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Latvian Petition Aims to Relocate Soviet Monument, Mirroring Estonian Experience

Latvia is facing its own "Bronze Soldier" dilemma.

In 2007, Estonian authorities relocated a Red Army monument from the Tallinn city center, triggering ethnic tension and rioting.

Organizers of an online petition in Latvia have so far gathered 11,000 signatures and support from nationalist MPs for a proposal to take down an 80-meter-high Soviet monument near Riga, reported ETV.

In the case of Estonia's monument, the official line was that the city center was unbefitting for the war graves located under the monument.

Erected in 1985, the Latvian memorial is not a burial site, but as it enshrines the memory of Soviet victory in World War II, it is a sacred symbol for many in Latvia's large Russian population. The pillar sits in a park that was originally dedicated to the Latvian War of Independence.

Petitioners say the main goal of their initiative is not to take down the Soviet monument as an end of its own, but to restore the historical integrity of the site. There is a chance the revamped version could incorporate the Soviet pillar, but it is far from certain. One idea is to add to the site a declaration reflecting Latvia's fate in World War II.

Latvian MP Janis Dombrava said: "The goal is to restore the architectural solution that had been planned for Victory Square, on the other shore of the Daugava River [from Riga], during the interwar period. The plans were for a stadium, a memorial to Latvian freedom fighters and several other structures that would fit in well at the park."

Latvia's cultural heritage officials say the monument does not fall under national protection, and that any decision will be made by Riga's city government.

"In the opinion of our experts, the artistic value of the complex does not currently meet standards to add it to the list of protected memorials," said Janis Asaris, a senior cultural heritage official.

For his part, Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs has pledged that the pillar will not be taken down on his watch.

Local Russians visit the monument to remember those lost in World War II. One such local said: "It is foolishness. How can it be renamed or the like? Let the memorial stand in its present form. It is a sacred place. We come here to celebrate Victory Day and the day of liberating Riga."

The last remark - the implication that the Baltics were liberated by the Soviet Union - is fundamentally rejected not just by a majority of Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians, but by most Western governments, which continued to recognize the Baltics de jure throughout the Soviet occupation.

Observers say the petition is a reaction to an initiative last year to make Russian the second official language in Latvia - the initiative was rejected in a referendum by 821,722 voters (or 75 percent), although 273,335 people did support the measure, evidence that ethnic tension is not yet in the past.

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