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Latvians March; Soviets Don't Interfere

June 18, 1987|ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a public display of national sentiment remarkable for the Soviet Union, more than 1,000 Latvians marched quietly, without police interference, through the heart of Riga last Sunday to commemorate victims of Stalinist repression, according to Soviet and emigre sources.

The sources, including a 21-year-old organizer of the march reached by telephone Wednesday in Riga, said that it lasted more than three hours and gathered as many as 5,000 participants and onlookers as the throng reached the capital city's central square Sunday evening.

Latvian and Estonian emigre groups in the United States who received similar telephone reports said this was the first time in memory that a dissident group in the Soviet Union had announced plans two weeks in advance for a large demonstration and was allowed to proceed.

Appeal for Freedom

More than a public remembrance of Stalin's victims--something long forbidden in the Soviet Union--the demonstration was an implicit but clear appeal for freedom and independence of the Baltic states, emigre spokesmen in the United States said.

Annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, the once-independent republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania on the Baltic coast have remained hotbeds of nationalist sentiment, made still more intense in recent years by Moscow's efforts at Russification. The three republics, whose annexation the United States has never formally recognized, have a combined population of about 7 million.

Customary Soviet practice has been to arrest nationalist and human rights activists long before they carry out any such demonstration. The several Latvians and Estonians who telephoned reports to the West of Sunday's demonstration attributed police restraint in this case to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost , a limited relaxation of controls on information and expressions of public opinion.

In a telephone conversation from Riga on Wednesday, Rolands Silaraups, 21, who identified himself as one of the leaders of Sunday's demonstration, said he believes that the authorities permitted the march as part of the glasnost policy, but he said it also appeared that police forces were inadequate to disperse the crowd.

Speaking in Russian, Silaraups said the demonstration began at 4 p.m. Sunday with several hundred people who turned out in response to appeals circulated by a small human rights group calling itself Helsinki '86. The organizers, he said, urged participants to avoid "provocations" such as anti-Soviet chants or confrontations with police.

As they walked quietly to Riga's nearby Monument of Freedom, he said, applauding onlookers swelled the crowd to about 1,000 while another 4,000 joined them at the monument to hear speeches and a solemn ceremony commemorating the thousands of Latvians rounded up by Soviet secret police on the night of June 14, 1941, and deported to their deaths in Siberia.

Prewar Songs

When the authorities tried to drown out the speeches by playing music over loudspeakers, the crowd responded by singing patriotic songs from Latvia's prewar independence, he said.

A spokesman for American Latvian groups, Ojars Kalnins, said there have been several nationalist demonstrations at the Freedom Monument in Riga in the last six months but that this was the first time a gathering had been announced in advance and allowed to proceed.

In Washington, Karl Laantee, head of the Voice of America's Estonian language service, said the U.S.-sponsored radio treated initial reports of the march Sunday "very cautiously" but that there was now no question about their basic accuracy. He said a telephone report from a former Estonian political prisoner in Tartu corroborated the Latvian reports.

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