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Latvians angry at accusations of 'apartheid': Latvians vote in the first free elections for 62 years and deep resentments are surfacing

'LIES, all lies]' muttered an onlooker in the crowd as ethnic Russians poured out tales of woe about the injustices perpetrated against them in today's independent Latvia. The observer, an ethnic Latvian, seemed to have a point. As plump babushkas wailed patriotic Russian songs, some of their angry compatriots waved banners denouncing the return of an apartheid - or, even more dramatically - a Nazi state.

'The SS is on the brink of taking power again,' warned Stanislav, 56, who came to Latvia in 1960 in one of the waves of ethnic Russian migration that followed Stalin's annexation of the country in 1940. 'A fascist regime is being installed here.'

It sounded ridiculous: the deluded rantings of an extremist fringe within Latvia's vast ethnic Russian 'minority' which still finds it impossible - and unbearable - to accept that the orders no longer come from Moscow. Not only was it ridiculous, it was also provocative. The protests this weekend, which attracted a few hundred hardliners, were staged opposite Riga's Freedom Monument, built to commemorate the founding of the first independent Latvian state in 1918. 'Such gatherings should be banned here,' fumed the onlooker. 'This is our holy shrine.'

And yet, the protesters had something to shout about. As Latvians voted this weekend in the country's first democratic elections since 1931, roughly one-third of its 1.8 million adults were not entitled to vote. Those excluded were essentially those who moved to Latvia after 1940 and their descendants. Almost all were ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Belorussians, many born here. Nazi Germany? Certainly not. But what about the comparision with apartheid South Africa?

The mere suggestion sends most Latvians into a rage. 'Please look at our history,' they plead. 'These people were brought here against our will as part of a deliberate and criminal policy of Russification which, had it continued, would have resulted in the elimination of the Latvian identity. We are not saying they have to leave. But we will set the rules as to how and when they can become citizens.'

Fears about the long-term survival of the Latvian nation are well founded. In 1935, the ethnic Latvian percentage of the population stood at just under 80 per cent. Today, as a result of the mass deportations of Latvians ordered by Stalin and the subsequent settling in their country of almost a million ethnic Russians, Latvians make up 52 per cent of the 2.6m population. In Riga, the capital, only one in three is an ethnic Latvian. 'You come over here accusing us of violating human rights, but in the West you would never accept this situation,' said Armands Skershkhans, a student. 'Would you in Britain give automatic voting rights to an uninvited immigrant population of almost 50 per cent? I doubt it.' There are some on the extreme right who would welcome the forcible repatriation of those they see as occupiers, but most accept that they are here to stay and the new parliament will have to regulate a naturalisation process.

The toughness of any new citizenship law will depend on who holds power after the election. The centre- right Latvian Way is emerging as the largest party, but the far-right Latvian National Independence Movement, set for third place, demands stringent quotas on new citizens.

The Latvian Way, a centre-right alliance whose leading member is President Anatolijs Gorbunovs, last night appeared to be heading for a comfortable victory. With just over 10 per cent of votes counted, it stood at 38 per cent, well ahead of its nearest rival, the Latvian Peasant Union, on 12.5 per cent. The two front-runners looked likely to form a coalition.