RIGA (Reuters) - Latvia’s prime minister said on Friday she would fire a cabinet colleague planning to march with veterans of the country’s wartime Waffen SS divisions after being warned the event could incite tensions with Russia.
Many of Latvia’s large Russian-speaking minority say the annual march on Sunday distorts history, honours Nazism and insults victims of the war. The Ukraine crisis has heightened concerns about Russian minorities among Moscow’s neighbours.
But Einars Cilinskis, minister for environment and regional development, said he would attend as a Latvian “patriot”.
Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma’s spokesman Andis Blinds said: “Taking into account that the minister has said today he would join the march and would not resign by himself, the prime minister will later today sign an order for his dismissal.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea, on the grounds that Russian speakers there need to be protected, has alarmed many in the Baltics. Both Latvia and Estonia have large ethnic Russian minorities whose rights Moscow says are being undermined.
Now in their 80s and 90s, the men who joined the armed wing of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party say they were fighting for Latvian freedom at the end of the war and against the return of the Soviet Red Army.
The veterans, many of whom were forcibly conscripted, say they were front-line troops and did not belong to the part of the SS responsible for killing Jews in the Holocaust.
Before the war, Soviet troops occupied Latvia and thousands were executed or sent to Siberia, many dying.
Latvia was part of the Soviet Union for 50 years before regaining its independence in 1991. It joined the European Union in 2004.
Reporting by Aija Krutaine; editing by Alistair Scrutton