There is no serious threat to Jewish life in Latvia today. Nonetheless, there are two worrying developments. The first is a security issue: the relatively large number of attacks on Jewish institutions, a number of which, it appears, are carried out by the neo-Nazi Perkonkrusts organization. The second is the still divisive issue of the complicity of some Latvians in the Holocaust. In both instances, the president and leading government officials do not hesitate to condemn the culprits unequivocally.

Demographic data

Total population: 2.49 million (1996 estimate)

Jewish population: 11,000 (mainly in Riga)

Other minorities: owing to the Russification policy pursued during the Soviet era, ethnic Latvians constitute 56 per cent of the total population and 78 per cent of citizens; citizens of other ethnic origins number approximately 400,000, of whom about 300,000 are Russians. There are about 687,000 non-citizens, of whom an estimated 65 per cent are Russian, 12 per cent Belarusian, 9 per cent Ukrainian, with smaller percentages of Poles, Lithuanians, Roma, Germans, Tatars, Estonians and Armenians (see also Racism and xenophobia).

Political data

Political system: parliamentary democracy

Head of state: President Guntis Ulmanis, elected by parliament July 1993, re-elected June 1996

Government: a six-party coalition elected in the autumn of 1995, including the Democratic Party Saimnieks (In Charge), Latvia's Way (LC) and the Latvijas Nacionalas Neatkavibas Kustiba (LNNK, Latvian National Conservative Party ), under Prime Minister Guntars Krasts (since July 1997)

Next elections: June 1999 (presidential)

Economic data (figures from Financial Times, 6 July 1998)

GDP per head 1997: US$2,222

Real GDP growth 1997: 6.5 per cent

Inflation 1997: 8.4 per cent

Unemployment 1997: 6.7 per cent

Jews have lived in the territory of Latvia since the mid-seventeenth century. They arrived mostly from the areas of western Ukraine and Byelorussia which were controlled by Poland. According to the population census of 1897, there were over 142,000 Jews in Latvia at that time.

On the eve of the Second World War, Latvian Jewry numbered over 90,000 persons. Some 85 per cent of the community was massacred by the Nazis and their accomplices among the native population. By the end of the war only 320 Jews survived in the territory of Latvia. Most of the current Jewish community consists of migrants from various regions of the former Soviet Union who have settled in Latvia. Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, Jewish communities have been re-established in all major population centres of the country.

During a visit to Israel in 1994 Latvia's then prime minister, Vladis Birkavs, formally acknowledged the fact that Latvian accomplices of the Nazis had carried out anti-Jewish atrocities.

According to a report in the newspaper Vakara Zina in January 1996, the Riga Jewish community claimed that widespread antisemitism did not exist in Latvia.

On 4 July 1997, Latvia's day of remembrance of the Holocaust, President Ulmanis paid tribute to the Jews' suffering under the Nazis. He acknowledged that a number of Latvians had assisted in the Jewish genocide.

In January 1998 it was reported that a street in Riga had been named after a Christian who had saved dozens of Jews during the Nazi occupation. Zanis Lipke Street is located in a neighbourhood near the former Riga ghetto.

On 10 February 1998 President Ulmanis urged parliament to admit that Latvians participated in the Holocaust. During his visit to the United States at the end of the previous month, President Ulmanis received an award from the US Anti-Defamation League for apologizing to the Jews around the world for the participation of Latvians in the Holocaust. This apology was criticized by some politicians in Latvia, including the majority of MPs on the foreign affairs commission. In a letter to parliament President Ulmanis denied that he had recognized the participation of the Latvian state in the Holocaust: although there were some Latvians who had taken part in the genocide, 'it was not a case of Latvian state policy because independent Latvia no longer existed at that time'.

On 23 February 1998, on a three-day official visit to Israel, President Ulmanis apologized for his country's role in the Nazi genocide of the Jews. He told President Weizman that his nation was aware of the role played by some of its citizens in the Holocaust. He added that the Holocaust should be studied so that its horrors were never repeated.

On 16 March 1998 several hundred veterans of the former Latvian SS legion, many wearing their old SS uniforms, gathered in Riga to mark the legion's fifty-fifth anniversary. In one of the most blatantly pro-Nazi demonstrations since the end of the Second World War, they marched through the capital's old city and laid wreaths at a national monument. The marchers were greeted with applause by some spectators and shouts of 'fascists' and 'murderers' by opponents. A number of high-ranking Latvian officials, including the deputy speaker of the Latvian parliament, several MPs and the commander-in-chief of the Latvian armed forces, were present at the rally. On 31 March 1998 President Ulmanis issued a statement to quell growing national and international criticism of the parade. He said the legion was part of Latvia's 'tragic past', and that the world could not be reproached for not knowing the 'details of our history' or not understanding 'the complicated situation at that time in Latvia'. The president strongly criticized 'senior officials' who attended the rally and associated events. The Russian foreign ministry said the Latvian legion was 'marked with the blood and suffering' of thousands of people.

War Crimes

In September 1997, a month after the deportation of alleged Latvian war criminal Konrad Kalejs (see also Australia, Canada and USA), eighty-four, from Canada to Australia where he is a citizen, the Latvian prosecutor-general's office said an investigation it had conducted into allegations against Kalejs - accused of having participated in the killing of 20,000 Jews in Latvia in the Second World War - indicated that, while 'several Latvians participated in the persecution of Jews in the Second World War', it had no convincing evidence concerning Kalejs. However, in October 1997, the Latvian prosecutor-general's office announced it had decided to launch a new investigation of Kalejs, and rebuked Uldis Strelis, the prosecutor who had been in charge of the previous investigation. After having issued his findings, Strelis is said to have made a number of antisemitic remarks that prompted Latvian Jews to call for his dismissal. Despite the fact that Kalejs's extradition had not been requested by Latvia an attempt to strip him of his Australian citizenship and deport him to his native country failed in the Australian courts in May 1998.

See also Antisemitic incidents.

Of Latvia's 2.5 million registered residents, there are more than 765,000 ethnic Russians,100,000 ethnic Belarusians, almost 70,000 ethnic Ukrainians and more than 60,000 ethnic Poles. Nearly 400,000 persons belonging to national or ethnic minorities are citizens. Because the majority of persons belonging to national and ethnic minorities are not citizens, they have difficulty participating fully in civic life.

Various laws prohibit employment in certain categories. There are restrictions on non-citizen employment as firefighters, armed guards, private detectives, members of airline crews, certified attorneys and pharmacists.

Some ethnic Russians have also complained of discrimination resulting from the property laws, which do not permit individual non-citizens to own land.

In June 1997 parliament ratified the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The President's Council on Minorities and Nationalities continues to struggle to find a role for itself. There is disappointment among some council members that the group has not played a more active role in addressing minority issues.

On 27 May 1998 Lainis Kamaldins, the director of the Bureau for the Protection of the Constitution, said there were twelve 'potentially anti-state and extremist' organizations in Latvia: seven were left-wing, five right-wing. The largest organizations, he said, had about 150 active members, while the smallest were composed of no more than four or five activists. The best known are the Union of Communists, Perkonkrusts (see below) and the Limonovites (possibly followers of the Russian far-right activist Eduard Limonov (see Russia)).

On 6 June 1997 the unregistered far-right group Perkonkrusts (Thundercross, or Cross of Perun, a pagan god) attempted to blow up the Soviet army victory monument in Riga. Two people died in the blast. In September 1997 police arrested several youths belonging to Perkonkrusts in connection with the explosion (see Legal matters).

In July 1997 police defused a large bomb planted near the Jewish hospital in Riga. It is not clear whether the bomb's target was the hospital or an adjoining building.

In August 1997 it was reported that human rights and Jewish activists in Latvia demanded that the country's education ministry withdraw from schools a history textbook containing statements offensive to minorities in the Baltic republics. The two-volume book, 'Latvian Fools', by Janis Karklins, was said to contain disparaging remarks about Latvia's minorities, including Jews, Russians and Poles. In December 1997, it was reported that the Latvian authorities had agreed to halt further distribution of the book.

On 19 December 1997 vandals painted anti-Jewish graffiti on the entrance to Riga's only remaining synagogue, built in 1906. On 2 April 1998 it was damaged in a blast. There were no casualties. (The synagogue was bombed in May 1995 but the culprits were never found.) Latvia's president, prime minister and foreign minister condemned the bombing. The head of the Lithuanian Jewish community, Simonas Alperavicius, said the bombing was connected with the February 1998 march of veterans of the Latvian SS legion, which had outraged Jewish communities around the world (see Legacy of the Second World War). The Latvian prosecutor-general's office set up a nine-member working group to investigate the blast. The police chief and state secretary of the interior ministry were suspended for failing to ensure the security of the synagogue after a swastika was painted on its façade in 1997.

On 4 April 1998 a monument to the Jewish victims of the Nazis in the cemetery in Liepaja (south-western Latvia) was desecrated. Black paint was poured on it. This was the third occasion on which the monument had been desecrated in recent months.

On 9 April 1998 the Israeli embassy in Riga received a bomb threat.

On 8 September 1998 it was reported that the Jewish cemetery in Ventspils, north-western Latvia, had been desecrated. Jewish graves there had not previously been disturbed.

Writing in the Russian-language daily newspaper SM Segodnya  on 12 April 1997, Vlad Filatov said that leaflets had recently appeared in Riga announcing the forthcoming publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Writing in the paper Layks, on 3 May 1997, Dmitry Rubenis said: '[In Soviet Latvia] because the kikes actively carried out the crimes of the new authorities, [public] anger was directed against them. It is hardly surprising that one relative or another of those exiled, not knowing the true purpose behind the destruction of the entire Jewish people, should have joined the German vengeance organization [the Nazi party].'

In mid-June 1998 leaflets of an unidentified provenance were circulated, calling on Latvians to defend themselves by fighting Jews and the Latvian authorities: 'Political and economic power in Latvia is in the hands of international Jewry . . . racially inferior degenerates who strive to exterminate Latvians as a nation and completely ruin Latvia's industry and agriculture.'

On 15 January 1998 it was reported that the Bureau for the Protection of the Constitution had announced an investigation into three members of the Perkonkrusts group who had been detained for taking part in the blowing up of the Soviet victory monument in June 1997 (see Parties, organizations, movements). Explosives were found in the flat where one of the suspects lives.

President Ulmanis speaks out forcefully in favour of the rights of ethnic minorities and social integration, notably in his independence day address to the nation on 18 November 1997. On other occasions he has also expressed his regret at Latvia's role in the persecution of the Jews in the Second World War, and urged that such intolerance should never again be permitted.

On 8 May 1998 President Ulmanis, laying wreaths at the tombs of servicemen killed in the Second World War, condemned fascist and neo-Nazi ideology. In present-day Latvia, he said, 'there is no neo-Nazism and there could be no neo-Nazism because democratic traditions and the history of the Latvian people will not allow it'.

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Institute for Jewish Policy Research and American Jewish Committee

© JPR 1999