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Protests spread in Europe amid economic crisis

Lithuanians opposed to a government austerity plan hurl eggs and rocks. The outburst follows similar incidents in Latvia and Bulgaria.

January 17, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to quell demonstrators in the Lithuanian capital Friday, as economic hardship burst into street-level rage in another European country.

With dwindling budgets forcing unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes in many countries, the global financial crisis is steadily emerging as a political threat to governments. Demonstrations have erupted in Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria and Iceland as bread-and-butter anxiety turns into anti-government rage.

In Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, a peaceful protest against a government austerity plan degenerated into violence as thousands of demonstrators surged toward the parliament building, hurling eggs and rocks. At least 84 people were arrested and at least 14 injured, including four police officers.

Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who just took office last month, was unflinching.

"We will only speak to those who unequivocally distance themselves from those who have staged riots, who sow chaos and who encroach upon the constitutional system," Kubilius said in a statement released to news agencies.

"The riot will not scare us," he said.

Lithuania's economy is expected to enter a recession this year. The protests were called in response to the government's attempts to curb the financial crisis, including widely unpopular tax hikes. "Thieves! Thieves!" some protesters shouted at the government Friday.

"The government has long neglected the social needs of the people, pensioners and others," Algirdas Paleckis, leader of the Frontas radical left party, told Reuters news agency.

Lithuania isn't the only Baltic state where economic problems are causing unrest. Though the region has been generally peaceful since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the sudden threat of financial strife is driving ordinary people to unusual angst.

Lithuania's northern neighbor on the Baltic Sea coast, Latvia, is also churning. The largest party in its ruling coalition on Friday called for early parliamentary elections after a massive demonstration roiled the capital this week.

Once boasting the European Union's fastest-growing economy, Latvia was forced to seek loans last year from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The government has dramatically cut social spending.

Festering anger boiled over in Riga, the capital, on Tuesday as a protest demanding early elections led to riots and looting. Youths dug cobblestones from the streets, smashed storefronts and destroyed police vehicles, news agencies reported. More than 100 people were detained in the worst violence to shake Latvia since the country gained its independence in the Soviet collapse.

Protesters also rioted outside Bulgaria's parliament building this week as citizens of the EU's poorest country railed against their government.

Even Russia, which was riding high through much of the last year because of lofty prices for its oil and natural gas, has been rattled by financial tension. Police violently stifled demonstrations in recent weeks over a tax hike on imported cars.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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