking into the Latvias Balzams liquor store, breaking windows and overturning cars, and attempting to get into the building where the parliament has its sessions (www.polit.ru/news/2009/01/14/riga.html).
The police moved against those engaged in violence, sending some to the hospital and arresting 106. But what disturbed many in Latvia and probably elsewhere is that at least some of the police demonstrated their sympathies with the protesters by refusing to move against them, a development that could embolden the radical opposition (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/3581/).
As long as the authorities can count on the militia and the army to maintain public order, the risk that anger about economic conditions could threaten the political order in Latvia or in other countries is small, regardless of how angry people may be about deteriorating economic conditions.
Consequently the report that at least some Latvian police have decided to “go over to the side of the people” is disturbing, particularly as it follows reports last month that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin felt forced to use militia units from Moscow and Daghestan in Vladivostok because Moscow could not rely on local police units.
The danger that economic protests could become political and that the militia could go over to the side of the people makes the report of Lt.Gen. Svetlana Perova, head of the finance department of the Russian Federation interior ministry, carried in “Rossiiskaya gazeta” yesterday especially important (www.sobkorr.ru/news/496C71F8AF063.html).
As of the first of this year and despite all the economic constraints the Russian government faces, Perova reports that the authorities are boosting the pay of militiamen and their bosses by up to 40,000 rubles (1300 US dollars) a month, payment that are designed to reduce their involvement in corruption but also ones that may make them more loyal to the authorities.
But as Vladimir Pronin, the head of the Main Administration of Internal Affairs of the city of Moscow, pointed out, at least some of these increases in salaries are being paid for by a reduction in the number of militiamen on the beat, a decline that means there will be fewer officers on the beat and thus fewer people in the government’s first line of defense.
In a commentary on what these Russian government moves mean, Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin pointed out that these pay increases will ensure that the militia will not only “struggle with crime” but also be prepared to crack down on “spontaneous actions by workers,” especially at a time when the ruble is losing value and more Russians are losing their jobs.
Even in Moscow, which is the financially best situated place in Russia, the number of unemployed is projected to rise from 56,500 a year ago to 290,000 in the near future. And given the government’s efforts to restrict information about a crisis that it did not want to acknowledge, many people are prepared to believe and perhaps act on more outrageous projections.
Thus, Petrunin notes, on the Internet today, some are saying that a year from now the ruble will fall to a rate of 75 to the dollar and the price of oil to about 16 US dollars a barrel, while inflation will rise to 30 percent or more, all projections that are likely to lead to an over reading of the already grim economic news.
In this situation, the Sobkorr.ru commentator continues, it is not surprising that some in the government hope to use popular militias – the so-called “druzhinniki” – to back up the militia. But if as the Latvian events show, some militiamen may go over to the side of the people in Russia as well, the next few months could prove explosive indeed.