For an angry Latvian troubadour, a seven-year-old riot hasn’t ended

Rioting was never Latvia’s strong suit. In 1968, at the height of the student and anti-war rebellions in Europe and a Latvian-American organisation wrote “Latvians are revolting people” in a brochure for the 50th anniversary of Latvian independence in 1918. They meant “rebellious”(revolting meant something else in context, to the amusement of a more English-fluent younger generation). The last time Latvians were really spontaneously rebellious and riotous was in 1905, during the uprising against the Czar. Then there were the Latvian Red Rifles…

That is the way it stayed until the rather modest riot of January 13, 2009. An anti-government rally by several thousand people in the central Dom Square of Riga turned nasty when a significant part of the crowd broke away and marched to the Saeima, or national parliament building a few blocks away. The Saeima was guarded by a small group of police (military police, it seems) who managed to keep the increasingly angry crowd at bay, or at least from breaking into the building. Soon, snow, pieces of ice and stones started flying at the windows of the Saeima. Glass shattered, the crowd roared, and the evening’s merriment could begin.

Somewhere among the crowd was Ansis Ataols Bērziņš a young man with an accordion, the son of a prominent Latvian poet and translator, Uldis Bērziņš. Like others in the angry crowd, he threw stones at the Saeima as a symbol of all that was, to his mind, wrong with governance in Latvia — the rapidly deepening economic crisis, the insensitivity of the political elite to the needs of ordinary Latvians, the corrupt oligarchs behind the politicians and a short list of other problems

Stone the parliament, then head for the boozer

The crowd by the Saeima soon spilled into Riga’s Old Town, overturning police vehicles and playing cat and mouse with an increasing number of riot police mobilized to stop Riga’s first real riot in decades (back in the 1920s and 30s, it is said, there were some street fights between nationalists and the sports club of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party). By the early hours of the next day, the riot was over, but not before the almost inevitable looting of a liquor store owned by the national brand Rīgas Balzāms. In that sense, it was a riot just like any other — triggered, perhaps, by justifiable passions, but capped by the arrival of the rabble with no particular cause save letting off steam and snatching booze and goods in the process.

Ansis, the hero of this seven-year long tale (more later), was not among the looters and, indeed, offered himself to a television talk show the day after the riot to explain why he was there and why it was, in some sense, right to stone the national legislature on a cold January night. In addition to his political activism, Ansis is a folk singer and has recorded a number of songs in the Latgallian dialect of Eastern Latvia that are available on the internet.The riot, though meek compared to some of the rampages seen in Berlin, Frankfurt or in the US in the 1960s, profoundly shocked the political elite. Ivars Godmanis, the prime minister at the time, appeared on TV early the morning after looking stunned and saying that he had “awakened to a different Latvia.”

Shock effect for the government

This shock may have contributed to Mr. Godmanis resigning as prime minister and giving up the post to Valdis Dombrovskis a few weeks later. Some would say it was the harbinger of the decision in 2011, by then President Valdis Zatlers, to dismiss the oligarch dominated Saeima and call new elections. In any event, the riot lite had some kind of impact on Latvian politics.

It also triggered intensive criminal investigation and within a few months, almost 70 people were named as suspects in the January 13 disorders — including Ansis. There were a series of trials and most of the accused — those who actually showed up, as some skipped the country — got off with suspended sentences or community service if they pleaded guilty. Ansis, as he told the various courts his case passed through, never admitted his guilt, but also never denied his actions — the stone throwing, being there with an angry crowd etc. In fact, he said repeatedly that it was right to rebel and attack property of a state that he saw as being out of touch with the people and acting against their interests (the economic downturn, mass emigration, poverty, etc. etc.).

To make a long story short, Ansis’ consistent political stance has led him to flee from Latvia to an unknown location, because he both refused to participate in a probation program and will not go to jail for 20 months instead, as a Latvian court ruled. He recently spoke to journalists via Skype.

Politically justified stone-throwing

“I admit my actions, that I tossed a stone at the Saeima, but not my guilt. That was necessary for the good of Latvian society at the time. And that is why I am where I am. Not because I threw the stone, but because I said it was right to do so. This is political persecution,” he said, also confirming that he had been declared a fugitive from justice in Latvia and the rest of the European Union. Ansis may have gone to a non-EU European country, but he declined to disclose his location.

He says the final verdict against him was handed down in April, 2015, but the order to send him to prison was issued in February of this year. “Since then I have not been in Latvia. There is no other solution — the prosecutors drop the case or there is an amnesty law. I will not go to Latvia like an obedient creature and go to prison,” Ansis declared.

He explained that even submitting to probation would be wrong and a waste of his time, since the general purpose of probation was to reintegrate persons, moreover, probation and jail time for refusing probation are matters for the discretion of the court.

According to Ansis, he had various pro bono legal helpers during his trial and appeals, at one point conducting his own defence. Also, his case did not, so far, elicit any attention or help from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, or so he says.That may explain why he has ended up as he has — perhaps awaiting a statute of limitations of up to 14 years — in political exile from Latvia, a generally democratic European Union (EU).

No experience on how to run a riot?

Actually, no one is to blame, since Latvians have little experience of these kind of political resistance activities (it was not the “Singing Revolution” 20 years after). Moreover, the January 13 riot was not planned or anticipated, although there was a kind of “vibe” in the air that something would happen. If the whole thing had been organized by some West European non-parliamentary opposition, there would have been a powerful legal defense team and media team ready to act on behalf of those arrested for simple acts of resistance (not for looting or actively fighting the police). There is a tradition in Germany in the “Ausserparlamentarische Opposition” (APO) of making distinctions between violence against property — justified in some cases and violence against persons — generally unacceptable (which led to some of the more radical APO folks forming the terrorist Rote Armee Fraktion/RAF). Ansis in speaking to journalists by Skype said that there was an old Latvian tradition (he lists himself as a folklorist) of damaging property if “winter visitors” in a Halloween-like tradition of visiting country farms dressed as animals and asking for a little food and drink were turned away from a home. That makes some, but maybe not enough sense for this case. Which leaves Ansis pretty much out on a limb. People in Latvia are petitioning for him to be amnestied or pardoned and it remains to be seen whether enough signatures are gathered to present the idea to the Saeima — the place he and an angry crowd were stoning more than seven years ago. It is a kind of principled stalemate that is not likely to be broken, but also makes little sense to continue.